How to Get Free One-Way Flights with this Little-Known United Airlines Perk

Free One-Way Flights with this Little-Known United Airlines Perk

When we found out our friends were getting married across the Atlantic, I, forever the maximizer, thought to myself: while we’re in the UK, might as well hop to another European city, right?

After the wedding, instead of heading straight home to New York City, we’re stopping in southern Portugal to relax for a few days by its cliff-lined beaches.

But the exact flights I wanted cost $1,567, gulp. I obviously wanted to pay as little as possible, and after careful research, spent 60,000 United miles for each ticket, plus taxes.

Funny timing, because a reader then DM’ed me to ask what I thought about this hidden benefit that United offers, the Excursionist Perk, which happened to be 1000% relevant to our exact itinerary: it would allow us to visit both cities, London AND Faro in Portugal, without paying any extra miles.

A way to save miles? I’m interested.

Now that I’ve got travel on my mind, I thought I’d explain this hidden perk that can help you get the most out of your miles. Because if you’re into travel hacking, like to visit multiple cities on a trip, AND have Chase Sapphire and/or United miles to burn, then the Excursionist Perk is worth knowing about.

In this post: how the Excursionist Perk works, the best scenarios to maximize it, and most importantly: does it really save you money?

For our UK-Portugal trip, I decided NOT to use the perk, and I’ll explain why not further down below.

How United’s Excursionist Perk Saves You Miles

*Affiliate links below*

The easiest way to explain this perk is by showing you.

This round-trip itinerary to London costs me 60,000 United miles, plus taxes:

  • NYC → LON – 30,000 miles
  • LON → NYC – 30,000 miles

Here’s the same itinerary, but with an extra flight to Portugal. It costs me the same 60,000 United miles, plus a little extra in taxes:

  • NYC → LON – 30,000 miles
  • LON → FAO – 0 miles
  • FAO → NYC – 30,000 miles

That second segment, the London to Faro flight, costs 0 miles, because the entire itinerary qualifies for the Excursionist Perk.

United's Excursionist Perk - NYC - London - Faro

If you choose the right flights, the benefit basically gets you a free one-way ticket, which can pack major value. Note that “free” means you don’t have to pay extra miles, although you do have to pay the taxes, which can vary from $5.60 to $200+. But considering this multi-city flight was selling for $1,567 a piece, 60,000 miles is a pretty good use of miles.

For example, if I didn’t know about the Excursionist Perk rules, and booked each segment as separate one-way flights, adding Faro would have brought the total to 75,000 miles, plus taxes. That’s 15,000 extra points I could have used elsewhere.

And it can literally open up your world. Imagine taking the time to fly all the way from the US to Asia—you’d want to visit more than one city, right?

Excursionist Itinerary Ideas

A couple other wedding guests had the same idea as us, and are headed to Greece right after. We could have easily joined that group by swapping Portugal for Greece at the same price. But if Europe isn’t your thing, I found some other qualifying itineraries that make me want to jump on a plane ASAP.

United's Excursionist Perk - South America Itinerary

South America has long been on my list, but I got analysis paralysis when deciding where to go first. Should it be the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu? What about the sea life in the Galapagos Islands? If I can find the vacation time, taking advantage of the Excursionist Perk means I don’t have to choose. With the first two legs in business class, and considering it costs 60,000 miles to fly to Europe in economy, this itinerary feels like a good value for 55,000 miles. Plus, that’s a very achievable number of miles that the average person could earn with just one card, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

  • NYC → Bogota – 35,000 miles
  • Bogota → San Cristobal Island – 0 miles
  • Lima → NYC – 20,000 miles

Savings: 20,000 miles

United's Excursionist Perk - Africa Itinerary

I briefly considered doing something crazy like flying from the wedding all the way to the island of Mauritius for R&R time on one of their white sand beaches. Then I could stop in Johannesburg and fly back to Europe via Paris to do some shopping.

  • Frankfurt → Mauritius – 30,000 miles
  • Mauritius → Johannesburg – 0 miles
  • Johannesburg → Paris – 30,000 miles

Savings: 17,500 miles

United's Excursionist Perk - Asia Itinerary

We were just there a few months ago, but I don’t think I could ever get tired of visiting Asia. Our time in Hanoi felt shortchanged, so we’d stop there again for banh mi and pottery, then fly back from Ho Chi Minh City. On the Hong Kong to Hanoi leg, I’d look for a long-on-purpose layover in Bangkok so I could spend a day eating all the street food.

*Note that I would need to find a separate flight in between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

  • NYC → Hong Kong – 40,000 miles
  • Hong Kong → Hanoi (Look for a long layover in Bangkok) – 0 miles
  • Ho Chi Minh City → NYC – 40,000 miles

Savings: 17,500 miles

The Basic Rules

Cool cool cool. The itineraries I made sound good in theory, but how do you go about getting your own free flight–from where you live, and for where you want to go?

There are lots of rules. And you’ve got to follow them to a T.

The first thing you need to understand is how United defines regions. The regions aren’t 100% intuitive, and this is where I see most people go wrong in the planning phase. Either study the regions, or have this link up in a separate tab when looking for flights.

A couple key region notes:

  • Hawaii is its own region separate from the rest of the US.
  • Asia is broken down into three groups, so Taipei and Bangkok are not part of the same region.
  • Japan is its own region, ugh.

After you have a handle on the regions, here’s a breakdown on the four basic rules. In the examples, the parts I want to emphasize are in gold.

First, the itinerary needs to have at least three segments, or one-way flights. You can have more than three, but the minimum is three. Usually, there’s a departure flight, a stopover, and then the return flight.

The city pairs in the second segment, the one you want to qualify for the Excursionist Perk, need to be part of the same region.

United's Excursionist Perk

Berlin and Paris are both part of the Europe region–check! But while Tokyo and Hong Kong seem like they both would be part of a North Asia region, Japan is actually its own distinct region.

The Excursionist Perk segment also has to be in a DIFFERENT region from the one you started in.

United's Excursionist Perk

In the first example we started in the US region (San Francisco), and the Excursionist Perk segment is in a different region, Australia & New Zealand.

In the second example, Shanghai and the Seoul-Taipei route are both part of the North Asia region, so this one doesn’t qualify.

Another trick example of this would be departing from NYC and using Hawaiian islands as the Excursionist perk. Hawaii is its own distinct region separate from the rest of the US, so that one would work.

Where you start your itinerary and where you end need to be in the same region.

United's Excursionist Perk

My husband visits Seattle almost every year, so the first example is an itinerary that would definitely save us some miles. We’d just have to find another way to get him home from Seattle–either by using extra miles, or paying in cash. Anyway, this example qualifies because NYC and Seattle are both part of the US region.

In the second example, Los Angeles is part of the US region, and Bangkok is part of the South Asia region. So, not the same. Denied!

If you follow all of these rules then the second flight you selected should require 0 extra miles.

The Advanced Rules

Most people will only need to know the basic rules above. But if you want to get really creative with your itinerary, here are the advanced rules to know.

If two or more segments qualify for the Excursionist Perk, only the first one is free.

Example:

  • NYC → London
  • London → Paris = 0 miles
  • Paris → Milan = Not free
  • Milan → NYC

The Paris – Milan route qualifies for the Excursionist Perk, but you have to pay for that one because you already got the previous London – Paris route for free.

The cabin class of the Excursionist Perk route will be the same or lower as the one-way award preceding it.

Example:

  • NYC → Hong Kong = Business Class
  • Hong Kong → Bangkok = Business Class for 0 miles!
  • Bangkok → NYC = Economy
United's Excursionist Perk
This is an example for South America, but you get the idea!

If you can find a longer flight to qualify for the Excursionist Perk, you could potentially spend more time in business class for almost nothing.

Key Things to Remember

Just because you’re using United points, DOES NOT mean you’ll be stuck on a United airplane. United is part of Star Alliance, which means you can fly international carriers that are part of the same network. Here’s a sampling of other airlines you could fly:

  • Air New Zealand – New Zealand
  • EVA Air – Taiwan
  • Singapore Airlines – Singapore
  • ANA – Japan
  • Copa Airlines – South America
  • Asiana Airlines – Korea
  • Lufthansa – Germany
  • TAP Portugal – Portugal
  • Hawaiian Airlines – Hawaii

How to Look for Flights on the United Website

Sounds complicated, but looking for flights actually isn’t that hard. The reason why I like United for travel hacking beginners is because the website is easy to use. You don’t even have to have a United account to look for award flights (although if you do, you might have access to more availability). And for all you introverts, you can book all these complicated itineraries without having to pick up the phone.

On the homepage, click on ‘Advanced Search’ link on the bottom left of the booking box.

United's Excursionist Perk - How to Book

On the next screen, click ‘Yes’ for the award ticket field, and then ‘Multi-city’ for the Trip type. Then enter in your itinerary details in the boxes below.

United's Excursionist Perk - How to Book

Tip: If you’re having trouble putting together a multi-city itinerary, try looking for each one-way flight separately. Once you find the flights you want, write them down or screenshot them, then book through the multi-city tool.

If you followed the rules, then the options for your second flight should price out at 0 miles, like this.

United's Excursionist Perk - London to Faro, Portugal

To use the lowest amount of miles, make sure to always look for the Saver Award options. If the award miles shown are higher than you want, and your timing is flexible, the calendar tool is fantastic for finding other dates with lower miles. And if you’re after the shortest flights, if available, you can filter for nonstop flights by clicking the checkbox underneath the calendar.

United's Excursionist Perk - How to Book

Watchouts

As of this post, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways availability is currently down with no ETA on the fix. Singapore Airlines is highly coveted flight experience, so that’s a major bummer.

You’re also limited to where United and its partners fly, and if you don’t have a lot of knowledge on the routes, and are looking to fly to obscure places, it can definitely be frustrating. For example, I know the way to get direct flights on Lufthansa is to route through Frankfurt. But I’m not interested in going to Frankfurt…

And sometimes the Excursionist Perk flights that are available have long stopovers or depart at weird times. This is why I chose to not use the benefit for our flight, because the only options included a stopover between London to Faro. Usually we’re flexible with flight timing, but this is a shorter trip and so the flight times need to be tightly coordinated. Instead, we’ll be paying out of pocket for a direct flight.

Does the Excursionist Perk Actually Save Money?

If you’re excellent at planning then you can pull off some creative itineraries and save some miles in the process.

But let’s get practical: does the perk really save you money? Not just miles, but cash monies?

To help you decide whether or not to use the perk, I’d start by calculating how much the free flight would cost in cash.

For example, I could use the Excursionist Perk to island hop in Hawaii…but cash flights cost about $50. Would that really be worth it?

As much as I hate to admit it, there is such a thing as over-optimization.

But let’s look at the cash price for some of the other example flights I mentioned:

  • Mauritius to Johannesburg – $368
  • Bogota to San Cristobal Island – $538
  • Hong Kong to Hanoi – $300
  • London to Naples – $347
  • London to Bari, Italy – $576
  • Auckland to Melbourne – $195

Using the perk for the above routes would be worth it to me, pending the taxes cost less.

And if you’re in the US, don’t forget how flying across the country can be expensive. My husband usually flies to Seattle every year, and sometimes the flights cost over $500 roundtrip.

In general, the bigger the region, the farther the distance, the better the value. These are good places to start with:

  • Europe
  • Middle East
  • Africa
  • …and the US

So, to save the most money, you want to make the most expensive leg of your trip qualify for the Excursionist Perk.

When Should You Use the Excursionist Perk?

To sum it up, here’s when it might make sense to use the perk:

If the cash price for the free flight is more than what you’d pay for with miles. If you are buying several tickets, these can add up. Especially if you tend to fly in peak seasons like me.

If you’re low on United points and need to conserve them. This is a very real scenario for me since I book tickets for both myself and my husband. Sometimes I don’t have enough points and I have to mix and match from other programs.

If you want to get a deal on premium-class flights. Maybe you want to try out Asiana’s business class from Taipei to Seoul.

If you have the luxury of planning way in advance. If I had known about the wedding earlier, we wouldn’t be going to Europe twice this year. I would have made it one mega trip and tacked on the Florence to London flight, like this:

  • NYC → Milan
  • Florence → London
  • London → NYC

But no matter how hard you try, sometimes you can’t plan that far in advance.

How to Earn Lots of United Points

I like United for travel hacking beginners, because the website is easy to use and the points are relatively easy to come by. United is also a Chase transfer partner, so you can turn Sapphire points into United miles. For example, if you got both the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and the United Explorer card below, you could earn 100,000 points. That’s almost enough for two business-class flights to South America.

All of the cards below are ones I currently have or have had in the past.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening— that’s $625 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Chase Ink Business Preferred

Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months after account opening. That’s $1,000 toward travel rewards when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening— that’s $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards.

United Explorer Card

Earn 40,000 bonus points after spending $2,000 within the first three months. Plus, an additional 20,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $8,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months from account opening. With this card you could potentially earn 60,000 points.

Did you know this perk existed? If you’ve used it, send itinerary ideas!

Feature Image: Unsplash


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