Award booking question

 Hey, Ben,

I’m wondering, when you have some time, of course, if we can chat about the intricacies of booking award travel on other *A carriers with UA miles. I have a high school friend teaching English in China, and before learned of its impossibility today, I entertained ideas of an SQ C award on the A345 from EWR to SIN, and on to PVG in October. Now, ideally, I’d love to take advantage of stopovers and long flights in a premium cabin, perhaps heading to China via Europe. How feasible is my project?

Best regards,


My friend Gray emailed me this question, and I thought I’d respond here since it might benefit some others too. I consider awards, especially to Asia, to be a “specialty” of mine, since that’s basically what I redeem all of my hard earned miles on. First a few general rules. You will be allowed one stopover en route lasting as long as you’d like (as long as it’s within the maximum ticketing period, of course), and as many stopovers of less than 24 hours as you’d like. If you’re more interesting in an open jaw (flying into one city and out of another), that’s an option too, but then you can’t do a stopover. That being said, now that Air China has joined the Star Alliance the popular PEK/PVG open jaw is no longer necessary since you can book the flight from PEK to PVG or the other way around as part of the award now.

Awards must always come within either the MPM (maximum permitted mileage) OR be a legal routing. Typically the MPM is somewhere around 10% above the direct distance between your origin and destination, but it can vary quite a bit. A valid routing will often save you for far off destinations which don’t have very high MPM’s or direct service.

A great tool to use when searching for awards on the Star Alliance is the ANA award checker. To use this tool you simply have to register for an ANA Mileage Plan account and then log in with your membership number and password. This reflects the availability open to Star Alliance members, but sadly United does their notorious Starnet blocking whereby they block partner award seats to save money. Still, it’s a great tool to see what’s available. If you’re looking at non-UA flights it’s good for telling you what’s definitely not available (as in if it doesn’t show up on the ANA tool it won’t be available with UA), but if it does show up as available on the ANA tool it’s not necessarily available with UA.

An award in C/F is 90K/120K respectively from the US to China via the Pacific, or if you’d prefer to go via the Atlantic it would be 105K/140K.  

The reason you’re probably having trouble with SQ’s uber longhaul flight (EWR-SIN) is because it will soon be converted to all business class, and also feature their new premium product. As a result they zero out inventory for all partner awards, or at least do in theory. Up until recently they usually released one award seat on that flight. The good news is that LAX-SIN, SQ’s other uber longhaul flight on the A340-500 won’t be converted to the new configuration until later in the year, and therefore availability should still be pretty reasonable.

You could route through SIN, for example, when heading to China, but there’s an important distinction to make when booking the award if you get a less than stellar agent. If you say you want to go to China and ask to be routed via SIN, most agents will say “that’s not allowed, it’s above the MPM. What you want to do is say that SIN is your destination and PVG is your stopover, since SIN is further than PVG. As a general rule of thumb always refer to the further point in your travels as your destination if you plan on staying there, since some agents have a hard time thinking outside of the box.

Always do your research first on the ANA tool. As soon as you find a routing you like, call UA and see if it’s available. If you’re not finding anything good ask the agent to look and see what’s available. If the agent looks for a minute and then comes back and gives you either crappy options or says nothing is available, either hang up or ask if they’ve checked all partner options, including double connections. If the agent isn’t very good they’ll probably say they have, in which case just hang up and call again. It should take an agent at least 10-15 minutes to really search the system, and that’s a very conservative estimate.

As for your best options, it all depends on what you’re looking for. The best thing out there, if you have the miles for it, is SQ F. It’s among the best products in the sky, and I bet you’d enjoy every second of it, from their Dom to Krug to caviar to full bottle of cologne in the amenity kit to  super comfy PJ’s to seven course meals to amazing service. SQ11/12 (LAX-NRT-SIN and back) has some decent award availability in F, so with good planning it should be pretty feasible to secure. The only issue is that they usually only release the award seats for the through flight, meaning not just LAX-NRT, but rather you have to go the whole way to SIN to get the seat. Because of that you’d only be able to do SQ one way most likely, since routing through SIN will possibly exceed the MPM and most likely not be a valid routing, but I could be wrong on that. For a premium of only 30K miles it’s the way to go if you can, in my opinion.

Assuming you want to stick with a C award, SQ and NH are both fantastic. You could do SQ LAX-SIN, for example, and then fly SIN-PVG on SQ, and finally PVG-NRT-LAX on NH, for example, and then connect on to your final destination from LAX.Of course there are an endless number of options here, and the Star Alliance partners really are excellent for the most part. If this is your first premium award I might suggest doing C this time around just so you’re not totally spoiled for the next time, as even SQ/NH C is fantastic and should “wow” you. Of course if you’ve done C internationally before on a world class airline I’d suggest F.

Sorry for rambling on here, but I have a lot of opinions about Asia awards, but I hope this helped a bit. If anyone wants to add anything or has any questions, please leave a comment.

Filed Under: Advice, United
  1. Great post Lucky. It would take a newbie many hours of digging on FT to pull together the information you’ve summarized here.

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