Maximizing (and understanding) United Excursionist Perks

In the 40K to Far Away challenge, I was assigned Chase points.  I had a budget of 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and $400 to go as far as possible.  The other guys had Citi and Amex points to work with.  And I was determined to make full use of the one most interesting transfer partner that neither of my competitors had access to: United MileagePlus.

United doesn’t have a particularly competitive award chart (they no longer publish their award chart, but it’s currently still there coded into the system).  But they do have a special feature of round trip awards that doesn’t exist in any other mileage program to my knowledge: Excursionist Perk awards.  Excursionist Perk awards are similar to free stop-overs that are allowed in many other programs, but the way they’re coded allows for truly unique awards.

My seemingly nonsensical flights

To maximize my point values, I booked two Excursionist Perk Awards for the 40K to Far Away challenge.  The end result was that I flew from DC to West Virginia then right back to DC. Later I flew across the African continent from Dakar Senegal to Johannesburg.  And then I flew across Africa again from Cape Town all the way to the Seychelles.  And, I still have flights booked but not yet flown: Chicago to Houston and Houston to Chicago.  All of that flying was booked for a grand total of 20,000 United miles.  This was a great deal since United would have charged 17,500 miles for each of the cross-Africa flights (35K miles for both) had I booked those separately.

I saved 15,000 miles by maximizing my use of Excursionist Perk awards.  And I still have a free weekend award to Houston scheduled for a later date.

To understand what the heck is going on here, let me walk you through Excursionist Perk awards…

United’s explanation of Excursionist Perks

United has this to say about Excursionist Perks (Don’t worry, I’ll explain all this below):

The Excursionist Perk is a free one-way award within select multi-city itineraries. Members who book an itinerary with three or more one-way awards will be eligible to receive one of those one-way awards for free, if it meets all of these conditions:

The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)

  • Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.
  • The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.
  • The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
  • If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.

United MileagePlus regions

To understand Excursionist Perks, it’s necessary first to understand United MileagePlus regions.  United maintains a list of regions along with which countries, islands, and territories belong in each region.  You can find a full list here.  Alternatively, check out this region map that I created:

Each region is shown with a different color and symbol in the center of each country or area that is defined.  For example, the North America region is shown with white on blue houses in each area that the region encompasses: Mainland US, Alaska, and Canada.  In some cases,regions are tiny.  For example, Hawaii is its own region.  Similarly, Japan is its own region.  Other regions are huge: Europe, Oceana, and “Central & Southern Africa” are each gigantic.

Excursionist Perk Award Basics

Here’s a simplified explanation of Excursionist Perks:

  • If you book a multi-city award that begins and ends in the same region, then:
  • You can book a free one-way segment in the middle of your trip as long as that free segment is in a different region from where you began.
  • Your free segment must not cross regions.

A simple example

Suppose you want to fly from the US to Johannesburg, South Africa.  From there, you want to fly to the Seychelles.  And, finally, you want to fly home.  If you book each of these flight separately, you’ll pay a total of 97,500 United miles:

  • DC (IAD) to Johannesburg (JNB): 40,000 United Miles
  • Johannesburg (JNB) to the Seychelles (SEZ): 17,500 United Miles
  • Seychelles (SEZ) to DC (IAD): 40,000 United Miles

However, if you build the above itinerary in United’s multi-city award search, you’ll get that middle flight for free.  For example, I went to United’s Advanced Search screen and plugged in the following dates and destinations:

The search result had me first select a flight from DC to Johannesburg for 40K miles.  Next, though, it offered the flight from Johannesburg to the Seychelles for 0 miles.  I would only have to pay $32 in taxes:

In total, you’ll pay 80,000 miles for this round trip itinerary with a stop-over in Johannesburg.  By bundling the flights together into a single award, you can save 17,500 miles by using United’s Excursionist Perk the way it was meant to be used.

The above example works because the trip started and ended in one region (North America) and the free segment was wholly within another region (“Central and Southern Africa”).

Throw-away ending

Suppose you intend to come back from the Seychelles some other way.  In my case, I flew to London to meet my wife who was there on business (and I traveled there in luxury via Etihad First Class Apartments).

In that case, by default you wouldn’t be able to use the Excursionist Perk since it requires beginning and ending your travel in the same region.  So, without the Excursionist Perk, it would cost 40,000 + 17,500 = 57,500 miles to fly DC to Johannesburg and then later to the Seychelles.

Luckily, there’s an easy work-around.  You can add a final flight to your itinerary in order to invoke the Excursionist Perk award.  The only requirement is that the final flight must happen later in time than the Excursionist flight and it must end in the region where you began.  In this example, it must end in North America.  It doesn’t have to end in DC, just somewhere in North America.

Notice too that there’s no rule specifying where this final flight must begin.  I don’t have to return from Africa to the US to make this work.  So, I then look for the cheapest possible award flight that ends in North America.  This can include flights that begin in North America!

With some persistence, it’s possible to find awards within North America that cost only 5,000 miles one-way.  See: Finding United MileagePlus 5K Awards.

Flights between Los Angeles and Las Vegas often cost only 5,000 miles.  So, let’s add this LAX-LAS flight to the end of our itinerary and see how it prices out:

Thanks to adding the flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, the intra-Africa flight from Johannesburg to the Seychelles once again prices out at 0 miles.  So we pay 40,000 miles to get to Africa, 0 miles to fly across africa, and 5K miles for the final flight that happens to be wholly within North America.

If we hadn’t added that final flight to the itinerary, we would pay a total of 57,500 miles to fly DC to Johannesburg and then Johannesburg to the Seychelles.  With the final flight added in, we pay only 45,000 miles.

It’s not necessary to ever fly that final flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in order to get big savings like those shown above.  However, obviously if you can find and book a flight that you actually want to take, the value is that much greater.

Throw-in beginning

Suppose you don’t want to use United miles to get to Africa, but you do want to use United miles to fly across Africa. Imagine, for example, that you found a great deal on a paid flight to Johannesburg.  Is there some way still to take advantage of United Excursionist Perks?  Well, yeah…

In the same way that the end flight of the Excursionist Perk award can be wholly within one region, the beginning kick-off flight can also be entirely within one region.  It so happens that flights between Washington Dulles (IAD) and Lewisburg West Virginia (LWB) are often only 5,000 miles.  So, let’s fly this route in order to get a free one-way across Africa: DC to Lewisburg, then Johannesburg to the Seychelles, then Los Angeles to Las Vegas…

As you can see above, the itinerary now prices out at 10,000 miles total.  The flight to West Virginia costs 5,000 miles.  The flight from Johannesburg to the Seychelles is free (other than taxes).  And the flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas costs 5,000 miles.

In total, this example demonstrates a way to save 7,500 miles for that flight across Africa (which would normally cost 17,500 miles).

Unlike the the throw-away ending flight, this throw-in beginning flight must be flown.  If you skip this flight, the rest of the itinerary will be cancelled.

Two nested Excursionist Perks

For the 40K to Far Away Challenge, I nested two complete Excursionist Perk awards because I wanted to fly across Africa twice.  Here were my two separate awards:

  • Award 1 (10K miles): DC to Lewisburg (5K), Dakar to Johannesburg (free), Chicago to Houston (5K)
  • Award 2 (10K miles): Lewisburg to DC (5K), Cape Town to the Seychelles (free), Houston to Chicago (5K)

I’ve flown all of the above flights except for the leg Chicago to Houston and the return Houston to Chicago.  Those flights are currently setup to be a weekend getaway, but I don’t know if I’ll really fly them.

Note that to make all of the above work, I had to actually fly to Lewisburg and then back to DC.  You can’t skip those beginning legs.  Since my next flight (not shown) was from JFK to Madrid, the ideal scenario would have been for the second 5K award to end at JFK.  For example, if flights had been available from Lewisburg to JFK and were priced at only 5K points, I could have changed the first flight in Award 2 to: Lewisburg to JFK.  That way, I would have flown DC to Lewisburg to JFK and could have avoided the 5 hour Megabus ride from DC to NYC.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any routing like that, so I simply returned to DC.

Acknowledgement

Thanks go to Drew at Travel is Free for clearly explaining the possibilities that Excursionist Perks offer.  The ideas I presented above originated in Drew’s seminal post: Complete Guide To United Stopover Tricks.

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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DaveS
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DaveS

Very good presentation, and helpful in understanding the concepts. I have successfully used the Excursionist Perk for flights within Africa several times; it’s really valuable since there are usually no inexpensive long distance flight options within the continent. I have always done it the way United probably intends it: North America to Africa; Africa to Africa; Africa to North America.

Doing the things Greg discusses here doesn’t bother me in terms of relationship to the airline, as it is their IT department that set things up to work the way they do. If they had any problems with it, they could fix that.

I have always been concerned about booking award flights for trips I don’t plan to take, or that simply involve a turnaround as in Lewisburg, given the limited number of award seats U.S. carriers often make available, especially at that 5K price. What about that couple that wants a weekend getaway to Lewisburg but can’t find award seats? Or that grandma in Chicago that wants to see her granddaughter in that school play in Houston? If I book these kinds of award seats just to make my flight inside Africa free, without actually getting value from them in their own right, am I selfishly taking award space that somebody else would really want? True, I don’t know at the time of booking.

So I’d be more comfortable if you and I did this based on actual domestic trips we really want to take.

Captain Greg
Guest
Captain Greg

The couple or the grandma in Chicago should plan ahead. I think it’s kind of silly to hold back on taking advantage of these sorts of scenarios for something totally hypothetical like that. Even better, that Grandma in Chicago should go see her granddaughter in the school play in Houston, and then take advantage of the excursionist perk to go explore Africa while she can! She has just as much ability to learn about these features as anyone else. We shouldn’t have to feel guilty for booking these sorts of trips because we took the time to learn how to do it while others haven’t.

Jonathan S
Guest
Jonathan S

“it is their IT department that set things up to work the way they do”

Apply that same logic to your third paragraph. If a gallon of milk is going to cost $3, but there is a deal to buy a gallon of milk for $2 and the grocery store throws in a second gallon of milk for free that will spoil before you can drink it, you are going to go with the $2 option. Sure, you could sell or give away that second gallon of milk, whereas you can’t sell or give away your throwaway award segment. Your problem is with United’s incentive structure on the Excursionist Perk award combined with the non-transferability of airline tickets.

Remember the outcry a few years ago with airlines (United specifically) overbooking flights? Standby flyers would benefit from this type of behavior as this would open up seats if a flight is full. If a flight isn’t full, then that Grandma from Chicago or that couple who wants the getaway probably doesn’t have much competition anyway and can score a good deal.

debit
Guest
debit

There is no place for weak hearts in a capitalistic society like ours. You should be ready to trample grandmas towards your march to success.

This is shining city on the hill. *kicks nearest person into the pit*

Sophia
Guest
Sophia

Makes way more sense now! have to start looking at ways to use this perk more frequently. Thanks so much!

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

Greg
Great post Simple to understand now ..ORD>CDG>(FCO>4 hrs $50)>LAS…60k+$176..U can hit 2 cites in the zone ur going into and on the way back u hit a different city in ur starting zone.
Another option we can use ” If it Works for that person’s trip ”
U need to use United points only u can’t use Singapore points to book this correct ?
CHEERs

losingtrader
Guest
losingtrader

This a great explanation but I’m still confused. Perhaps it’s just age.

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

LT
Look @ the written page areas not the Chart !! Pretty easy to do I did about 6 trips in 5 mins . First u have to find THREE good flts with seats that work which is hard to do . Then I need a Flt. home (ORD) or just change LAS to ORD then I don’t .
Easy even for a WH like me..
CHEERs

fjd
Guest
fjd

IF flight A starts in the same region that flight C ends AND IF flight B is wholly within one region that is NOT the region where flight A starts/flight C ends, THEN flight B is zero miles (plus taxes).

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

I was confused by a post like ur’s and Greg’s past posts but now I understand it Six trips that are bookable in 5 mins prove I understand . But if others don’t understand how to do it I did NUTTHING .
Take Care
CHEERs

Alex
Guest
Alex

I don’t think it will matter much, since United will be adjusting this soon now.

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

Alex
U could be right I’m looking @ Nick’s TK flt. 7500 points to HNL BUT 1/15/2021 HaHa . That will be long gone by the time I can ” Book it Dano ”
CHEERs

Captain Greg
Guest
Captain Greg

To be clear….you have to book this through United, right? You couldn’t, let’s say, book a roundtrip flight to Hawaii on Turkish (but flying on United!) for 15,000 points and add the excursionist perk for a hop between Hawaiian islands?

CaveDweller
Guest
CaveDweller

Captain Greg

Thanks for getting a Response ..
CHEERs

DSK
Guest
DSK

This may show my age and may not be an issue anymore, but I thought there used to be an issue with the airlines with nested tickets, I.e., if you need to fly twice between location A and location B, buy one round trip from point A to point B, and one round trip from point B to point A, and use the first ticket for flights 1 and 4 and the second ticket for flights 2 and 3 if that would save money. I remember the advice was if you were going to go this route, buy the two round trips on different airlines. Is this still an issue? Effectively you were using your two United tickets in order for each ticket but not in order for your entire trip. Does that violate anything in the contract of carriage or anything else? Thanks!

George
Guest
George

An option that wasn’t immediately apparent to me: the first and last flight departing the same airport. Like this:

Home – Anywhere
Intra-Regional, not North America
Home – North America

Two departures from home is neither a round-trip nor the classic definition of an open-jaw, which is why I didn’t even consider it.

The reverse, i.e. the first and last returning to the same airport, also works, with the region requirement reversed:

North America – Home
Intra-Regional, not North America
Anywhere – Home

Alex
Guest
Alex

Just thinking out loud here, and if this is too much information, feel free to delete. But it seems like if you have a need for several (not necessarily round trip) short flights (low mileage required) within a region, you could build yourself a free (not necessarily) roundtrip flight within a different region as follows (my example has lots of inter-island flights around Hawaii, with a free long distance round trip within the states):

Booking 1: Jan 1: OGG to HNL (7000); June 1: EWR to LAX (free); Dec 1; LIH to KOA (7000)
Booking 2: Jan 7th: HNL to LIH (7000); June 7th: LAX to EWR (free); Dec 7th: KOA to HNL (7000)

That seems like quite a bit for 28,000 points (although I also need to find a way to Hawaii to begin with; oh yeah Nick’s method is pretty good), and of course it can be lower (and of course the two free middle flights can be essentially any flights that aren’t in Hawaii).

I don’t think most people are interested in flying to Lewisburg just to fly back though. I mean, maybe it is realistic. I just know if I proposed that to people that aren’t in the hobby, they’d say, “I’d rather just pay full cash price.” It also seems like one might speculatively book these types of trips if you have any (ideally two) short domestic roundtrip flights requiring very few united miles. For example, let’s say I had to do a EWR to IAD roundtrip (6000 each way) in the near future. Might it make sense to speculatively book the following?

Booking 1: Jan 1: EWR to IAD; speculatively book any non-north american flight between Jan 7th and Dec 1st; Dec 7th IAD to EWR
Booking 2: Jan 7th: IAD to EWR ; speculatively book any non-north american flight between Jan 7th and Dec 1st; Dec 1st: EWR to IAD

Total is 24,000 miles. Worse case I waste 12,000 miles not needing either legs 2 and 3 on BOTH bookings. One question I do have, is, if I miss/skip leg 2 that’s free, is my third leg cancelled then also (as mentioned; if leg 1 is missed, all of it is cancelled)?

debit
Guest
debit

Yes. Cancelled if you miss any leg.

jeph36
Guest
jeph36

I agree I would not try to convince others to use the “trick” part of this approach. Using it the “normal” way, e.g. ORD-LIS-CDG-ORD would be fine. I would not even try to get my wife/kids to do it if we had to do an unnecessary flight 1 to make it work (maybe if I was taking a trip with just one of them, but not all 5).

I want ORD-MKE or vice versa to work as the first leg. For me, this is my region so it is obviously convenient, but it would be an great route for this even if you were just transiting Chicago and wanted to kill a few hours getting your first leg completed. It is only ~70 miles between airports and Uber, bus/coach, or renting a car are all viable options if the itinerary really falls apart to avoid getting stuck in Lewisburg, WV (making a single MKE-ORD flight one-way and a $31 coach back would normally be super easy and cheap to get a ‘first leg’ flight in). Alas, it appears the low-end cost is 10K rather than 5K, so after factoring in a 5K on the tail end (whether flown or not) starts to be less appealing.

The concept overall has me wondering though … Next year I have a work trip in March to Vegas and another work trip to Stuttgart in October. If I add 1 or 2 cheap 5K LAS-LAX (or vice versa) in March, then I could get 1 or 2 excursionist flights either in Europe, North Africa, and/or Central/Southern Africa (maybe after a budget carrier hop). Having never been to Africa that sounds enticing … but seeing Georgia and Armenia on the European map also sound quite interesting. Hmm, decisions …

bob
Guest
bob

edit

Elvis
Guest
Elvis

Very intuitive post, appreciate your sharing. One questions, when I tried to use the excursion perks, eg: NRT-KIX(region Japan); DEN-ANC(region US); KIX-NRT (region Japan), I was not able to get the middle segment from DEN to ANC for free, what is the problem here?

AlexL
Guest
AlexL

ANK is not a us airport. It is Etimesgut Air Base located in Turkey.

Elvis
Guest
Elvis

Sorry for the typo, ANC for anchorage in Alaska. The first flight is within Japan, the 2nd within US, and third within Japan as well. Should be getting the 2nd one for free, but United still ask for miles, what is the reason then?

AlexL
Guest
AlexL

Are you being asked 35k extra miles for the middle segment? I think it needs to have Saver Award to be charged 0 mile.
For example, 12/6/19 DEN-ANC will ask for 35k+$5.60, while 12/7/19 DEN-ANC will only ask for 0k+$5.60.

Elvis
Guest
Elvis

Thanks, was wondering why. Thank you for clearing it up!

AlexL
Guest
AlexL

You are welcome. Glad it helped. ^_^

trackback

[…] trouble understanding why Greg started out by flying to West Virginia, you need read this post: Maximizing (and understanding) United Excursionist Perks. It can be a little tough to wrap your mind around this one, but it’s well worth the exercise […]

Miles Ahead
Guest
Miles Ahead

Really good trip and really great, helpful and clear post. It was great meeting you in Chicago and was nice to chat over an IPA! Cheers!

trackback

[…] Remember the article leading today’s post. Yeah, I don’t expect the Executionist perk to be around for long. Because most people just would not go there! Maximizing (and understanding) United Excursionist Perks. […]

Terri Clark
Guest
Terri Clark

Wow, I am still a little confused and was thinking I need to head over to Travel is Free to see if there were any posts on this. Then I read that you had Drew explain this in detail to you.