Finding United MileagePlus 5K Awards

I recently posted the fact that almost all award flights within Japan cost only 5K United miles one-way.  That’s cool both because 5K is a cheap price to pay and because it’s a cheap way to initiate a United Excursionist Perk.  That means that you can fly round-trip within Japan for 10K miles and, if you can fit it in-between those two flights, you can make your way to another country/region and fly for free one-way across that region (that’s the Excursionist perk).  Once you make your way back to Japan you can finish your round-trip award.  For a complete explanation, please see: Fly around Japan for 5K each way, and add a free Excursion.

For the 40K to Far Away challenge, I really want to take advantage of the excursionist perk, but many of the trips I’ve considered do not include a stop in Japan.  So, how can I get my 10K round-trip award with a free Excursionist Perk without going to Japan?  The answer is that United now offers 5K domestic awards.

United earlier announced that on November 15 2019 they will ditch their award charts in favor of dynamic pricing.  In the meantime, they’ve already begun to offer dynamic pricing (in our favor) on some routes.  While domestic awards normally cost 12.5K one-way (or 10K one-way for short flights), we’ve seen awards as low as 5K one-way.  Those would be really helpful for the 40K to Far Away challenge if only I could find them where I need them.

Is there a pattern to when United offers 5K awards?

  • Limited to short flights?
  • Limited to cheap flights?
  • Limited to nonstop flights?
  • Limited to flights within the US?
  • Bi-directional?  If 5K is available in one direction, does it work in the other direction too?

Beware the 1K bug

At the time of this writing, United’s website does not properly display pricing for these so-called 5K awards.  Actually, the website does display the correct pricing in the calendar view, but not in the detailed view below the calendar.  For example, if the calendar shows a 5K award, the detailed flight options will show 6K awards.  But don’t worry.  If you select one of the 6K results, you’ll see 5K pricing on the next screen.

Many answers from a single find

Shown here are the results of an economy award search from Los Angeles to Vancouver. This result demonstrates the 1K bug (award prices are really 5K, not 6K). It also shows that 5K awards are not limited to short flights, nonstop flights, or domestic US flights.

One of the coolest 5K routes I’ve found is Los Angeles to Vancouver.  In some cases the 5K award is direct.  In other cases, there’s a stop in either San Francisco, Denver, or Chicago.  Advanced tip: This means that hidden city ticketing, AKA skiplagging should work with 5K awards (but don’t do this on the start of an excursionist award!).

This LAX-YVR finding clearly answers a number of our questions:

  • Limited to short flights? No, definitely not. LAX to YVR non-stop is just over 1,000 miles.  Once you divert to Chicago, the distance traveled jumps to just over 3500 miles!
  • Limited to nonstop flights? No.
  • Limited to flights within the US? No

This finding does not rule out the idea that 5K routes are limited to cheap flights.  This route is particularly cheap for the same dates that offer 5K awards:

Prices aren’t quite as cheap in the other direction though, so I wondered if 5k awards would still be available.  Here are the cash prices for flying Vancouver to LAX on the same travel date:

Still, 5K awards were readily available even for the $107 rate.  This doesn’t prove anything though, since taxes imposed on the flight from Canada are probably the reason that the cash prices are higher.  Evidence of this is apparent in the award fees you can see below.  So, the base rates are probably just as low in either direction:

Prices vary by direction?

Even though three of my questions had been answered with the LAX-YVR route, I still didn’t know the answers to these:

  • Limited to cheap flights?
  • Bi-directional? If 5K is available in one direction, does it work in the other direction too?

To answer the above questions, I figured that it would help to find a route that is often cheap in one direction but not the other.  Does such a thing even exist?  It’s not enough to look for expensive flights during peak travel (such as flights to Florida when people are trying to escape the cold over winter break) because we need saver level awards to exist in both directions for us to be able to determine a pattern.  During peak travel, those saver level awards are hard to find.

The website FlightConnections.com makes it easy to visualize flights available with any airline or alliance.  I used this to filter to United Airlines flights and looked for flights with low frequency (shown in red).  I figured that there was a decent chance that these “outpost” airports may be more likely to have variable pricing one way or the other.

That didn’t work at all.  On every outpost route I checked, United charged almost the same price in either direction on the date I checked.  Next, I randomly tried various routes until I found a city pair where the prices varied a lot depending upon direction.  I found this:

  • Oct 1 2019: Washington DC (IAD) – Orlando (MCO) = $147
  • Oct 1 2019: Orlando (MCO) – Washington DC (IAD) = $77

So, then I looked at saver-level award prices for the same dates:

  • Oct 1 2019: Washington DC (IAD) – Orlando (MCO) = 12.5K
  • Oct 1 2019: Orlando (MCO) – Washington DC (IAD) = 9K

I didn’t find a 5K award at the lower price point, but I did find a lower than standard award price.  This adds support to the idea, but doesn’t prove, that 5K awards are dependent upon low prices rather than being route-specific.

Are saver awards always cheap with cheap flights?

I used Google Flights to identify all United Airlines one-way flights from Chicago on October 1 that cost less than $50.  I found $49 flights to Houston, Nashville, Raleigh, and Syracuse.  Next I checked to see if 5K awards were available to each destination.  Here were the results:

  • Chicago – Houston: 5K
  • Chicago – Nashville: 10K
  • Chicago – Raleigh: 5K
  • Chicago – Syracuse: 5K

So, yeah.  It seems that extremely cheap fares makes 5K awards likely but not certain.  Why does United want 10K miles for the flight to Nashville?  I have no idea.  Let’s look at a slightly higher price point.  How do prices between $51 and $100 compare to the saver level award pricing?  Here’s what I found from Chicago on October 1.  I sorted by price and bolded all results where the award price was less than 10K one-way:

  • Chicago – DC: $51 or 10K
  • Chicago – New Orleans: $55 or 11.5K
  • Chicago – Minneapolis: $59 or 6K
  • Chicago – Cincinnati: $59 or 6K
  • Chicago – Denver: $61 or 6K
  • Chicago – New York: $74 or 9.5K
  • Chicago – Atlanta: $75 or 6K
  • Chicago – Boston: $77 or 10K
  • Chicago – Miami: $89 or 11.5K
  • Chicago – Austin: $89 or 11.5K
  • Chicago – Jacksonville: $89 or 11.5K
  • Chicago – Fort Lauderdale: $90 or 10.5K
  • Chicago – San Diego: $93 or 12.5K
  • Chicago – Detroit: $94 or 10K
  • Chicago – Indianapolis: $94 or 10K
  • Chicago – Lansing: $94 or 10K
  • Chicago – Grand Rapids: $96 or 10K
  • Chicago – Springfield, IL: $99 or 5.5K
  • Chicago – Louisville: $100 or 10K

As you can see above, none of the $50-$100 routes offered 5K awards, but the one that came the closest with a 5.5K award was also one of the most expensive.  Chicago to Springfield Illinois cost $99 for basic economy, but only 5.5K miles.  Huh.

OK, so I haven’t exactly figured out a pattern of when to find 5K awards except I feel pretty confident in saying that the cheaper the flight, the more likely you are to find a 5K award.

Let’s go back to the bi-directional question.  I found 5K-6K awards on October 1 on all of these routes from Chicago:

  • Chicago – Houston: 5K
  • Chicago – Raleigh: 5K
  • Chicago – Syracuse: 5K
  • Chicago – Minneapolis: 6K
  • Chicago – Cincinnati: 6K
  • Chicago – Denver: 6K
  • Chicago – Atlanta: 6K
  • Chicago – Springfield, IL: 5.5K

Lets now turn these around to see if we get the same award prices in the other direction:

  • Houston – Chicago: 5K (same)
  • Raleigh – Chicago: 5K (same)
  • Syracuse – Chicago: 5K (same)
  • Minneapolis – Chicago: 6K (same)
  • Cincinnati – Chicago: 6K (same)
  • Denver – Chicago: 6K (same)
  • Atlanta – Chicago: 6K (same)
  • Springfield, IL – Chicago: 5.5K (same)

So, there you have it.  The 5K-ish awards are bi-directional except when pricing is very different in one direction or the other (as found in the DC to Orlando example).

Conclusion

From this analysis, I’ve gathered the following:

  • “5K awards” are not always 5K.  6K is also very common, but I’ve also seen 5.5K, 9.5K, and 11.5K as other examples of lower-than-usual pricing.
  • 5K awards are not limited to short flights
  • 5K awards are much more likely to be found on extremely cheap flights.
  • 5K awards are not limited to nonstop flights.
  • 5K awards are not limited to flights entirely within the US.
  • 5K awards are usually bi-directional. If you find a 5K price in one direction you are very likely to find it in the other direction as well.

What is the use of all this info?  My primary take-away is that a tool like Google Flights can be used to help narrow down the likely 5K routes for the date you want to travel.  Here’s how:

  1. Go to Google Flights.
  2. Search for a one-way flight on your desired travel date from your desired origin airport to any other airport that United flies to.  For example, search October 1 from Denver to San Francisco one-way.
  3. Filter to United only.  Once you have the initial search results from above, click on “Airlines” and select United Only.
  4. Click the “Price” filter and select a low max amount.  Try $80 for example.
  5. Change the destination to “North America”.  This will switch you to Explorer view.
  6. Within Explorer view, make sure that the airline selector is still limited to United.  If not, you may have to go back to the previous page and try again.
  7. On the Explorer view page you’ll find destinations that are available from Denver to other places in North America for less than $80.

Once you have found candidate destinations with Google Flights as described above, you can use United.com to search for awards to each of these destinations.  Some of them, especially those where the paid price is under $50, are likely to offer 5K awards.

Why do we care?

5K awards for $50 flights represent awful value for your United miles.  So, why bother looking for them?  The main reason I can think of is to use them on excursionist awards.  By booking an extremely cheap 10K round-trip award, you can tack on a free one-way in another award region in-between those two dates.  I realize that’s confusing so please read this post for more details: Fly around Japan for 5K each way, and add a free Excursion.

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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Lukas
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Lukas

Happy to see you continue to utilize flightconnections.com for your articles.

TJones
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TJones

I’ve read about the United excursionist perk a couple times and still have difficulty wrapping my head around it. So maybe I’m completely wrong here, but would it be possible then to book a 10k round trip award in Japan and use that award to book a one way from hmm… let’s say New York to Anchorage?

Nick Reyes
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Yup! Assuming you book the New York to Anchorage flight in between the two flights in Japan, that should work.

Miles
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Miles

Is there a biz-class version of the Excursionist award?

Nick Reyes
Editor

Yes, Your excursionist perk is actually in the same class of service as the previous leg. So the way to do it is:

1) First leg: Business class
2) Excursionist perk: business class (free)
3) “Return” leg: economy class (whatever the cheapest thing you can find is)

However, these 5K awards only apply to economy class. There is no equivalent in business at the moment — so you’d then be looking at maybe 25K for the business class segment in the US and 5K for the “return” near the end of the schedule getting you a free 1-way business class ticket within a single region somewhere else in the world. Assuming you have an actual use for the first 25K leg, that’s still a great value.

Nick Reyes
Editor

Let me walk back my use of “great”. It’s still a potentially good value. But also consider that with Turkish Miles & Smiles you could book that business class flight within the US for 12.5K miles, so you have to be getting a substantial savings on the excursionist leg to make it worthwhile — but you certainly might be.

edman
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edman

What are some of the more expensive inta-region flights (in terms of points) where this might result in the greatest savings?

edman
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edman

What are some of the more expensive intra-region flights (in terms of points) where this will result in the greatest savings?

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