The best little-known sweet spots using United Airlines miles

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It’s an amazing feeling to book a flight for nearly free, but it’s even better when you find an award-chart sweet spot and spend fewer miles than you would with other airlines.

It’s fairly easy to earn lots of United Airlines miles with cards like the United℠ Explorer Card (currently on our list of best airline credit cards), but it’s important to learn the tricks to stretching those miles. The full sign-up bonus from that card, for example, is enough miles for a round-trip coach award flight within the U.S. or to the Caribbean or Mexico or to northern South America.

We’ll explain some of the best sweet spots using United Airlines miles so you don’t spend more miles than you have to.

Visit beautiful places like Australia using United Airlines miles. (Photo by Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock.)

Save your United Airlines miles with award sweet spots

When you open the Chase United Explorer card, you earn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open. Plus, you can earn an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 total on purchases in the first six months your account is open. There’s a $95 annual fee with this card but it’s waived the first year.

United Airlines recently moved to dynamic pricing but you can still find saver awards that align with the pricing from the old award chart. Plus, they no longer charge a close-in booking fee for award flights. So while there are certainly some downsides to the absence of an award chart, there can be some upside to these changes, too.

Let’s take a look at some good deals you can get using United Airlines miles.

Update 11/16/2019, 9:45am: This morning reports emerged that while United has removed close-in booking fees, it’s raised award prices for flights booked with 30 days of departure. You’ll see a surcharge of 1,500 to 3,500 miles when booking in this time frame.

Cheap short-haul flights outside North America

Short-haul partner award flights outside the U.S. and Canada can run just 8,000 United Airlines miles one-way in coach. Because short-haul flights can be ludicrously expensive to buy, this is a great benefit. Even better, United Airlines doesn’t add fuel surcharges to any of their partner awards.

Fortunately, this flight is only 425 miles, so it only costs 8,000 United Airlines miles and ~$48 in taxes:

If your flight is 650 miles or less and outside North America, consider using British Airways Avios points. They only charge 4,500 points one-way in coach, but fuel surcharges are often applicable.

More available award seats from North America to Central America

If you can find the lowest priced saver awards, you can fly from the mainland U.S., Alaska, or Canada to Central America for 17,500 United Airlines miles one-way in coach, or 30,000 miles in business class.

A flight from Newark to Liberia, Cost Rica, can cost just 17,500 United Airlines miles in coach.

If you’re booking a ticket to Central America, make sure to check which frequent flyer program gives you the best deal for your dates.

It may be possible to find flights to Central American on either Delta or American Airlines for fewer miles, but United Airlines partner airlines release more award seats than do Delta or American, so it’s easier to get low pricing to Central America through United.

Travel the Pacific with more award seats

Using United Airlines miles, you can fly to Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania, which includes places like Fiji and Tonga. This table shows you the saver pricing on one-way flights using United Airlines miles to or from the mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada:

[table id=356 responsive=scroll responsive_breakpoint=phone /]

*Note that some pricing may vary with the implementation of dynamic awards

United and its partners have abundant saver award seats to Oceania. You can fly on partners like Air Canada, Air New Zealand, or Asiana Airlines, though you’ll probably have to connect in places like Vancouver, Auckland, or Seoul.

You can also fly on the United Airlines Island Hopper, a flight between Guam and Honolulu that makes roughly one-hour stops at Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Kwajalein and Majuro, small islands in Micronesia. For many, this is a must-do flight, since you can visit otherwise difficult-to-get-to islands, flying over some of the beautiful areas in the world. You can even use United Airlines’ “Excursionist” perk and stop for a visit in these islands (except Kwajalein, which is a military base).

The Island of Pohnpei in Micronesia is a stop on the United Airlines Island Hopper. (Photo by maloff/Shutterstock.)

United Airlines operates a number of direct flights to Australia and New Zealand:

  • Los Angeles to Sydney
  • San Francisco to Sydney
  • Houston to Sydney
  • Los Angeles to Melbourne
  • San Francisco to Auckland

Delta and American have similar prices to Oceania, but finding saver award seats with either program is exceedingly difficult. With United Airlines miles, it can be easier to find award seats to Oceania, Australia, and New Zealand. Considering flights in coach often cost over $1,500 and over $5,000 in business class, this is a fantastic use of miles. You’ll get the most value from your miles in business class. then you can use the 8,000-mile short-haul awards for domestic travel in New Zealand by flying from Auckland to Christchurch or Queenstown.

Hop around Africa at low cost

It can be very expensive to fly within Africa but United charges as little as 17,500 miles in coach or 30,000 miles in business class for flights within the Central and Southern Africa award zone, which includes most of Africa except North Africa and the Middle East.

This is an amazing value, and one of the best uses for United Airlines miles. For example, you could fly from the beaches in Mauritius to a safari in Kenya for 17,500 United Airlines miles in coach plus ~$66 in taxes:

This flight would cost over $500 in coach and $1,000 in business class, so this is a great use for United Airlines miles. By comparison, Air Canada Aeroplan, a United Airlines partner, charges 20,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles in coach and 40,000 miles in business class for the same flights. You can even use the 8,000-mile, short-haul award for flights like Johannesburg to Cape Town on South African Airways, saving you a bundle.

More ways to earn United Airlines miles

Don’t forget, you can also transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United Airlines from cards like:

For more ideas on how to earn United miles, check out our guide for how to earn United miles.

Bottom line

Knowing the best sweet spots on United Airlines’ award chart can save you money and help you get the most value from your miles. Consider using your United Airlines miles for cheap award flights, like:

  • 8,000 miles for short-haul coach flights outside the U.S. and Canada
  • 17,500 miles for a one-way coach flight from the U.S. or Canada to Central America
  • Lots of award seats to Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania
  • Long-haul domestic flights within Africa for 17,500 miles in coach

It’s a great time to boost your United Airlines account balance with the recently increased welcome bonus of up to 65,000 United Airlines miles on the United℠ Explorer Card, especially given the card’s valuable perks.

What’s your favorite sweet spot using United Airlines miles?

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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