We devote thousands of hours of research to help you get Big Travel with Small Money. You support us by signing-up for credit cards through partner links which earn us a commission. Here’s our full Advertising Policy.
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.
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
- Part 1 – Introduction
- Part 2 – Step-By-Step Guide to Opening an Account
- Part 3 – Navigating the Award Chart
- Part 4 – How to Search for and Book Award Seats Online
- Part 5 – How to Unlock More Available Award Seats
- Part 6 – Make the Most of the Excursionist Perk (Free One-Way!)
- Part 7 – Converting Flexible Points to United Airlines Miles
- Part 8 – Pitfalls of the Program
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.
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.
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:
- United℠ Explorer Card
- United MileagePlus® Explorer Business Card
- United MileagePlus® Club Card
- United MileagePlus® Club Business Card
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!
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
- Egypt Air
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:
But if I use Air Canada Aeroplan’s award search engine, it doesn’t show up!
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:
However, if I search for the direct flight from San Francisco to Mexico City, United Airlines doesn’t show any saver level award seats!
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
- 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.
You can use United Airlines miles for amazing trips all over the world, but keep these limitations in mind:
- Close-In Booking Fee (easily avoided if you have the United MileagePlus® Club Card or United MileagePlus® Club Business Card)
- Mile Expiration (also avoidable if you’re a United℠ Explorer Card, United MileagePlus® Explorer Business Card, United MileagePlus® Club Card, or United MileagePlus® Club Business Card cardholder)
- Phantom Award Seats
- Married Segments
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!