Award Routing Rules on United Airlines

In the past three weeks I have gotten many, many questions from readers about how to book an award using miles from United Airlines. They’re interested in how to add open jaws and stopovers to their award tickets and running into trouble. Many people are trying to book a so-called “free one-way,” but not always — and you don’t need to, either, to take advantage of these features. I rarely book a free one-way for myself and have still found United’s routing rules incredibly useful.

So here’s a quick reminder on the basics of planning an award on United or its partners. United doesn’t publish its rules, so I’m working off my personal experience. I’m still happy to reply to your questions, but when I keep getting the same question that’s a sign that some clarity is needed.

Stopover vs. Layover

The way I distinguish between these two in my mind is that a layover is an active connection from one flight to another while a stopover is a chance to venture outside the airport for a few days. Of course, airlines have actual time limits to define these. Layovers in on wholly domestic itineraries (and Canada counts) are under 4 hours. Layovers on international itineraries (even at domestic airports along the way) are under 24 hours.

A stopover is any time you exceed these time limits, unless you are arriving on the last flight of the day and departing on the first flight the next day. They aren’t going to penalize you for large holes in the schedule.

Stopovers can be useful when you want to nest an itinerary (e.g, stopover in FRA, book a separate intra-Europe award, and then continue to your destination in HKG), when you want to visit more than one city, or when you want to stop in your home airport or another U.S. gateway before picking up later for a free one-way.

One Stopover Permitted

You only get one stopover on a round trip itinerary. There are no stopovers permitted on one way itineraries. You can book your two one way itineraries separately, but they’ll need to be combined into one reservation before they count as a round trip and permit a stopover. When trying to do something like this, I’ve found it easier to book a one way itinerary and then modify it (and reprice it) to include a return portion.

But if the schedule works out, sometimes you can see a small city in under 24 hours and a layover is possible without using up your valuable stopover. I have an international flight coming up with an early morning arrival and a late evening departure from Singapore.

Many times I see people try to use their stopover somewhere at their destination. I prefer to travel this way, but don’t do this if you want to book a free one-way. It needs to be back at home so that you can stop and continue on to another city at a later date.

Two Open Jaws Permitted

A normal person lands at and departs from the same airport. An open jaw occurs when you land at and depart from different airports, using some other means, such as another flight or a train, to get between them. United allows two open jaws on round trip itineraries. (The question is meaningless for one way itineraries.)

The catch is that the open jaws can only be at your originating and your destination airports. So if you are flying from SEA to SIN via FRA, you cannot have an open jaw at FRA. That would be priced as two one way awards, from U.S. to Europe and from Europe to Asia.

Update: Wandering Aramean is much more experienced with these issues and corrected me in the comments. It is possible to add open jaws at other locations in your itinerary, i.e., they need not be at the origin or destination. Still, I often see people who add more than two open jaws because they confuse them with a stopover. Remember: an open jaw means landing at one airport and taking off from another. You get two. A stopover means landing and taking off from the same airport, generally more than 24 hours apart, at a location other than your destination. You get one.

I don’t often see people get confused about open jaws when booking a free one way. It’s pretty clear that you need to have at least one of your open jaws at home so you can stop there and later continue to another city.

My advice when creating a complicated routing with open jaws is try not to pack too much into a single award. I always start by sketching out my itinerary on paper. After you’ve done this, you can check to see if it’s possible to combine them, but don’t start out this way.

Connections and Routing

I’m a little iffy on this, but I believe the maximum permitted on a round trip award is 16 segments (15 connections). You are allowed to fly from the U.S. to Asia via the Atlantic or the Pacific, which opens up some nice opportunities to add a stopover in Europe if you can find award space. However, there is a new rule that you may have only three connections when flying one way from the U.S. to Asia via Europe, or four connections each way when flying round trip.

Update: United appears to be cracking down on this and trying to draw a distinction between round-trip awards and round-the-world awards. The cap of 16 segments is a technical limit on how many flights can be added to a single ticket number. Some people have reported that the above rules on transit from U.S. to Asia via Europe now apply to all round-trip award tickets. Others have said they’ve gotten tickets with more connections to price successfully. My opinion is: If you can do better, great. If you’re having trouble, this rule may be the reason why.

United doesn’t have rules on Maximum Permitted Mileage, so you are free to take detours out of the way without trying to maintain a direct routing.

However, booking a complex award may not be possible online. When searching, I usually look for one segment at a time, starting with competitive long-distance segments and then filling in the connections. But the computer is not going to automatically find these things every time. It doesn’t expect anyone would want to fly the wrong way around the world, over Europe, when going to Southeast Asia.

But sometimes you’ll luck out. Use the multi-city search feature (it works for awards, too) if you have something specific you want to book. If it is still throwing up errors, you’ll have to call in and feed the agent each segment manually.

About 

Scott created Hack My Trip while traveling on a budget during graduate school and continues to share his thoughts on better travel. He maintains elite status with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hyatt, and Starwood.
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  • lycidas1

    Is Asia via Australia still permitted?

    • lycidas1

      We not talking about fight club here?

    • AKold

      You mean Australia via Asia?

      • lycidas1

        Asia via Australia, really. Used to work (priced out like US-Asia); not so sure anymore.

  • Steve

    Asia via Europe can be useful from the east coast, but what about doing Europe via Asia from SFO or LAX?

    • Scottrick

      I guess Chummy has our answer. IIRC, the travel time is not that different either way, but I can see some advantages for jetlag.

      • steve

        I looked at some of the flight times, and it might not be ideal without a stopover in Asia. It’s two very long flights and you’d end up losing a full day in tavel. But if you can get a stopover then it lets you visit Asia for the European price in miles :-)

        • chummy

          It still priced as 65K in economy.

        • Scottrick

          I lose a full day in travel (not counting the international date line) even when I fly via the Pacific due to 4-6 hour connections in ICN on my way to SIN or BKK.

  • chummy

    SFO to ASIA, ASIA to paris, then London to SFO works. =)

  • Will

    can I do this on United? MCI – PEK ( stop over) -> KWE (stop over)-> PVG,
    PEK->MCI?

    Thanks

    • Scottrick

      MCI-PEK // PEK-KWE // KWE-PVG // PEK-MCI would not work. PVG // PEK is your destination and you have an open jaw there, which is fine. But you have two stopovers, not one, at both PEK and KWE.

      • Will

        Scott, thank you for the reply. I guess I was too greedy. :). I will do

        MCI-PEK (stop over) -KWE, PEK ->MCI. we are going to stay in China for about 3-4 weeks, and we are family of 4. getting everyone in the same flight is not easy. should I do this: book the MCI-> PEK first, 3-4 weeks later, book PEK->MCI, then call United to combine the two one way reservations, add PEK->KWE one way? or just wait for 3-4 weeks later when the return flight is available for booking, book the round trip together? Thank you very much!

        • Scottrick

          Wandering Aramean corrected me. Your original approach would work.

          • Will

            Thank you guys, it is great information! one more question, should I start booking first one way, wait 3-4 weeks when the return flights are available, then call United to finish the booking? Thanks

          • Scottrick

            If you can skip the fees with elite status, yes, that’s what I would do. If you have to pay, it depends on your willingness to risk seeing the space disappear.

      • trAAveller

        Scott, so based on the Wandering Arameans feedback, wouldn’t this actually work? So, make KWE the destination. So he’d have a 1 stopover in PEK on his outbound (MCI-PEK//PEK-KWE). Then a destination of KWE. Then flying out of KWE back home with a open jaw in PVG//PEK.

        • Scottrick

          Yes, it would probably work.

        • Wandering Aramean

          No.

          You have a stopover in PEK and a destination of KWE. At that point you cannot have any more stops on the itinerary, open jaw or not. The PEK/PVG you are trying to add on is an additional stop which is not valid unless you make it between the two in <24 hours.

          Open jaws do not let you add an extra destination/stop to the trip.

  • ari

    I have a question and would really appreciate any info on my way back from rome in july i have layover 12 hours in lisbon ( unable to find anything better for my dates)will i be permited to leave airport???? Thanks in advance

    • Scottrick

      If you clear immigration and are willing to re-clear security, yes.

      • Wandering Aramean

        There won’t be immigration between FCO and LIS; both are in Schengen. Ari will only go through immigration when leaving LIS (assuming “on my way back” means to somewhere outside the Schengen zone).

        • Scottrick

          You’re correct that there’s no issue if staying within Schengen. But more broadly speaking, anyone flying anywhere can leave the airport en route if they’re willing to clear immigration (if any) and re-clear security.

  • Wandering Aramean

    You can absoutely put an OJ at the stopover. It is NOT limited to only to origin or destination. And the SFO/HKG/ICN/BKK/SIN/SFO award will actually likely book just fine. So would an OJ in FRA in the example you gave.

    Also the times for domestic v intl connections are defined by the overall itinerary, not where you have the connection. So IAH-EWR-LHR can have up to 23:59 in EWR even though it is a “domestic” connection.

    • Scottrick

      Thanks for the clarification. You’re definitely more experienced with these questions than I am. I’ll update the post.

  • Seabird

    Scott, I appreciate your insight. As I want to try out the new first class on747-8 from SFO to FRA and the first class on A380, is this a possible routing?

    SEA-SFO-FRA-SIN//KUL-NRT//NRT-SEA

    Thanks

    • Scottrick

      That looks good to me. Open jaw at SIN/KUL and stopover in NRT. In the past I heard that to reach Asia via Europe you had to book it that way in both directions, but the more recent reports suggest that you can go Atlantic one way and Pacific the other, like you propose.

    • choi

      Luth dont fly 747-8 from SFO, its either LAX or IAD

      • Seabird

        Thanks for the Info Scott and Choi. It looks like those seats are hard to find.

        • Rocky

          the 747-8i is now flying to MIA as well, so it opens up one more option for you. I flew it last week FRA-IAD In biz. A trip report will come very soon

  • abby

    Thanks for revisiting this and thx to WA for adding the very useful post in comments.

    I have an odd question: Can you add luggage during a stopover. Example: I am flying to SIN from IAH with a 20 hour layover in SFO. I check 1 bag in IAH thru to SIN, but then I add a second bag (1st Class so no fee for 2 checked bags) when I check in for my flight in SFO (FYI: it’s not carry-on size, it’s a bag I’m picking up in SFO during my layover).

    I asked United and they were, well, confused. Can’t really find anything about it in the ‘rules’. I assume it’s ok, but hate to leave it up to the whim of the person checking me in. Of course, my real world experience is that they tend to be a LOT more accommodating when I’m business or 1st than when I’m coach- so that will be in my favour…

    • Scottrick

      I think you could. People gate check bags all the time.

    • Wandering Aramean

      Yes, you can add more bags while en route. Short-checking (getting bags checked to a destination short of the final one) is much harder. Just adding another bag while on the way is relatively trivial. Just be aware of the overall limits to what you can check for free, though it seems you are.

  • TrAAveller

    Thanks for the insights. I was able to book this award recently on United in First. Based on your rules above, it uses 1 stopover (ICN) and one open jaw at my Bangkok destination (BKK//USM).

    Booked Award:
    DFW-IAD-JFK-ICN//ICN-HKG-BKK//USM-BKK-FRA-DFW

    So that means I could add 1 more open jaw to my return through Europe? Perhaps stop in FRA with open jaw CDG-ORD-DFW?

    DFW-IAD-JFK-ICN//ICN-HKG-BKK//USM-BKK-FRA//CDG-ORD-DFW?

    • Scottrick

      You could, yes.

    • UAFlyer

      DFW-IAD-JFK-ICN//ICN-HKG-BKK//USM-BKK-FRA-DFW is using ICN as stopover, BKK/USM as destination. That’s where you can add the open jaw, and you use one for BKK/USM.

      So that means you cannot add another open jaw in FRA, since FRA is neither the stopover point nor the destination.

      In theory, you can add the open jaw in ICN, something like

      DFW-IAD-JFK-ICN//NRT-HKG-BKK//USM-BKK-FRA-DFW

  • Charlene

    I tried SFO-JFK-NRT//NRT-ZRH-TXL//CDG-YYZ-SFO and it didn’t work, even though all the individual legs had space. Does this means it’s illegal or that I would need to call to book?

    • Scottrick

      I would call an agent and ask them to book it.

  • J

    How many questions have you received in the last 3 weeks about how to book an award using miles from United Airlines? As incompetent as United is in so many areas, their website is better than any other carrier, including partners. From my home airport to Kathmandu? Bam. Capetown? Bam. Istanbul, Bergen, Lima, Buenos Aires? Bam. F you for making me defend the crooked ua, but the truth is more powerful that a crooked blogger.

    • j

      Oh, and, of course, the above itins include stopovers and/or oj.

    • Scottrick

      I’m crooked because I like United Airlines?

      • J

        Again, “How many questions have you received in the last 3 weeks about how to book an award using miles from United Airlines?”
        Yeah, I thought you wouldn’t answer that one.
        Crooked.

        • Scottrick

          I wasn’t clear exactly on what your question was since it was laced with an accusation. Nor do I really see the connection. But to answer you, I have had roughly a dozen questions in the past three weeks. I don’t keep an accurate count because I usually delete the email alerts after I reply.

        • Courtney Hoyt

          Count me as someone who asked Scott a question about booking award travel this week. (Actually two, to be accurate.) Just because the website is easy to understand doesn’t mean it isn’t faster and more helpful to ask someone with experience for advice about a specific question.

    • jfhscott

      Um, did you read the post prior to commenting? The post primarily addresses methods of enjoying booking rules to one’s advantage, not the quality of UA.com’s flight searches, which in my experience will not accommodate efforts to take fullest advantage of the 24 hour layover opportunity and other creative booking methods.

      Your reaction is rude. F U. And your mom 2.

  • UAPhil

    I use the “24 hour connection rule” to break up brutally long flights. Example – stayed overnight in Frankfurt both directions when flying SFO to India.

  • bbd

    Can you use a stopover flying r/t US to Canada? DFW-YQB (Destination), YQB-NYC (Stopover) – DFW

  • JGlenn

    Trying to book an award from North Africa to North America via Asia (CMN-IST-ICN-SFO). Would this be allowed? An agent is saying TPAC not legal.

    • Scottrick

      I haven’t traveled to Africa, but if the agent says TPAC is not legal, then that may be the case. You can call back and try again to see if you get the same answer.

      • JGlenn

        Thanks Scott – what about Europe to North America via Asia? So, CDG-BKK-NRT-SFO? Is this usually allowed?

        • Scottrick

          I don’t believe so. One reason for allowing travel between the U.S. and Asia either over the Pacific or the Atlantic is that the travel time is effectively the same, especially if you start from the West Coast. There is no similar reason to allow transit between the U.S. and Europe via Asia.

  • Michael

    Can you have a stopover at your “real destination” (and origin city) and also make it an open jaw to use the misnamed “free flight” as a return to your real destination?

    I want to avoid $75 destination change fees as I currently have no idea where I want to fly to using the final leg. So I’m thinking I can make my stopover at home an open jaw and use the “free” flight to return home, instead of using it to get to the “free” destination.

    In other words, on an intl trip where AAA is home, BBB is main intl destination, and CCC is as-yet-unknown “final destination” for stopover-adding purposes, can you book this: AAA-BBB//BBB-AAA//CCC-AAA? The way I see it, I’d just be changing my connections this way, which wouldn’t incur the $75 fee each time I change my mind.

    • Scottrick

      That’s an interesting idea. I have a feeling the answer is “no” if your intention is to avoid the change fee. Any agent who looks at that will say you’re already home and are now trying to add an extra segment, not changing the connections along the way.

  • Kurt

    Hi Scott. I’m one of your lurkers, soon to move to Seattle actually. I’m rarely one to post anywhere, but currently have a problem (aka an opportunity?). My wife and I are currently in Thailand, in the middle of a United roundtrip award (economy). Our outbound leg was USA to Nepal, with no stopovers. Our booked return leg is Bangkok to Cairo, with a stopover in Cairo, then Cairo–>Toronto–>Denver. We’re supposed to fly to Cairo in about a week … though with the U.S. evacuating personnel from Egypt, that no longer seems reasonable. So I looked into alternate ways home (Bangkok to Denver), with a fun stopover, and found a stopover in Tokyo. I called United to book it (they agreed to waive the change fee, even though they don’t currently have a travel advisory to Egypt … huh?), but was told that changing the routing to go through Tokyo would make it a round-the-world itinerary and cost more in miles (and she couldn’t even figure out how much more). Does this sound correct? She said that we’d have to fly back through “Europe”, and could take a stopover there. (Cairo, then, counts as “Europe”? She couldn’t elucidate.) Does this sound correct? I suppose my overall question is, should I try again to go through everything with a different agent (she *did* sound fairly knowledgable), or is this correct and I should hunt for a fun stopover in Europe (continental Europe?)? Thanks very much, if you or anyone else here knows the United subtleties so well.

    • Scottrick

      That sounds right. Your original itinerary was via Cairo, and they want you to return in the same direction (over the Atlantic). Cairo isn’t in Europe, but there are far, far more options to get home via Europe than there are in Africa.

      You could try getting your stopover in Tokyo if you fly from Tokyo to Frankfurt to Seattle or something similar.

      • Kurt

        Thanks for your timely response. In the end, after two more calls and a lengthy “supervisor review”, they let us change to just Bangkok-Tokyo (stopover) then Tokyo-Calgary-Denver, with no change fees. It’s unclear to me if the whole avoid-Egypt issue (and United’s apparent lack of any official travel advisory for there, at the moment, despite the state department’s travel *warning*) may have overridden normal award routing change rules. But they let us make the change! Thanks again.

  • LukeBornheimer

    Scott, thanks for this post—very helpful. Quick question on one of your points; You said the following:

    “Connections and Routing: I’m a little iffy on this, but I believe the maximum permitted on a round trip award is 16 segments (15 connections). You are allowed to fly from the U.S. to Asia via the Atlantic or the Pacific, which opens up some nice opportunities to add a stopover in Europe if you can find award space. However, there is a new rule that you may have only three connections when flying one way from the U.S. to Asia via Europe, or four connections each way when flying round trip.”

    So if I’m flying SFO-BKK round trip via the Pacific, how many segments am I allowed (both each way and total)?

    Separately, it’s possible to have a flight that stops in a city and continues on shortly after using the same flight number; Do these flights count as 1 or 2 segments, and do they count as a connection or no?

    • Scottrick

      You would be allowed 16 segments round trip in the form of 8 segments each way.

      I don’t know how United treats direct flights using the same number for routing purposes. My guess is that it will assume two segments if there is a stop. However, it otherwise treats them as a single segment for the purpose of awarding miles (don’t unnecessarily go out of your way to earn more miles — because you won’t).

      • LukeBornheimer

        Thanks for the quick reply, Scott!

        I’m finding conflicting answers. I asked similar questions on FlyerTalk and got the following answers, “Five [segments] each way for a total of ten segments] if it’s a RT ticket.”[1] and “If it’s booked as the “direct” flight, then no it’s not a connection. For example, UA896 goes SIN-HKG-ORD. If you book it as SIN-ORD then there’s no connection in HKG.”[2]

        [1] flyertalk.com/forum/21591955-post22.html
        [2] flyertalk.com/forum/21591729-post20.html

        From what I’ve gathered on FlyerTalk and other sites, 16 segments are allowed for Round-The-World tickets and only 8 or 10 segments are allowed for regular roundtrip award tickets. How confident are you that the limit is 16 segments?

        • HoKo

          Luke I’ve been digging into this issue as well for a complex award I’m trying to plan from IAD-Europe{stopover}-CPT. It looks like UA just started cracking down in early August (a couple months after Scott posted this guide)…so unfortunately I think the new limits is 8 segments total – 4 in each direction. Totally cramping my style and going to make getting this award booked much more complicated :( See here for explanation:

          http://boardingarea.com/thewanderingaramean/2013/10/uniteds-mileageplus-program-hidden-restrictions-friendly/

          • LukeBornheimer

            HoKo, a FlyerTalk user mentioned he recently booked a flight with 10 segments (http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/21594811-post34.html); How confident are you that it’s 8 segments total (4 in each direction)?

          • HoKo

            Well I am basing my statement off of the blog post I linked to. So I would say the confidence level question would be more suited to Seth than me since he is the one breaking the news. I certainly hope that I am wrong and I’ve heard about exceptions for very direct routings that require a lot of stops but I would bet those will be very YMMV.

          • Scottrick

            Maybe I misremembered. I added the segment restriction in an update and might have doubled the number by accident. I’m traveling today but will try to look into the matter and update if necessary.

          • HoKo

            Sounds good, I’ve been reading all of the FT threads and no one seems to have figured out what’s going on yet. For example I just priced this 6 segment 1W itinerary w/o the fare breaking: http://i.imgur.com/t32I1mq.png and according to the new rules that definitely should not be possible.

          • Scottrick

            Okay, with more research, here’s what I think is going on:

            I do have the correct limits for travel to Asia via Europe as far as I know. If you can do better, great, but I don’t think you should *expect* to do better.

            I was not aware of the new limit on round-the-world vs. round-trip tickets. That is more recent. In my post, I said 16 segments was the max because that’s the maximum number that can be added to any ticket. The US to Asia via Europe rule was a limiting exception to this. If United is cracking down on the number of segments for all round-trip tickets, it makes sense that they would want to draw a distinction between those and the more expensive round-the-world option.

  • Blue

    I need help with booking jfk-bkk-phuket with a long layover between bkk and phuket. IVe tried jfk far bkk phuket and so many other jfk xxx bkk hit combinations but it gives me an errors. Are there any easy routes?

    • Scottrick

      SEA-NRT-BKK and SEA-ICN-BKK will probably work. You may also find some SFO-BKK and LAX-BKK.

      If you’re using United, I suggest that you depart EWR or LGA as the p.s. routes will have higher demand. So try EWR-SEA, EWR-SFO, and EWR-LAX. From LGA you should look at connecting in IAH or ORD.

      It’s not convenient, but it’s easier.

  • Joe B

    Scott – v helpful. Is it possible to do a stopover that includes an OJ where you leave from a different region? I.e. flight NYC – PVG (dest): ADD (stopover):OJ then IST-NYC. Computer won’t let me book the open jaw stopover that goes from ADD to IST.

    • Scottrick

      I’m not sure, but I would guess not. I’ve also never tried a stopover in Africa on when traveling between North America and Asia, and that might be another problem. Did you see if it would work if you flew NYC-PVG-ADD-NYC, without the IST connection?

  • zac

    One example of a great thing with United in Latin America -
    I’ll be flying a multi-city reward:

    CUN-BZE with layovers in PTY (13 hours), SAL (6 hours) -> BZE
    and then after 21 hours in BZE fly forward to SAL again (17 hours) -> PTY (just 1 hour) -> Guatemala

    All that (just wanted to get to guatemala!) for 10.000 miles!

  • Jonathan

    Looking to travel from PVG to MNL (one-way).
    However the search results doesn’t fit my schedule.
    However looking at each of the segment, I came up with PVG->TPE, layover for 12 hours, then TPE to MNL.

    If I call, will this work as 1 trip using award miles?

    Thanks

    • Scottrick

      It will probably work. You may also be able to book it online if you use the multi-city award search instead of a one-way search.

      • Jonathan

        Thanks. I did try the multi-city search, and it shows up as 2-trips, costing me double miles.

  • blake

    great article, thanks! trying to confirm that the following is a legal award routing (the computer is showing availability for each segment, but when i put it all together it says no flights are available). for the sake of argument, say i’m trying to book a week each in DPS, BKK and USM, using a stopover in DPS and an open jaw between BKK and USM, as follows: BOS – DPS (STOP) – BKK; USM – BOS. is that a legal routing? if so, i guess i’ll have to call in, since the online booking won’t go through

    • Scottrick

      There are no non-stop flights between BOS and DPS. Are you doubling back through BKK? That may be part of your problem. It would help to know your complete routing.

      • blake

        thanks for the reply – ya, didn’t even notice before that all of the routings to DPS include a connection in BKK. that said though, does that violate a united routing rule? it would be a total of three times in BKK, but i didn’t previously see anything limiting that.

        • Scottrick

          Singapore Airlines actually has some very good (and regular) service via SIN. But you can’t search for it online. Use ANA or call United to request availability.

          The problem with doubling back is that it makes it look like a different city is your destination (for the purpose of calculating an award cost). You want to make BKK your destination and DPS your stopover. If you already went through BKK, then it can’t be your destination. You were just there!

          A better way to do this is to connect through SIN on your way to DPS. Make DPS your stopover. And then make BKK your destination. You may still have some trouble with the return from USM if you try to return through BKK. In that case, you might have to book USM-BKK separately.

          • blake

            awesome, thanks, that makes sense