July 16, 2024

Voyage into Spectacular Travels

Unveiling Authentic Journeys

United Excursionist Perk: Travel more for fewer miles

9 min read

United’s MileagePlus program has undergone significant changes. Earlier this year, United increased award prices by up to 122% on some routes without notice. United also launched Money + Miles, which allows MileagePlus members to redeem miles at an underwhelming 1 cent apiece toward cash airfare.

Despite these unfavorable program changes, one valuable feature of the United MileagePlus program is the Excursionist Perk. It allows you to add a one-way flight to a round-trip award ticket without using extra miles. The rules for this perk are not well defined, but it is an extremely valuable tool for award travel.

Understanding and using the Excursionist Perk may be challenging for beginners and even some advanced readers. It requires time and effort, but it may allow you to redeem United miles for fantastic award itineraries at a low cost.

What is the United Excursionist Perk?

United’s Excursionist Perk lets you add a stopover on many international award tickets. ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

At its core, the Excursionist Perk is meant to give a free one-way segment to travelers on round-trip itineraries between two different regions as defined by the MileagePlus program. The United website is incredibly vague when defining the Excursionist Perk, which leaves ample room for creative minds to stretch the bounds of this perk. Here are all the rules published by United for the Excursionist Perk:

  • 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 for travel 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 are within a single MileagePlus-defined region.
  • The cabin of service and award inventory of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
  • Only the first occurrence will be free if two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit.

Here’s what I believe to be the easiest way to paraphrase the rules into one sentence describing the Excursionist Perk: The first route within a single MileagePlus-defined region that’s different from the region in which your itinerary begins and ends is free in the same class as the preceding leg.

For an example of the simplest (and likely intended) use of the Excursionist Perk, consider a round-trip business-class award flight between Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR).

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By invoking the Excursionist Perk, you can get a free segment within the region you’re visiting (as long as it’s a different region than where you’re starting). This means you could book the following itinerary for the same number of miles as a simple round-trip award:

  • Newark to London
  • London to Brussels
  • Brussels to Newark

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Here’s the itinerary priced out using United’s multicity search functionality.

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You pay no additional miles compared to only flying between EWR and LHR, but you’ll also get to see Brussels and conveniently return home directly from there to Newark. You’ll even save $200.90 by minimizing the United Kingdom’s high departure taxes on your ticket.

When you book the LHR to Brussels Airport (BRU) segment, you’ll notice United charges zero miles for it.

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The process is pretty straightforward, and at face value, United could win customers over with this seemingly nice benefit.

Book United Excursionist itineraries online

You can (and should) book United Excursionist itineraries online. All you need to do to book a United Excursionist award itinerary is to use the “Advanced search” tool on the United homepage.

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Select the “Multi-city” option, and plug in the segments you want to book. You must check the box to show the price in miles, as the Excursionist Perk doesn’t apply to paid tickets.

If your itinerary follows the Excursionist logic, it will price correctly. There’s no extra button to select or special page to price these tickets correctly. The free Excursionist leg will automatically appear as costing zero miles (any additional taxes and fees will also show). There’s no minimum or maximum stay requirement for the stopover.

Related: The best sweet spots you can book with United MileagePlus

United Excursionist examples

Below are four examples of Excursionist itineraries in which we apply the perk’s base logic to real-world award itineraries. These itineraries illustrate the Excursionist Perk’s principles rather than serve as exact itineraries you should fly.

The East Asian Excursionist hopper

Starting in South Korea, you can see various cities and countries on a single ticket.

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For example, you could fly between the following airports:

  • Seoul’s Incheon International Airport (ICN) to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK)
  • BKK to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL)
  • MNL to ICN
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Doing so would result in United charging you zero miles for the BKK-MNL segment.

Related: How to get maximum value from the United MileagePlus program

The Ecuadorian and Galapagos Excursionist turtle

If seeing the Galapagos turtles is near the top of your to-do list, you might also want to visit other destinations in the region. With this itinerary, you can cover Ecuador’s two major cities and the Galapagos Islands for a minimal outlay of miles.

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For this itinerary, you’d fly in and out of these airports:

  • Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) to Mariscal Sucre Quito International Airport (UIO)
  • Guayaquil, Ecuador’s José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport (GYE) to the Galapagos’ Seymour Airport (GPS) on Baltra
  • GPS to IAH via UIO

This is among the simpler itineraries on the Excursionist Perk, but it still represents great value. Start in Houston (or anywhere in the U.S.), visit both Guayaquil and Quito, Ecuador, for as long as you want, then visit the turtles (and other wildlife) in the Galapagos before flying back to the U.S. All you’re responsible for is getting from Quito to Guayaquil, an easy proposition.

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The itinerary is from the U.S. to the northern part of South America and starts at 30,000 miles each way in economy. IAH-UIO and GPS-IAH each start at 30,000 miles for a total of 60,000 miles.

With this itinerary, you’d notice that United would charge you zero miles for the GYE-GPS segment.

Related: 4 reasons someone in your family needs a United credit card

Dynamic pricing equals dynamic value for the United Excursionist

The consensus is that dynamic pricing is a terrible development for award travelers seeking outsize value for their miles. However, there are times when it can work to your advantage. One such way is with the Excursionist Perk.

Consider this scenario: You’re based in California and have a trip planned to Thailand and Indonesia in January. You need a one-way flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Bangkok, which normally sets you back at least 19,300 miles in economy.

However, rather than jumping to book that option, consider the following:

  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK) to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK)
  • LAX to SFO

SFO-LAX is sometimes available from 5,500 miles each way. So, you could nest your one-way CGK-BKK flight between trips to Los Angeles. All you’d need to do is go home from Los Angeles the first weekend and then down to Los Angeles the second weekend (potentially using an alternate form of transportation). This entire itinerary might cost just 11,000 miles and $29.90.

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You’re thus getting a round-trip flight from SFO to LAX and your desired CGK-BKK flight for fewer miles than if you booked the CGK-BKK flight alone.

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Just be aware that you must fly the first leg of the flight; if you don’t, the rest of your itinerary will be canceled.

Choosing this Excursionist itinerary would result in United charging you zero miles for the CGK-BKK segment.

The independent Excursionist

You can take this theory even further if you like to plan and are willing to have three or more trips at a time on the books. This itinerary demonstrates the Excursionist Perk’s basic logic rather than something you’d want to fly.

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For this itinerary, you’d fly:

  • Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) via a business saver award
  • Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) to Kotoka International Airport (ACC) in Accra, Ghana, via a business saver award
  • Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) via an economy saver award

The itinerary begins and ends in the same zone (the mainland U.S.), making the first segment wholly within another region (Central and Southern Africa) free. In this case, the itinerary costs 36,900 miles.

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The flight from Baltimore to San Francisco is ticketed as a business saver award for 30,000 miles in our example, which triggers the middle flight (Johannesburg to Accra) to be in business class, too — and for no additional miles.

That’s a six-hour South African Airways business-class flight on a lie-flat seat for no additional miles.

As in the last example, purchasing the Excursionist leg by itself would take almost as many miles as the entire multicity booking.

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The economy saver flight from Boston to Newark is 6,900 miles in our example.

So, you’re effectively getting a first-class flight from Baltimore to San Francisco and an economy-class flight from Boston to Newark at no additional cost if you can reframe how you think about the Excursionist Perk so as to view it as simply beginning and ending in the same zone — even if it means coming from another zone back to the original departure zone.

Booking this itinerary would result in United charging you zero miles for the JNB-ACC segment.

United Excursionist tips

Based on our tests, here are some additional tips and rules about the Excursionist Perk. Because United’s written rules are so vague, we can’t confirm this hypothesis with 100% certainty and look forward to hearing if your experience differs from the following.

  • The free leg must be booked in sequential order, in between the first and final segments. Even though the United booking engine suggests a non-sequential itinerary would still be zero miles, you can’t book a free segment at the end of a round-trip itinerary. In other words, you can’t book Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) round trip and then add a free intra-Europe flight in the future.
  • After multiple searches, you need to clear your cookies and start over on United.com. The search engine begins to say there are errors and no results after several queries.
  • During the multisegment search, the seven-day and 30-day options may error out and say nothing is available even when flights have award space. You must change your search dates in the multicity search function to find available dates.
  • There are no maximum segment or maximum permitted mileage limitations on United Excursionist itineraries.
  • Don’t forget about open jaws, which are possible when using the United Excursionist Perk. If you can travel on your own to get to the next city where your ticket picks up, you’ve added yet another destination to visit for no extra miles.
  • Study the regions of the United MileagePlus award chart. Large regions typically hold the most potential value, as those longer interregional segments will be free. Booking the cheapest intraregion routes (i.e., Japan to Japan) means you still get the more expensive Excursionist leg free. It doesn’t matter if the Excursionist leg costs twice as much as the intraregional flights (see the dynamic pricing example above).
  • Don’t call United. I spoke with five agents on United’s Premier 1K line, and only one knew about the United Excursionist Perk (and not by name). Your agent may have no idea what you’re trying to do, and if you get an ill-informed one, you’ll be on hold for hours and still end up with bad information. We highly recommend only using United.com when researching and booking Excursionist itineraries.

Finally, you may consider adding a cobranded United credit card to your wallet if you’re serious about booking these itineraries. Cards like the United Explorer Card provide additional award availability on United-operated flights, which can noticeably impact the options you see at the saver level.

Related: The best credit cards for United Airlines flyers

Bottom line

Even if you’re lost, you will hopefully see the potential value of the United Excursionist Perk. Take what you learn here and combine a United Excursionist booking with other nested award itineraries, each with its own sweet spots. You can potentially see five or six different destinations on a single trip for a very minimal amount of miles.

The Excursionist Perk requires some planning and research, but it remains a powerful tool to get phenomenal value from your United miles despite recent devaluations.

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