Getting the Most Out of a Standard Award Redemption

Please note this site has financial relationships with American Express and this post may contain affiliate links. Read my Advertiser Disclosure policy here to learn more about my partners.

As you may have seen, I was in Chicago earlier this week for a chance to talk miles and points on a morning TV show.  I didn’t know about this opportunity until about two weeks before it happened, so it was well past the time when I could get a good price on airfare during the heavy summer travel season.  For both emotional and logistical support, my mom was going to come with me on the one night trip, so I had a booking dilemma times two.

I was able to grab two flights on American Airlines from Houston to Chicago using British Airways Avios on the outbound.  This was a downright bargain for 7,500 Avios each compared to the fares that were in the $400 – $500 range each way (even considered Spirit, but the times wouldn’t work).  However, my award availability luck did not hold out for the return trip.  There was no award availability at the saver (lower) level on any airline between Chicago O’Hare and Houston on the Monday evening I needed to return.  Southwest could have worked since there are no black-out days with their points, but both airports they serve in Chicago and Houston wouldn’t have worked well for us.

I had some credit with United I needed to use, so I bought a revenue ticket using that credit for myself to come home.  For my mom I did something I’m not sure I’ve ever done, I booked a domestic economy standard award for 25,000 miles one-way.  Ouch!  I was getting about 2 cents per mile return for booking it, but it did not sit well with me at first.

I set some alerts with so I would be notified if the flight (or others around the same time) became available on miles at the saver level.  If they had, I would have re-booked at the lower rate of 12,500 miles.  Since I have Platinum status with United that would be free, but if you didn’t have at least Platinum status you would be hit with a fee for changes within 21 days of departure that include any change to cabin, award type, carrier, date or time ($100 for non-elite, $50 for silver elite, $25 for gold elite).  For me, I think that 12,500 miles would be worth even the $100 fee.

In addition to looking for an economy saver ticket so I could save 12,500 United miles, I also looked for a domestic first class saver award that would cost the same 25,000 miles as my coach ticket, but at least the seat would be somewhat better.  In the end, on the day of departure, a first class seat did become available at the saver level, so I switched my mom to first class for the same 25,000 miles that I was already spending on her economy standard award.  It didn’t save me any miles over the standard award, but at least she got a meal and a somewhat more comfortable seat to sit in for her trip home.  It allowed me (or at least her) to get the most out of my standard award redemption.

Even if I hadn’t been able to do anything but keep her 25,000 mile ticket, I had come to terms with it.  I ended up grateful that I have the miles to fly almost anywhere at a moment’s notice without being hit with huge charges on my credit card to do so.  Even at 25,000 miles for a one-way flight, I got a fair deal, and if I looked at it from the perspective of 25,000 United miles + 7,500 Avios for the round trip it was even a more balanced deal.  Sometimes the saver award availability we want just isn’t there, and we have to extend beyond our normal award booking practices.  No matter what the cost, I was glad my mom was able to come to Chicago for the day with me!

We made time for "The Bean" in Millennium Park

We made time for “The Bean” in Millennium Park

Have you ever had to book at the standard (more expensive) award level?

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


  1. I was trying to send my hubby to Portland from Detroit and all I could find was first class tickets for 50,000 miles as there was no economy left 2 1/2 months before the trip. I was not going to waste that many miles for this trip so I began looking around. Ended up using about 32,500 miles on a transfer from Ultimate Rewards to Southwest. Still not very happy with this redemption but it was better than the 50,000 miles that UAL wanted and he didn’t have to sly a red-eye home from Seattle (open jaw ticket).

    • airlandandsea, sometimes Southwest can be a real saver in a pinch. Considered it myself, but Hobby and Midway wouldn’t have worked as well for us, so had to pass on it this time. Good job making the best of the redemption!

  2. I’ve never redeemed a standard award in such a scenario because it’s one of the few situations where Delta’s SkyPesos are valuable. You can usually get an award at medium level for 40k, and there’s no quick ticketing charge.

  3. Summer, you should have captioned your picture that you were at the “bean” in Millennium park. My next stop to Chicago will be the DO in October.

  4. As to redeeming for poor value, my SO and I paid 155,000 Delta Skypesos each for our economy open jaw trip to Turkey and Greece. Considering I fly scouts to Europe for 30k RT and Europe can typically be had for 40-60k RT those tickets caused me grief. Not even a layover in Rome made the price seem better. Good luck with the TV career.

  5. CTravlr, no quick ticketing charge is huge for sure. The same is true for Avios, fortunately.
    Miles Pointshire, just saw that. Very exciting! Post here.
    Mark, sorry I wasn’t specific on the location, but happy to change the caption. Chicago is always a fun town to visit – glad to hear you will be at the Chicago Seminars!
    ADK, ha ha. Don’t think there will be a “tv career”, but glad to have survived this one. That is a bunch of Skypesos, but maybe it all averages out with your 30k rt tickets. 😉

  6. Jeff, I don’t even have that many of those points currently. 😉 Would take a ton in order to buy an expensive ticket.

  7. Well the Canadian side of me thinks it’s 40k points Arrival (20k spend) vs. 25k UA (25k spend) for the standard ticket…. I guess most of your points come from signups then 😛

  8. On very short (1 day) notice I had to get my mom to Corpus Christi. I wound up using 25k of my USAIR to fly her one way on United. Then using Southwest to come back.

  9. On a united ticket, assuming the flight is not oversold, if you cancel the standard award inside 24 hours, it should open up a saver award for the same exact seat.

  10. If I may ask: how many miles did you have to cough up to get to AEP – or is your final destination next February still IST ?

  11. Rich, ha ha. She is a good mom for coming with me!
    Al, main issue was that I was going to be flying out of ORD on a cert, so that would mean splitting to go to two airports if she went. Plus, Hobby alone with an evening arrival in traffic was a no-go. 😉
    Jeff, I don’t do much MS so I don’t really think in those terms, plus my husband just got the Arrival card but not sure he even has his sign-up bonus points yet.
    Kod, stings a bit but always good to have that option!
    Goosh, it didn’t when we cancelled the standard award to switch to the first award. Don’t think it was oversold, but I would be way too scared to try that normally. 😉 One did come open about 15-30 minutes prior to departure though, but I was in the air and that was too close for me!
    nomad, final destination on the award is IST. I had to buy my ticket into Sochi from IST for about $300 each way.

  12. I never mind dishing out the higher point level, but I want to fly first class. I’ll even fly the whole family in first class to a Disney destination. Frankly, I always figure that if people don’t want to fly in first class with kids, they shouldn’t fly into or out of MCO or SNA. It’s going to happen.

  13. MP, I think purely in terms of “exchange rate”. If a revenue ticket is expensive, and I can book a Standard Award at value greater than about 1.5 cents/mile, I will do so.

    I also use Standard Awards as a backup plan if Savers do not open up. For example, my GF and I flew to Europe in BA First on a one way AA award. On the return I was able to snag one UA Saver Business class seat, but nothing else opened up, so I booked the other seat as an Economy Standard Award.

    One challenge is that, for non-elites/non credit card holders, UA Standard Award seats come out of HN inventory (not YN), and United is becoming increasingly stingy opening HN seats (I often see “H9, HN0” or similar on their Web site).

    Goosh – you can’t count on a cancellation within 24 hours of flight time causing a Saver seat to open up. UA’s booking algorithms are very sophisticated; if all fare buckets are zeroed out you never know whether they consider themselves oversold or not.

  14. Blaine, me too! Ha ha.
    Leighton, I would guess it is the norm for stuff like this.
    Greek2me, ha ha. I would think they typically would not for things like this.

  15. One thought was to pay the revenue ticket but deduct it, since it was a work trip and I’m not sure you can deduct the “value” of a reward ticket — plus you are earning miles towards requalification…

    …I’ve tried GOSH trick before and it has worked but, I agree, it’s a risk.

    Finally, thought your segment was great. Why not contact Houston TV stations and become their “go-to travel expert” for all things IAH?

  16. To clarify the “Goosh” discussion:

    -If United is still selling revenue seats for a flight (for example, in economy, if the “Y” fare bucket shows 1 or more seats available) there’s a reasonable chance United will open the seat up to most or all fare buckets (including saver awards) 24 hours (or less) before the flight.

    -But if no revenue availability is showing (for example “Y0” in economy), then it is much less likely that other fare buckets will open up.

    Another way to use this information: If you want to stay in a connecting city on an international itinerary (for example, LAX on an LHR-LAX-SFO itinerary) for more than the normal 24 hour maximum allowed connection, then if availability opens up you can make a same day change to a later LAX-SFO flight on United.

    (If you want to cover all your bases in this situation, you can book a Southwest flight on points (fully refundable) for the final segment for the time you actually want to fly, then refund it if a UA same day change becomes available.)

  17. Just to close the loop, I know the trick works for all cabins assuming F, C, Y > 0, but I only use the trick for F since they don’t oversell F. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.

  18. We flew roundtrip using Avios to Chicago in first class since there weren’t any economy tickets during the Fourth of July weekend. I had transferred most of the points during an AmEx bonus so I tried to justify it to myself that even though it was 27,000 miles/person, I was really spending less than 20,000 earned points.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *