Families Can Use “Free” United One-Ways, Too

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I’ve written a few times about booking a free one-way on a United international or Hawaii award ticket, but today I got a chance to actually put it to use on a family trip.  I want to share this to hopefully inspire others to go beyond thinking that is something too wacky or too advanced or impractical for families, and to really add it to their “bag of tricks” for a future trip (or trips).  This is not something solely for the uber-advanced outliers in the miles and points world, this is something many of us can do.  For those curious, no this isn’t breaking any United award rules – it is just maximizing them.

For the winter Olympics in Russia next year I am flying in and out of Istanbul.  I have booked separate revenue tickets from Istanbul to Sochi as reward availability is not good…to say the least.  I booked individual award tickets in business class to and from Istanbul as the booking calendar opened for February 2014 a month or so ago.  I did this as I wasn’t sure what would happen with availability, and I didn’t want to lose out.  Since my elite status with United allows me free award changes or cancellations my plan all along was to re-book as a round trip with a free one-way added if availability permitted at a later date.

As luck would have it, availability has held steady so I was able to cancel my individual one-way tickets and book it as a round trip.  This is key in getting to add the free one-way that I was after.  Of course if I wasn’t concerned about availability, I could have just been patient and booked it as a round trip from the beginning.  Next was deciding what one-way to attach to the trip.  I decided to book a one-way from Houston to Vancouver for next ski season on the back-end of my Istanbul trip since it was a trip I was probably going to use miles for anyway. This way my outbound Vancouver ticket is essentially free.  The trip had to happen after my Istanbul trip in order to be put on the back-end of the ticket.  If it happened before it would be put on the front end of the ticket.

Sometimes, booking itineraries with multiple destinations  on United.com doesn’t go well and you need to call in, but this priced out online with no issues.  I selected the “Multiple Destinations” option and searched for Houston to Istanbul, Istanbul to Houston, and Houston to Vancouver on the dates I wanted.

Luckily for me it came back with availability in business/domestic first class for all flights.  A round trip from Houston to Istanbul is 100K United miles in business (a flight well beyond my personal threshold for coach).  Adding the extra flight at the end to Vancouver in “domestic” first class added exactly 0 miles to the price of the ticket.  All I had to pay was a couple bucks extra in taxes.

I could have selected any available destination in the lower 48, Alaska, or Canada with the same result.  I could have added business class to Hawaii for an extra 7,500 miles or the Caribbean for 2,500 extra miles, but I had no need for those right now so I went for a trip that was already on my radar.  Interestingly enough, I would save miles if I were in economy and tacked on the Caribbean. 

Why does this work?  Simply put you are taking advantage of both a stopover and an open-jaw that are allowed on these types of United award tickets.  A stopover is staying in a city along your journey for a period of time.  That could be two days or several months.  An open-jaw means flying in/out of different cities.  In my case I have an open-jaw as I am technically starting my journey in Houston, but ending it in Vancouver.  I could also have had a second open-jaw by flying into Istanbul, but returning from another city.  In my case my stopover is in Houston.  On the return leg I fly back to my home city of Houston and stay for several weeks before continuing on to my “final destination” of Vancouver.

I will still have to book a separate ticket to get back to Houston from Vancouver using either miles or cash (or attaching it as a free one-way on the front end of another big international award ticket if my travel plans allow), but my outbound ticket is now virtually free by taking advantage of award ticket rules and planning ahead.

The first few steps in the miles and points world just involve learning some basics and starting to build up your mileage accounts, but if you want to take it to the next level, it is tips like this that will help you stretch your miles further than you thought possible.  I am now flying on a non-stop from Houston to Canada during ski season in first class for no additional miles…and you can too.  That makes the United/Ultimate Reward points that I redeemed for my trip that much more valuable.

Feel free to share your stories and tips surrounding implementing United stopovers and open-jaws.  I also strongly recommend reading MileValue’s series on “free one-ways” as he has done a great job breaking it down into an understandable process.


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  1. I am still trying to figure out the free one ways. What are the dates of the above trip? Are you going the same day, next day to Canada after you arrive back in Houston or is it several weeks/ months later. Thanks

  2. Thanks for the detailed explanation, but as a newbee to this game, i still don’t get most of it. I finalized my trip to Cancun with a stop over in Mexico City.
    I did a few searches and calls to different airlines and services to find the cheapest flights cost to Cancun with a stop over in Mexico City on my way to Cancun. The Cheapest i found was between Delta from JFK to MEX city departing Jun 5. Leaving Mexico city via Airmexico to Cancun on Jun 7, and Returning the 9th of June. Total price for 2 1440 via Amex travel.
    I don’t have any CC with delta as of now and not enough points with AMEX gold to fully take advantage of flying at a discount of free but i am starting somewhere by booking it through Amex.

  3. The ‘multiple destination’ function is awesome. Here’s what I managed to do on ONE 120K business class ticket: SAN-IAD-Johannesburg (JNB) (<24 hour stop in JNB to visit friends for dinner) JNB-Cape Town (CPT) (7 days) then CPT-JNB (<24 hour stop again) then JNB-Livingston to see the fantastic Victoria Falls). The return was the final leg (LVI-JNB-Zurich-Chicago-San Diego) We ended up on UA, SA, LX for flights, but the great thing was the 24 hour stops in JNB – just enough to recover from some flights and visit friends, and then the open jaw with Cape Town and destination as Livingston. It was tricky, but as it was in the same region, it worked out. I had to call to change the 'connecting flights' and as long as they were less than 24 hours, they changed them quite quickly, subject to availability.

    I did the same thing with SAN-LAX-Bangkok (2 days visit) then BKK-PER (5 days) open jaw SYD-SFO-SAN for 135K in Business. I bought a separate ticket on BA Avios from PER-SYD, with a free stop in MEL when they allowed it.

  4. We just recently used our first “free” United one-way, and we hope to do it again and again. We went from Traverse City, MI to London over New Year’s and then a few weeks ago went to Maui (so it looked like this TVC-ORD-LHR stay for a week then LHR-ORD-TVC stopover for 2 1/2 months then TVC-ORD-SFO-OGG). The flight to Maui essentially cost us 2,500 miles each. On the way back from Hawaii we used American miles and did a flight from Kona to Chicago, then we have a 9 month stopover in Chicago and will be going from Chicago to London again for New Year’s (20,000 miles total for that flight). We used BA miles for a 4,500 mile flight to get home from Chicago and hope to use them to get back to Chicago which would mean we get a one-way flight from Hawaii plus a one-way flight to London for a total of 29,000 miles. To get back from London, I plan to use AA miles and tack on another trip to Hawaii and then on the return from Hawaii use United miles and hook it on to another trip to London next summer. It’s a bit of work, but it sure is worth it!

  5. Bret, I am in Istanbul for a about a week, back in Houston for a month, and then continue on to Canada for the ski trip.
    Newatthis, give it time and it will make sense. One key difference is I am talking about what you can do on specifically United award tickets, so it won’t apply the same way to revenue tickets or even to other airlines.
    Ken, awesome!
    Sarah, perfect! Stacking the one-ways on the front and back ends of trips really does lead to free flights! It does take some extra work, but once you shift your brain into thinking that way it is amazing what you can do.

  6. I have currently an award on hold: PDX-SFO-AKL-ZQN-AKL-SFO-PDX.
    Could I possibly add a leg onto the end, or do I need to add it as from SFO to anywhere ?

  7. I just booked an award from den to gva, and tried to add a free 1 way to Calgary. Every time, the Web tool gave me an error. I was able to get it to work using sfo to gva, but not den. I gave up on the 1 way, as I needed to book ASAP. Should I have called in to get the booking finished?

  8. MP – does United charge you a fee if you have to call them to do a multiple destination booking? I’m trying to do a SFO-FCO, FCO-LHR, and LHR-SFO, then tack on a one way somewhere. But I can’t find saver on LHR-SFO, however, when I search for a one way booking from LHR-SFO, I see saver availability for those dates, but they don’t show up on the multiple destination options.

  9. @ Scott, @ golferwc:
    I’m having the same problems – segment by segment will be easy enuf, but once you try to do the multi destination, the error message shows up again and again.

  10. Do you know if you can still change the destination, for a fee, once you are already on your stopover? Maybe only change within the same region?

  11. Thinking of taking our little one (3 year old girl – about the same age as C) to London and Paris in the 2nd week of May. Any ideas as to what are some kid friendly activities in those two places?

  12. Few quick answers:
    -You can have two open-jaws (in and out of different airports) and one stopover. In my case I just had one, but could have instead done Houston – Istanbul – Paris – Houston – Vancouver and that also would have worked. Of course you can have stops or connections in cities that are under 24 hours that don’t count in addition to the one true stopover. In my case, I could have then connected in somewhere like Frankfurt for 24 hours or less and that wouldn’t have counted against me.
    -It will not always work online for various reasons (not all of which I understand), but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Always work calling and trying and if that doesn’t work hang up and try again. If you are violating a specific rule then it may never work, but if you are playing within the parameters then it should work.
    -You can try to have the phone fee waived by saying the website kept giving you an error or by booking the part of it that will work online in advance and just having help finishing the rest of it over the phone. However, even if you can’t escape the $25 phone fee that is a small price to pay for a “free” flight.
    -Here is a link to all of the various fees and when they would apply for changing cities/dates/etc. https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/mileageplus/awards/travel/ticketing.aspx
    -HR, I think that kids are going to enjoy the same type of things in London and Paris that they do closer to home. For my daughter that would be playing in parks, perhaps exploring a “castle”, eating yummy food, etc. They aren’t really old enough to enjoy the historical aspects of those cities, but they can certainly enjoy the small things along the way. 😉 (and just enjoy being with their family!)
    jim, yes, bloggers are evil. 😉

  13. Not sure if I am missing anything.. When i put in a round trip with freeway at the end using multiple destinations, in the second segment it gives Error. Unable to find flights refer to rules. etc.. I tried something like
    NYC to HYD
    HYD to NYC
    NYC to LAX

    • RK, you aren’t doing anything wrong, it is just that not all of them will price out online. If you want something like that, find the segments with award availability online and call in to try to get them to ticket it. I wish it was all as simple as getting the online computer to do it, but sadly sometimes it requires calling in.

  14. repeat question: I have currently an award on hold – PDX-SFO-AKL-ZQN-AKL-SFO-PDX.
    Could I possibly add a leg onto the end, or do I need to add it as from SFO to anywhere ?

  15. If I don’t want to take my free one way very close to my return, can I book just under a year ahead, with my one way right after the return trip, then change it closer to the actual dates, or does the one way always have to be within a year of the original booking date?
    For example, could I book MCO to FRA return for February next year and add MCO to HNL for March of next year, then in July this year, change the MCO to HNL one way to June (14 months after my original booking date, but only 4 months after my return flight) of next year?

    • far north trader, great question. Short answer is no. This is tough if you book right when the schedule opens as your trip will already be almost a year out so you can’t tack something on the to the end. Travel must be completed within one year of the booking date, so your example wouldn’t work unless you wanted cancel to rebook the whole trip once the schedule for June ’14 opens….or wait to book until the schedule for June ’14 is open in a few months. This is when the beauty of elite status and free award cancellations with United helps since I can lock something in now, but then cancel and redo it to better take advantage of the free one-way on a further date out if availability is still there in the future, but for those without it you do have some limitations with the one year rule unless you want to pay cancellation fees or risk availability changing down the road.

      • Thank you, I was afraid that was the answer! I am trying to get 6 of us to Germany in business, so I figure I am going to need as much time as possible to gather enough business seats for all of us!

        • far north trader, yeah. The alternative would be to take something on to the front end that you guys want to do in the next year. For example, if you wanted to go to Hawaii in 2013 you could tack on the return from that trip to the front end of your Germany trip with your hometown being the stopover for many months as the process works the same in reverse.

  16. nomad, are any of those stopovers? Are you just going from Portland to Queenstown and that is the routing, or are you staying somewhere along the way? If that is just your routing on a pretty standard round trip ticket (and don’t let routing confuse stopovers or openjaws), then you can add your “free oneway” from Portland to somewhere after your trip (or somewhere to Portland before your trip).

  17. Thanks!
    It’s a simple return award without any stopovers, straight to the Wintergames near Queenstown – one of the last Olympic qualifyers before Sochi 🙂

  18. I can never get this to work AT ALL online. Not sure what I am doing wrong. I’m pretty certain there are flights from Phx or Lax to Seoul and then back even though it gives me an error saying they couldn’t find any award flights for award travel….. I will keep trying.

    • Carrie, it may eventually work for you online with that or a different route, but you may have to call in to get this to book. Sadly many awards on many carriers won’t price out online if you are getting away from standard round trips are trying to do more advanced type things with the awards. It isn’t that it won’t work, it is just that it won’t work with their online site. I like it much better when it does work online (like mine did), but it is worth the call in if you can’t get it to work online.

  19. HR – in Paris it is great to be a temporary local and let your kids play in the play ground that is in the champs de mars, it’s the park that is sort of contiguous with the Eiffel tower. You pick up a pain au chocolate on the way. The kids play in the playground. You eat your pastry. It’s heaven. Luxembourg gardens are similarly great. Let your kids play with the Parisian kids and see how the French parents just relax and let the kids play. (the fun stuff here you mostly have to pay for, but I think the playground was cheap). Don’t buy a coffee there, it’s terrible.

    In London our kids (4,6) loved the natural history museum (free, donation suggested) and the tower of London (pricey, but worth it).

    • London Transport Museum was fun, a bunch of old restored buses (and tube cars, I think), some of which you can get inside of.

  20. Thanks a million for all the tips:-)
    Will let you know how the trip goes, my SO is not leaning towards taking the little one there but you never know:-)

    • BVB, this works on roundtrips, so you could do one originating in Europe, but the “free one-way” would need to be in your starting or ending zone in Europe. For example, you could do FRA-SFO-FRA-IST

  21. If you’re having trouble booking what you want online, take advantage of the “free changes or cancellations within 24 hours” rule (which applies to everyone – not just elites). For example, last year, I couldn’t get SFO-LHR-BOS-SFO to price correctly online. I booked SFO-LHR-BOS online, then called res to add BOS-SFO within 24 hours. (My itinerary was simple – just a circle trip; no open jaws or free one ways. But this should also work with more complex itineraries.)

  22. what is the rules for free one way.. I try to do houston- taiwan, then taiwan to houston and back houston to taiwan but got an error.

    If I leave from houston, do I have to fly only within the USA?

    • Tommy, it is a free one-way within the same zone. So if you you could tack on something within the Us/Canada Zone not another trip to Taiwan.

  23. Great post! I have heard about being able to stretch one United award ticket out to hit up multiple destinations, but I had no idea they allow you to actually go back through your hometown airport (as a stopover) and then head back out later for a second trip. That is much more practical for me than going from place to place back to back because I just can’t take off that much time all at once and I like to spend an ample amount of time at each place I visit. So you gave me the idea to try to finagle two trips to Brazil (any two destinations would work) a couple months apart to escape the Alaskan winters. I have mirrored your strategy using the routing ANC-GRU(destination for a couple weeks)-ANC(stopover for a couple months)-GIG(return open-jaw), but for the last leg, it doesn’t seem to allow me to go back to South America, or Europe, or Africa, but it will let me go to Asia. For instance, the routing ANC-GRU-ANC-HKT works. Any thoughts?

  24. I think that there is a maximum permitted mileage restriction on United. In this case your return trip is GRU to GIG, so somewhere (I think you can find it on expert flyer) there is a maximum permitted mileage published for this itinerary, and if routing through ANC exceeds 125% of this (which it would), then it is not allowed. On the other hand, I am not sure that this is the problem with Europe or Africa. I think that the website has a problem with reversing direction at your stopover, even though I don’t think it is outside the rules. So, because GRU, Europe and Africa are all “East” of ANC, it won’t let you go east, then west and then east again, all on the return leg of your trip. I think that it then views your second time in ANC as your destination and the time in GRU as your stopover. That would make your outbound leg ANC to ANC, which would not be allowed. Or it is at least confused about which is your destination, so it might be possible to book those on the phone.

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