Earlier this month United changed their stopover policy and updated their pricing engine. At first glance, the new system seemed far less consumer-friendly, and I stand by my frustration at how this will impact the average consumer.
Having had a few weeks to acclimate helps though. The system is still finicky as can be, but there are ways to manipulate the search queries a bit to get better results. And there are some crazy things you can do with the Excursionist Perk, provided you can plan a few trips at once.
(Fair warning, this is a long and complicated post, so you might want to refill your coffee or grab a snack first.)
Helping the routing computer
I touched on this briefly when the changes first took place, but to get the routings you want these days you have to help the computer along. The new website is more robust in many ways, but it still errors out, and only shows the routings it wants to show. You can, however, encourage the computer to give you the flights you’d prefer.
When searching for awards, you’ll want to leverage the Advanced Search tab. Don’t use multi-city unless you’re specifically trying to price an Excursionist Perk, and have already found all your segments.
Narrow the results as much as you can. Put in approximate flight times, and choose the appropriate number of connections:
You can also specify cities you’d prefer to connect in, or those you’d prefer to avoid by clicking on “Search Preferences” under the advanced search:
That’s still not a guarantee, and if there are multiple flights on a route United may still only show one or two (or an error!), particularly when building a multi-city trip. I haven’t found a workaround, and phone agents can’t reasonably do more than you can (you could theoretically spend 6+ hours finding an agent willing and able to use the old system, but I don’t think that’s realistic for most of us).
But, something is better than nothing, and you should be able to get closer to what you want by being more aggressive with how you search.
Understanding the Excursionist Perk
Here’s what the rules say:
- The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)
- Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.
- The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.
- The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
- If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.
But there’s a lot the rules don’t say, and between the lines is our favorite place to read here at OMAAT, so let’s break it down.
“The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates.”
That seems pretty straightforward — you can’t get a traditional “free one-way” of Chicago to Orlando to use months after your trip to Europe any longer. The Excursionist Perk can’t be in the origination zone.
But, and this is key, the Excursionist Perk doesn’t specifically have to be in the destination zone. So sure, you can add on some free segments in Europe, just as you’ve always been able to. And you can insert intra-region flights in some other zone, and get those awards for free.
So on a roundtrip between the U.S. and Europe, for example, you could insert a flight between Hong Kong and Bangkok, and not pay any additional miles.
This would price at 140,000 miles in business class — 70,000 miles for each of the transatlantic segments, with the Hong Kong to Bangkok flight being free.
At first glance this seems completely useless, but we’ll talk about some potential applications later on.
“Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.”
In theory this rule makes it sound like you can only have an Excursionist Perk on a roundtrip between Region A and Region B, given that you have to end in Region A. But we’ve already learned that you can have an Excursionist Perk in Region C with no problem.
Similarly, you just have to get back to Region A eventually, and on the same ticket as your Excursionist Perk.
The outbound to Europe is still 70k, the Excursionist Perk between Hong Kong and Bangkok is still free, and the inbound flight from Central America to the U.S. prices at 30k miles in Business/First, per the award chart. So the three flights together are 100,000 miles, versus 130,000 if you’d purchased three separate tickets.
Now it’s getting interesting.
Drew over at Travel is Free beat me to the punch on publishing the new stopover rules, and points out how far you can take this. While travel has to end in the Mileage Plus origination region, the rules don’t say where that last flight has to start.
So you can even add on a cheap 10k Saver economy award between say, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and still get that Hong Kong to Bangkok segment for free:
As you can see, there’s some room for creativity if you can plan in advance, but more on that later.
“The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.”
This is the most transparent and non-nuanced of the new rules. In order for the Excursionist Perk flights to price at 0 miles, they have to be completely within a given region.
So rather than Hong Kong > Bangkok, you could have Hong Kong > Bangkok > Manila (and even have an overnight in Bangkok if you wanted), and it would qualify for an Excursionist Perk:
But a short, nonstop flight between Hong Kong and Taipei would never qualify for an Excursionist Perk, as Hong Kong and Taipei are in separate regions:
It’s also worth noting that you can’t cross regions or boomerang around while on the Excursionist Perk flights, though you can connect. I haven’t been able to get an Excursionist Perk between Tel Aviv and elsewhere in the Middle East to price, for example, as all the Star Alliance flights connect in other regions.
“The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.”
Again, straightforward. Your Excursionist Perk flights can be in Economy if the prior segment is in Business, or in Business if the prior segment is in First, but you can’t “upgrade” the Excursionist Perk portion of the trip.
But you can have the long segments on United (which price at a lower rate in many cases), and then have your Excursionist Perk on partners.
“If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.”
Because United now prices each portion of a trip as a separate one-way award, you can string nearly endless combinations together. That’s not necessarily a good deal (unless you’re planning on making changes and want to minimize your fee exposure), as you do still pay for each portion. If there are multiple portions of the itinerary that would qualify for an Excursionist Perk, only the first instance is free.
As an example, let’s look at a more involved trip with stopovers in Maui, Honolulu, and Seoul on the way to Taipei:
The individual portions would price as follows (assuming all but the inter-island flights in business class):
Los Angeles to Maui | 40,000 miles
Maui to Honolulu | 6,000 miles *intra-region award
Honolulu to Seoul | 52,500 miles
Seoul to Taipei | 22,500 miles *intra-region award
Taipei to Los Angeles | 80,000 miles
In this example, the Maui to Honolulu segment would be the one that qualifies for the Excursionist Perk, so you’d save 6,000 miles, for a total of 195,000 miles.
The better value would be to flip the order of the award, making the more expensive Seoul to Taipei flights eligible for the Excursionist Perk. So your map would look the same, but your flight order would be:
Los Angeles to Taipei | 80,000 miles
Taipei to Seoul | 22,500 miles *intra-region award
Seoul to Honolulu | 52,500 miles
Honolulu to Maui | 6,000 miles *intra-region award
Maui to Los Angeles | 40,000 miles
Remember, the first intra-region award on a roundtrip that meets the other rules qualifies for the Excursionist Perk. So structuring the itinerary this way would make the Taipei to Seoul portion free, bringing the total to 178,500 miles.
Fun times, no?
What are the regions?
Your Excursionist Perk has to start and end in the same region, which can’t be your departure region, so it helps to know how United defines each region. I’ve also listed the prices for intra-region awards, so you can get a sense of how many miles the Excursionist Perk could save you, though to keep it simple I’m only posting partner rates.
Mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada
Mainland U.S., Alaska & Canada
Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadalupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Netherland Antilles, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, U.S. Virgin Islands
Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama
Northern South America
Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela
Southern South America
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay
Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom
China, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan
Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam
Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion Island, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Algeria, Canary Islands, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia
American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, French Polynesia, Guam, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Vanuatu, Western Samoa
Australia and New Zealand
Australia (including Tasmania), New Zealand, Norfolk Islands
The real annoying region is “Japan,” though having “Northern Africa” split out separately is up there, sheesh.
As you can see, flights within some of these regions are much more expensive than others. On the one hand, you’ll save the most miles by structuring your trip such that the Excursionist Perk is in a pricey region. On the other, the “best value” isn’t necessarily the best value for you, so don’t get carried away.
Using the Excursionist Perk
In practice, the most useful application of the Excursionist Perk will be to add a stopover in your destination region. That’s certainly the intent of the perk.
So you could fly in to London, take the train to Paris, fly between Paris and Milan, then return home from Rome after exploring Italy.
In this case the Paris to Milan flights would qualify for the Excursionist Perk (in green). You’d be on your own for the ground portions (in white).
There are other examples, of course, but this seems like the general strategy that most people will use.
Advanced ways to use the Excursionist Perk
Of course, OMAAT readers are not most people.
If you’re a careful planner, I can see the Excursionist Perk being tremendously useful for out-of-the-box itineraries. A few examples I can think of off the top of my head:
- Positioning for great business class fares (think Cairo)
- Structuring trips such that an expensive ticket on a second trip is covered by the Excursionist Perk
- Combining with cash or other miles for difficult regions (think Johannesburg, Australia), and having segments to use later
Ultimately, you can get really creative here, but keep in mind – there is only one Excursionist Perk per round-trip ticket. So while you can use the multi-city tool to price out something ridiculous like weekly transatlantic fights for two months, and the pricing engine likely won’t error out, that doesn’t mean you’re getting a deal.
Furthermore, this perk will probably be more useful for some of y’all than others. Ben and I will probably struggle to use it. I realize it seems like something we’d maximize (afterall, we just positioned to New York from California by way of Moscow and Belgrade for a flight to Baku), but you have to take these flights sequentially, and we just don’t do a good enough job of planning our lives in advance.
Philosophically, I’m a bit conflicted.
I’m still annoyed at how United has hamstrung their phone agents. It’s the general travelers who are most impacted by the inability of agents to compile multiple segments into a single award, particularly folks who live in non-hub cities. And those travelers are certainly disadvantaged in terms of transparency of routing options, and are likely not going to leverage the quirks of the Excursionist Perk that bring some extra value back into MileagePlus awards.
But there is, as ever, opportunity for advanced players.
Do you see yourself using the Excursionist Perk? Where?