All-New Ultimate Guide to United Airlines Miles: Part 8 – Program Limitations and How to Work Around Them

Signing up for credit cards through partner links earns us a commission. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Here’s our full advertising policy: How we make money.

Update: One or more card offers in this post are no longer available. Check our Hot Deals for the latest offers.

While you can redeem United Airlines miles for amazing award flights on United Airlines and Star Alliance partners like Lufthansa and Air Canada, the program is not without its stumbling blocks.

Fortunately, there are easy ways to limit the impact of these pitfalls.  By knowing what to look out for, you’ll be able to potentially save money and aggravation, and find the best award flights for your travels.

While There Are Pitfalls With the United Airlines Program, There are Easy Ways to Avoid Them!

I’ll explain the pitfalls of the United Airlines program and share tips and tricks to help you make the most of your award bookings.

All-New Ultimate Guide to United Airlines Miles Series Index

United Airlines Program Limitations

1.   Close-In Booking Fee

If you book award travel within 21 days prior to departure, United Airlines charges $75 per ticket unless you have certain levels of elite status.  There’s a simple trick to avoid this fee.

United Airlines lets you change award tickets for free within 24 hours of booking it.  You can book any award ticket you want that is over 21 days, avoiding the fee.  Then, call United Airlines at 800-421-4655 and change your ticket to the flights you want within 21 days prior to departure.

United Airlines Charges a $75 Close-In Booking Fee

Since there’s no fee to change your ticket booked within 24 hours, and the $75 close-in booking fee is only charged on new bookings, you can entirely avoid the close-in booking fee with this trick.

Note:   You can also avoid the close-in booking fee if you have the United Club Card or United Club Business Card.

2.   United Airlines Miles Expiration

United Airlines miles expire 18 months after the last activity date on your account.  This includes earning miles from flying, transferring flexible points, or redeeming miles for award travel.

But if you have the any of the following cards, your miles won’t expire so long as your account is open:

The information for the United Club Card and United Club Business Card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

3.   Phantom Award Seats

Phantom award seats happen when a frequent flyer program, like United Airlines, shows award seats as being available.  But when you try to book that seat, you’ll get an error or the reservation won’t properly confirm.

Phantom award seats happen for a number of reasons, like:
  • Partner airlines not communicating well with United Airlines
  • Seats that will soon become award seats but they haven’t been properly loaded into the system yet
  • Seats that were just booked by someone else but haven’t been removed from the search engine

Whatever the reason, phantom award seats are a big challenge.

You might transfer flexible award points to United Airlines miles to book a specific flight you found on United Airlines’ website, go to book, and find out that the award seats don’t actually exist.  And because you can NOT transfer your miles back from United Airlines, you could be left stuck!

Or you could be planning that perfect award trip, only to discover that 1 of the flights you were planning to use has phantom award seats, which messes up your plans.  Major bummer!
These Simple Tricks Will Make You An Expert United Airlines Award Booker
Phantom Award Seats Can Make Award Planning Frustrating!
So it’s important to learn how to identify phantom award seats and know which United Airlines partner airlines are prone to showing them.  Here’s what to do.

Step 1.   Know Which Airlines Show Phantom Award Seats

While any airline can have phantom award seats, these airlines are the most common:

  • Air Canada
  • Avianca
  • COPA
  • Egypt Air
  • Ethiopian
  • Lufthansa

Step 2.   Use Air Canada Aeroplan to See If Award Seats Are Real

If you’re looking at booking award seats on any of these airlines using United Airlines miles, be sure to confirm the award seats are not phantom.  Once you’ve found award seats on United Airlines’ website, go to Air Canada Aeroplan‘s website and search individually for the flight.

If Air Canada Aeroplan shows the flight, it’s likely not phantom.  But it still could be!  If you have Air Canada Aeroplan miles, you can click the book button, and if it lets you proceed, the award seats are definitely not phantom.

For example, if I search for Business Class award seats on Air Canada from Brussels to Montreal, United Airlines shows me available award seats:
These Simple Tricks Will Make You An Expert United Airlines Award Booker
United Airlines Shows Air Canada Phantom Award Seats

But if I use Air Canada Aeroplan’s award search engine, it doesn’t show up!

These Simple Tricks Will Make You An Expert United Airlines Award Booker
You Can Use the Air Canada Aeroplan Award Engine to Help Confirm Award Seats

Step 3.   Use ExpertFlyer To Check For Phantom Award Seats

If you don’t have enough Air Canada Aeroplan miles to search for the flight, you can use the paid service ExpertFlyer.  If award seats show on ExpertFlyer, then they are most likely NOT phantom. 

But still, this isn’t guaranteed, but if either Air Canada Aeroplan or ExpertFlyer are showing the award seats, then it is more likely than not that it’s real and NOT phantom.

There’s always going to be a risk that the award seats you are looking for are phantom, so it’s important to know when it might happen and to have a back up plan!

4.   Married Segments

Married segments are when you search for award travel from city A to C, and your desired flight through B shows up.  But if you just search from A to B, the same flight isn’t available.

Essentially, married segments are a way for airlines to control the number of award seats that are available based on how you search.

For example, if I search for award seats from Seattle to Mexico City, United Airlines will show me a connecting option through San Francisco:
These Simple Tricks Will Make You An Expert United Airlines Award Booker
United Airlines’ Award Search Engine Shows Married Airline Segments

However, if I search for the direct flight from San Francisco to Mexico City, United Airlines doesn’t show any saver level award seats!

These Simple Tricks Will Make You An Expert United Airlines Award Booker
Married Segments Make Building Award Bookings a Challenge
Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict whether an itinerary will be a married segment or not.

Shh…Here’s How You Can Beat the System!  

However, there’s a clever trick to break up a married segment.  Because United Airlines allows free changes to award bookings within 24 hours, you can book the married segment, then call United Airlines to remove one of the flights. So in the previous example, you’d book the flight from Seattle to Mexico City via San Francisco.  Then call United Airlines within 24 hours of making the booking, and cancel out the first segment of the trip (Seattle to San Francisco) for free.  You’d still keep the saver level flight from San Francisco to Mexico City, bypassing the married segment.

Married segments can happen on any airline, but I find they’re most common with:

  • Air Canada
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • United Airlines
There’s no trick to spot married segments before your search, but you’ll discover them with trial and error using the United Airlines award search engine. 

Bottom Line

You can use United Airlines miles for amazing trips all over the world, but keep these limitations in mind:

Fortunately, there are ways to limit or work around these issues to get the most out of your United Airlines miles!

Do you have any other pro tips for making the most of your United Airlines award bookings?  Please share in the comments!

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! :)

Join the Discussion!

Comments are closed.