Taking Advantage Of United’s Close-In Award Space

Filed Under: Awards, MileagePlus

As I mentioned previously, over the coming days and weeks you’ll see the occasional post from a fellow reader who has applied to write for OMAAT on an ongoing basis. It’s possible that posts will still be in the publication queue after we’ve announced our decision, so we’ll be publishing these anonymously. We hope you enjoy the different perspectives!

As a Tampa-based flyer, one of my biggest challenges is finding domestic short-haul award space to an international gateway. Over the last year, I had two Star Alliance awards for my wife and I where this was an issue:

  • A mix of Swiss Business Class and Singapore Suites ORD-ZRH-SIN that I booked approximately 10 months out via Singapore KrisFlyer
  • A First Class SFO-AKL flight on United booked 330 days in advance via United MileagePlus for the day after Christmas

In both of these instances I booked the award well in advance knowing I would need a positioning flight. My research on FlyerTalk and blogs regarding when United releases domestic award space resulted in “It can be at any time and possibly never. Don’t count on it.”

Don’t fall for this! In reality, United consistently releases unsold inventory into award space as departure approaches.

Example 1: Chicago > Zurich > Singapore

Tampa to Chicago is a pretty competitive route, so I booked a cheap, refundable Tampa to Chicago flight with Rapid Rewards points to utilize my Southwest Companion Pass. I knew I could cancel if United opened up space on TPA-ORD.

In addition to the domestic United space, I was also keeping my eyes out for Lufthansa space. Since I had already “paid” 112,500 KrisFlyer miles for a First Class redemption from North America all the way to Singapore, KrisFlyer’s potential change fees seemed especially reasonable.

Lufthansa consistently releases First Class award space close to departure, and if it opened up I could switch to Lufthansa First Class while also checking out the Lufthansa First Class Terminal and renting a Porsche. (Spoiler: it worked, and the smile on my wife’s face didn’t disappoint!)

United’s short-haul Saver award space was also much, much better in the days leading up to departure. It wasn’t “last seat” availability, but there was a lot more availability than there had been 30+ days out. Our trip was the weekend before the 4th of July, so I knew planes would be full and the odds of unsold seats would be low.

The TPA-ORD award space never opened up on the flights I wanted, but as luck would have it, I ended up in Omaha for Men’s College World Series and now needed an OMA-ORD flight instead. Two days before departure, a Saver seat was released in First. I called into KrisFlyer and booked it no problem. “Free” flight from Omaha to Chicago minus a $20 change fee! Not bad.

Final routing: OMA-ORD-FRA-ZRH-SIN for 112,500 KrisFlyer miles transferred from AmEx + ~$450 in fees each

Example 2: San Francisco > Auckland

For this itinerary I needed to figure out how to get from Tampa to San Francisco the day after Christmas. Southwest didn’t have Wanna Get Away fares filed, and airlines rarely release low-level award seats over the holidays.

I decided to book an “everyday” award on United knowing that after change fees it would still be cheaper than fuel surcharges on awards booked via other programs. 12/26 is a “special” day in the airline world, so again, I wasn’t getting my hopes up, but United released space on the 24th and 25th.

I got up on Christmas morning and tried to look for Saver space between spending time with family. Luckily they have an appreciation for my points and miles obsession.

8AM: Nothing.
9AM: Right as breakfast is starting? Sure!

I called United’s reservations line, and quickly realized the rep wasn’t good. Like, wanted to change my final destination to Houston rather than Auckland not-good.

I decided against modifying the reservation, knowing I might have to call several times to get a good agent on Christmas morning, and that I didn’t have time to get the reservation cleaned up if there were issues (and breakfast was getting cold). However, the rep confirmed it was there – Saver space – the day after Christmas, and I could have changed my flights.

Final Routing: TPA-IAH-SFO//SFO-AKL on two tickets for 130,000 (50,000+80,000) United MileagePlus miles and minimal fees each

Current status

This pattern continues today. When I checked for this post, there were two days on the schedule where TPA-ORD had Saver awards available in First Class, seven days and 14 days away.

Economy was predictably better overall, but nonstop Saver economy awards were available on 10 of the next 14 days and only once on days 15 through 28.

See below:

I know what you’re thinking, “$75 close-in booking fee”. Yes, BUT this award space is available to all Star Alliance partners. Here it is on Aeroplan’s site with minimal fees:

What’s the value here compared to purchasing tickets?

With the introduction of basic economy, United seems to have zeroed out traditional restrictive economy fares close to departure. Here’s an example for next week, again on Tampa > Chicago:

  • Basic Economy (Restrictive) || $47
  • Economy Saver Award || 12,500 Miles, $80.60 in fees
  • Economy || Not Available
  • Economy (Flexible) || $502

That’s quite the variety of pricing options all on the same flight! Personally, I like Option 5, which is to purchase and/or transfer miles to a United partner that doesn’t have the close-in booking fees, like LifeMiles, Aeroplan, or KrisFlyer.

What does it mean for long-haul award bookings?

Finding premium cabin partner award space can often be achieved on Star Alliance, but getting to the partner’s North American gateway can be difficult. Don’t get discouraged! I’d use this knowledge to snag long-haul partner award space when you see it and book a positioning flight well in advance. From there you can do a few things:

  • Book via MileagePlus and wait for the space to open up knowing you’ll pay between $0 and $125 depending on your status with United
  • Take advantage of Southwest’s “refundable” fares or United’s “Flexible” fares (typically $50 more than regular economy) to book a positioning flight; you can sleep at night knowing you have a flight to the gateway city while retaining the option to cancel if space opens up
  • Book via a partner program like KrisFlyer that has lower change fees and a region-based award chart; your award cost will stay the same when adding segments, along with reasonable change fees

What about peak-travel times?

Similar to above you can use this pattern to lock in a flight in advance and wait until the last second to achieve huge savings.

In the instance of Tampa to San Francisco last Christmas, flights held in the neighborhood of ~$550 throughout the booking window. A last-second award could have resulted in a redemption value of ~4 cents per mile, which is great value for a domestic economy redemption.

Have you taken advantage of United’s close-in award release patterns?

As a reminder, this post was guest-written by a fellow reader. Feedback is appreciated, but please keep the comments kind and constructive.

  1. For my wife and ME!

    If you can’t write, or don’t know how, don’t. And that goes for anywhere, even here.

  2. I’m a little confused…..I thought United now has one tier for economy….Still saver and full-price tiers for business but only one tier for economy…..?

  3. I don’t find this topic very unique, as close-in award space is often mentioned on this blog.

  4. “Final Routing: TPA-IAH-SFO//SFO-AKL on two tickets for 130,000 (50,000+80,000) United MileagePlus miles and minimal fees each”

    I wouldn’t consider this a good use of points, as 50K extra miles were spent on what should be an 80K point ticket.

  5. Don’t fall for this! In reality, United consistently releases unsold inventory into award space as departure approaches.

    Well, except in the very case you’re citing. You were only able to make you Signapore itinerary work because you changed your city of origin.

  6. I have read about waitlisting for business/first saver awards on the same flight you have already booked an economy saver award, but haven’t seen it in practice. Anyone here done that before?

  7. You didn’t call back because “breakfast was getting cold”? More points than sense I guess. Weak.

  8. Loved this article, one of the top guest articles in my opinion. Never thought about securing LX Biz + SQ suites, and switching it out to LH F last minute. Tiffany/Lucky – you clearly have a number of very talented people who have applied. I hope you recognize or reward these contributors in some way, even if they don’t get the “regular” position!

  9. I would hazard a confident guess that the author here is the same one who wrote the post about strategies to redeem United miles around the high season with Aer Lingus, Lufthansa, Swiss a few days ago. He aims to pretty much duplicate Lucky’s writing style (again with the unnecessary / uninformative photos of random lounges in the middle of the article, and bold face question seeking traffic generating comments at the end?). If that’s what you’re looking for, fine.

    My other point still holds, which is the writer should take the research just a little bit farther and give some information that even purported experts might not be aware of. Like whether United allows the booking of award space in advance, only to add on the positioning leg later without fee? Or married segment issues? Maybe the writer just needs some more real world experience of the tricks of the trade as a professional traveler, versus doing it from a desk (which admittedly is good for what he’s able to give as tips).

    Otherwise, the writing is fine.

  10. Love this and the subtle comedy! You must have an amazing wife to let you figure out your travel on Christmas. Please write another blog!

  11. Very comprehensive article. Loved the detail! However, I definitely prefer to drive most places because the airlines won’t let me bring all my cats in my carry on.

  12. Great write up, very informative!

    Love the dedication of calling United on Christmas morning. A person that dedicated to their craft is someone I think you should seriously consider for the position.

    Hope to see more articles from this author!

  13. If you are already buying the SFO-AKL ticket with miles, it’s a waste of points or money to do a positioning flight. You should be able to add the Tampa leg as a waitlist in first class, and you’ll get it for the same number of miles if space opens. Done it a few times and always ended up in first for the same number of miles as the long haul flight.

  14. @DCJ – yes, in the CO days it was called “Plan B” – you can have call to have them withdraw add’l miles to be waitlisted for biz, IIRC I think it’s only for United metal though

  15. Great article and well articulated. I wasn’t aware that United functioned like this but you learn something new every day. I have a fun habit of teaching my 7 cats something new every day so maybe this will be tomorrow’s lesson!

    I also just switched my companion pass to include my custom cat carrier so that I can travel with them.

  16. 50k miles for positioning domestically?!!?! Just change origin to TPA and re-ticket — it should charge no more miles, unless UA married segment logic broke it. Change fee if no status, but 50k miles??!! Are we missing something here?

  17. If I were booking long haul award flights ten+ months in advance and needed positioning flights, I would book them at the same time. Maybe United is stingy with saver domestic economy fares that far out but AA routinely gives me that 12,500 mile award space months in advance. I just ran TPA to ORD for the (“special”) day after Xmas and it’s wide open with several non stops for 12,500. And even if you are not an AA loyalist, it would be easy enough to sign up for a credit card and use the sign up bonus miles instead of the fiasco of booking other flights (and cancelling) and then hoping something opens up close in. Anyone can get lucky on award space, the best advice is to show us how to routinely get to where we want to go utilizing reliable strategies. I would guess that most of us wouldn’t magically end up in Omaha to get a bargain positioning flight to ORD.

  18. @Sean Nope! Hasn’t worked that way in almost a year. UA now strictly enforces point to point ticketing. If the computer says award space isn’t avail from A to E, you cannot reticket. And you need space the whole way at the time of reticketing. So you’re basically stuck with what you booked unless you want to start over.

    A rare set of agents can (and are willing to) use the old system but I’ve never encountered any.

  19. Thank you for your insight! It is clear that you are committed to find the greatest use of your points.

    I did not know about the United options. I will definitely use your tips in the future.

  20. <>

    That depends enormously on route and time in the year. For example, off season to Europe from the US you can start to find a lot more starting about 6 weeks out; even 2-3 days out lots of choices. BUT, for some routes there will be no or limited choices on United metal but some choices on SA partners. In high season I often come back from Europe via Asia on rewards that open up nearer time in J using an outward-bound business upgrade from E+ and then couple those with return flights in the other direction off season. (When you do this you have to keep track otherwise you could find yourself paying a lot one-way for one segment if it becomes an orphan.)

  21. (Quote, which was omitted, was: Don’t fall for this! In reality, United consistently releases unsold inventory into award space as departure approaches.)

  22. A fellow Tampa United MilesPlus flyer! HIRE HiM.

    I was also confused as why he would take the SFO-AKL award routing without getting the TPA-SFO legs, but I guess that he wanted the 12/26 flight due to school/work holidays and was willing to pay extra for the repositioning flights.

    I booked TPA to AKL RT in August 2017 for a February 2018 departure using 70,000 (now 80,000) United miles each way. I got business class between SFO & AKL, but I had to settle for economy between TPA & SFO.

    Thanks, @Sexy_kitten7 for confirming what the United agent told me; that is, if I wanted to wait list the domestic flights, the whole point-to-point route would have to be available, in order for me to get upgraded.

  23. Great post. I didn’t realize that Singapore allows routing from the US to Asia through Europe at least partly on partner metal. Can you still pay the $100 for a stopover?

  24. Good tip generally for using United MileagePlus miles. Seems like for the EWR-SFO flights business class that I need, even last minute, is a unicorn for a saver award.

  25. Great article. Great insight. Haven’t been to this site too often but after reading this article I’m sure to return for more.

  26. I guess I’m the only idiot here

    I routinely need to buy positioning flights for my award travel

    Maybe cause I’m an MSP hostage?

    But I struggle to find flights in and out of Chicago too (United hub)

    Thus I had to position for my YVR-SYD-LAX flight (booked 364 days in advance)
    Also my JFK-ZRH and VIE-JFK flight

    I’d like people to detail how they avoid positioning flights

  27. Totally uninteresting post. Remember that a good portion of your readership is non-US based. This level of detail about getting an award ticket on a domestic positioning flight, which would be quite affordable anyway compared to the international segments, is not in the least of interest to us. And it sounds a bit like this is the beginning and end of what you have to tell us.

  28. As a beginner, some questions: do you schedule positioning flight on a non-United airline a day or just hours earlier due to travel interruption possibilities? You do only carry-on luggage for long international trips? Otherwise don’t you have to collect luggage and then proceed to UA flight check-in?

    Disaster stories for positioning flights on different airlines?

    We travel from Cincinnati and choices are expensive in points Delta usually thru ATL or United/American positioning flights to ORD, IAD, EWR, JFK, PHL, CLT, etc.

  29. JRMW
    I do well with United ORD I just use other airlines sometimes to make it work..But never fly more flts to make anything work . I’m flying ORD>HNL>BNE>Cairns>SYD>AKL>ORD=125K


  30. Maybe some would consider it minor, but I think that would be writers should try to use correct grammar.
    “Awards for my wife and I” ???
    Here is a simple check the author would benefit from:
    If you can separate subjects in the sentence (in this case “ my wife” and “I”) and it sounds weird, then your should try again. “Award for my wife” and “award for I”. The latter sounds really weird. “Award for me” sounds much better.
    I know some would say that it’s content of the article that matters, not the grammar. I would say that both matter. Bad grammar makes your readers perceive you a few notches lower than you might be.

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