United’s Excursionist Perk: Ideal for Positioning Flights?

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Nick’s recent post “Taking an Excursionist Perk for a spin for a trip to Africa” showed ways to use United’s Excursionist Perk to save lots of miles when flying within Africa.  In this case, Nick showed how he could use a positioning flight within Europe to get a free award flight within Africa.  That post got me thinking…  Is United’s Excursionist Perk the ideal solution for more common situations?  For example, when we see great deals for flights to Europe, but the flights don’t go from and to the exact airports we want, could we get the needed positioning flights by using the United Excursionist Perk and save a bunch of miles in the process?

a plane flying over a map

Overview

United offers a benefit called the “Excursionist Perk”, which gives you a free one-way within a single region when your travel begins and ends in a different region.  Here’s a simple example: Let’s say you use United miles to fly from the US to Paris and then back to the US from Frankfurt.  With United’s Excursionist Perk, you’ll get a flight from Paris to Frankfurt for free.  To book a trip like that, simply use United’s Advanced Search feature, select “miles” and “multi-city” and put in all three legs (e.g. home airport to Paris; Paris to Frankfurt; Frankfurt to home) and then United should show that the middle segment is free (that is, it costs zero miles, but you will have to pay required fees).

That’s all good, but a trick that we’ve written about multiple times in the past is that you don’t have to use the Excursionist Perk as intended.  You could book a flight entirely within the U.S.; then a flight across Europe (presumably you will have gotten to Europe a different way); then another flight within the U.S.  By doing this, the flight across Europe will be free (plus fees).

For more about the Excursionist Perk, check out these posts:

The positioning flights idea…

a map of the united kingdom
Map courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.  This scenario imagines that you already booked two flights: DC to London, and Athens to Newark.  Now you have to find out how to get from Detroit to/from to each of those airports and to your desired destination (Istanbul).

Imagine you’re planning a trip to Europe.  You snagged a great deal on a flight from DC to London, and you also snagged a great deal on a return flight from Athens to Newark.  You’re happy to spend time in each of those European cities, but you really want to visit Istanbul, so you need to get from London to Istanbul and later from Istanbul to Athens.  Also, let’s say that your closest airport is Detroit, so you’ll need to get from Detroit to DC for your outbound flight and you’ll have to return Newark to Detroit.

Here’s a summary of this scenario:

  • Start: Detroit
  • June 15: DC to London (already booked)
  • Destination: Istanbul
  • June 26: Athens to Newark (already booked)
  • Return to: Detroit

If we book each of the positioning flights separately, here’s what it would cost:

  • June 15 Detroit to DC: 9.2K* + $5.60 (or 6.5K LifeMiles + $5.60)
    * The 9.2K price is due to my having a United credit card. Otherwise this flight would cost 15K
  • June 18 London to Istanbul: 16K + $77.30 (or 10K Turkish miles + $98.25)
  • June 25 Istanbul to Athens: 6K + $25.10
  • June 26 Newark to Detroit: 19.2K + $5.60 (or fly Delta for 7.5K Virgin points + $5.60)

Totals:

  • Book only with United miles: 50,400 + $113.60
  • Book with best miles for each flight: 30K miles + $134.55

Excursionist Perk

Now let’s take the example above and use an Excursionist Perk to get the 16K flight from London to Istanbul for 0 miles:

  • Click “Advanced Search”
  • Select “Miles”
  • Select “Multi-City”
  • Enter the Detroit to DC, London to Istanbul, and Newark to Detroit legs

screenshot of a phone screen

We now have the following:

  • Excursionist Perk: 28.4K miles + $88.50
    • June 15 Detroit to DC: 9.2K*  + $5.60
      * The 9.2K price is due to my having a United credit card. Otherwise this flight would cost 15K
    • June 18 London to Istanbul: 0K + $77.30
      (0 miles due to Excursionist Perk)
    • June 26 Newark to Detroit: 19.2K + $5.60
  • June 25 Istanbul to Athens: 6K + $25.10

Totals:

  • Only United miles:
    • Without Excursionist Perk: 50,400 + $113.60
    • With Excursionist Perk: 34.4K + $113.60
  • Best miles for each flight: 30K miles + $134.55

As you can see, the total price with the Excursionist Perk is 16,000 miles cheaper than without it.  And, compared to booking with the best miles for each flight, the Excursionist perk option is only 4,400 miles more and $21 cheaper.  That’s hardly an amazing deal, but it has the advantage of simplicity when booking all legs with one carrier (other than the transatlantic legs) plus, since you’d be booking it all through United, you’ll get free changes and cancellations.  That seems like a good tradeoff to me.

Can we do better?  I think so…

Two Excursionist Perks

a screenshot of a phone

One of the problems with the first Excursionist perk example is that the final flight from Newark to Detroit is surprisingly expensive with United miles (19,200 miles).  Let’s see if we can get that leg for free by nesting two Excursionist Perks…

Excursionist Perk 1

  • June 15 Detroit to DC: 9.2K*  + $5.60
    * The 9.2K price is due to my having a United credit card. Otherwise this flight would cost 15K
  • June 18 London to Istanbul: 0K + $77.30
    (free segment due to Excursionist Perk)
  • Much later: throw away segment: 5.5K + $5.60
    Example: October 26 Las Vegas to Los Angeles
  • Total for Excursionist Perk 1: 14,700 miles + $88.50

Excursionist Perk 2

  • June 25 Istanbul to Athens: 6K + $25.10
  • June 26 July 1 Newark to Detroit: 0K + $5.60
    (free segment due to Excursionist Perk)
  • Much later: throw away segment: 5.45K + $18.50
    Example: October 17 Oslo to Stockholm
  • Total for Excursionist Perk 2: 11,450 miles + $49.20

Totals:

  • Only United miles:
    • Without Excursionist Perk: 50,400 + $113.60
    • With One Excursionist Perk: 34.4K + $113.60
    • With Two Excursionist Perks: 26,150 + $137.70
  • Best miles for each flight: 30K miles + $134.55

Two Excursionist Perk Discussion

This one didn’t really work out as I had hoped.  The first Excursionist Perk worked without a hitch, but the second one didn’t show a free flight from Newark to Detroit on June 26th.  I had forgotten that there has to be a saver award available for this to work.  So, I picked the next available day where I could get that flight for 0 miles (July 1).  That’s not really fair to the scenarios where I calculated the price at because the baseline price for the flight on that day is only 9.9K miles for cardholders (vs 17.5K without a United card!).  If we recalculate the other options with that 9.9K price (9.3K lower than the original price), we get the following:

  • Only United miles:
    • Without Excursionist Perk: 41.1K + $113.60
    • With One Excursionist Perk: 25.1K + $113.60
    • With Two Excursionist Perks: 26,150 + $137.70
  • Best miles for each flight: 30K miles + $134.55

Now we see that the single Excursionist Perk option really is the best option!

How I identified the “best” prices

Normally when price shopping for flights, I look to multiple award search tools and also compare cash rates.  For the purpose of this post, though, I simplified things and looked only at award prices.  Additionally, I only used PointsYeah to find the best alternative options to United miles.  This leaves out potentially better options such as booking with British Airways.  Still, for the purpose of this brief experiment, I thought this tool was plenty good enough.

Conclusion

Through the above thought experiment I found that United’s Excursionist Perk can be an excellent option for booking multiple positioning flights for fewer miles.  While I didn’t find the final price to be much better than piecing together the best options for each segment, there are some advantages to booking everything through one program — especially a program like United which allows free changes and cancellations.

The biggest downside to using an Excursionist Perk for positioning flights is that you’ll then have three segments that are dependent upon each other.  If something happened where you no longer needed the first or second leg of the Excursionist Perk, you would have to cancel the entire thing.

When I got fancy with two nested Excursionist Perks, the results weren’t great.  That would change if you were in a situation where you needed two expensive flights, each within a single region, and where each was available as a saver award.  It would also change if you didn’t need to book throw-away ending flights but rather could use those extra legs for future travel.

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