Why Someone in Your Family Needs to Have a United Credit Card

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Today my mom and I were putting together the final touches of our big trip to Vienna and the Christmas Markets that is scheduled to happen in late 2018. Specifically, we needed to book her flight from Houston to New York City where we are spending a few days with the whole family doing fun NYC Christmas activities before my mom and I head on to Europe and the rest of my crew heads back to Texas.

When booking a 12,500 United award isn’t simple

This should have been just about the easiest part of the trip to book, but it actually wasn’t. My family of four is already booked a specific Houston – LaGuardia flight that I secured before I knew for sure if I could piece together the whole Vienna excursion. My mom decided she wanted to come to NYC on the same flight as us, so we pulled it up and United wanted 20,000 miles for that one-way economy flight. There were others that same day that were 12,500 miles, so it felt painful to pay more miles just to have her on the same flight as us, but ultimately we all agreed that was the best plan.

We were about to just suck it up and pull the trigger on the 20,000 mile award when on a whim I checked the selling price of the ticket. It was only $175, which means the United miles were giving us a less than one cent per point return, which is well below my normal threshold. Since we really wanted to use miles instead of dollars for this purchase, my next thought was just to use fixed value points to “buy” the relatively inexpensive ticket. If we used points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve, it would cost just 11,667 points at 1.5 cents in value each, and she would earn miles on the ticket. This was a much better route than spending 20,000 United miles for the award.

We quickly headed over to the Chase website to make that happen, but their booking window only goes out about 10 months through early October 2018, which is well before our trip. In contrast, United is currently allowing you to book tickets for travel into December 2018. I called Chase Travel to try to see if they can book further in advance over the phone, but after a few minutes of hearing “we are experiencing high call volumes” with no estimate of how long it would take to get a person, I hung up.

In truth, we had been booking trips and working on related miles and points issues for hours by this point and we just needed to resolve this one last piece of the puzzle and move on with life. When there was no easy path forward to booking through Chase Ultimate Rewards, we were back to booking directly with United.

Strangely, when we went back to United, the flight we wanted flashed available at just the saver 12,500 mile level. Only, when we quickly selected it, that price disappeared and it returned to 20,000 miles. We were now getting pretty annoyed at the whole process, and then I had a hunch as to what was happening.

My mom doesn’t currently have a United credit card, and as a result, her account wasn’t being shown the extra saver award availability that United elites and credit cardholders are shown. Sure enough, when I checked the availability from my dad’s account (who has the United credit card), the flight we wanted was there at the saver level. I’m not sure why it glitched as available for just 12,500 miles from my mom’s account, but I have seen that happen more than once in the past.

Pay less for many awards if you have a United credit card

Instead of spending 20,000 United miles and booking from my mom’s account, we spent just 12,500 United miles booking the exact same flight from my dad’s account…all because he has the United credit card and she doesn’t currently. We will fix that issue and get her a United card via an offer like the one below soon enough, but first, we just need to double check that it has been 24 months since the last time she got the card and its bonus.

Need to be sure it has been 24 months since the last bonus before going for this

There are a few morals to this story, one of which is simply to try not to have a marathon travel booking session where by the end of it all you aren’t being as methodical at checking options as you were at the beginning.

The other moral of the story is that you need a United credit card if you want more options to book United awards at the saver level. It is not new that those with a United credit card are displayed more saver award options than those without a United card or elite status, but if anything that trend seems to only be increasing in the days of more variably priced United awards.

At the very least, I think at least one person in the family needs to have a United credit card at all times so that the bookings can come from their account when only XN awards (those available to elites and credit cardholders) are available instead of X awards that are available to anyone. You can check available fare classes when in United Expert Mode.

Of course having a United card also does other things such as provide priority boarding, a free checked bag for the cardholder and one other companion on the reservation, and two United Club passes each year. Honestly though, I think they should be advertising like crazy the reality that having the card means you often pay less for awards than if you don’t.

Have you noticed the same situation in your United award searches?

Head here to learn more about available rewards credit cards and their bonuses.

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  1. Yep, I keep my United card for this very reason. My mom and I going to Italy in September – I booked an open jaw outbound LAX to Rome via Austrian Air connection in Vienna, and return from Florence to LAX via Swiss Air connection in Zurich. It’s still high season but managed to get saver awards at 60,000 each (120,000 total). These flights did not show up on the specific days I wanted at the saver award level if I didn’t have the card.

  2. Could you have called it in, paying a fee of course, and pay with your moms miles for the ticket as availability is there? In other words is it saver award seats that are available “to see”rather than saver award seats that “are bookable”? I have been booking award seats via my miles as I am a card holder (Club Card) for my husband and I. He now has the bulk of our miles as I’ve been using mine consistently. I had hoped to search via my ff# and book with his ff# via phone. Am I misguided?

    • I don’t think that will work sadly, though you are of course welcome to try. I would probably instead try to get him a United Card and the bonus miles that go along with it.

  3. yep, the flex points websites definitely have drawbacks…Citi TY points are at 330 days for both hotels and flights online.

  4. That’s funny. I actually booked the return flights for my wife and myself today for our Christmas Market cruise. Vienna to Billings, MT on United

  5. As one who can’t get the card due to 5/24 I’m not excited about the hidden inventory. If they’re holding back substantial award seats for cardholders, aren’t they in effect establishing an annual fee for participating in award redemptions? And won’t a lot of people react negatively to that if the situation is made more widely known (as you suggest in terms of mass advertising)? I know it’s not quite that blatant yet, as their low level award availability for non cardholders still isn’t as horrible as that of a particular competitor, but it’s a direction I wouldn’t want to see airlines moving in.

    • Everyone’s situation is different and for some that would be a wise move, while for others miles are a sound choice to avoid spending cash.

  6. Two questions.

    1. What is 5/24? Sorry if that’s a dumb question.

    2. Is there an amount of time you have to wait between canceling your United card and being able to get a new one to take advantage of the offer?

  7. You should also know that you should not check for flights until you are ready to make the purchase (via miles). More than once, I have searched for a flight via miles and found what I wanted for 12.5K miles. When I returned a night later, that same flight was now 20K miles one way. Evidently, they use cookies to see what you searched for in the past, and then jack up the miles for those flights the next time you log in. Very bad customer relations.

  8. You guys are going to have a blast at the Vienna Christmas markets! We seem to add it to our Christmas market adventures every year, mostly because my son calls it “the land of chandeliers. There are a ton of great markets, places to eat and cool things to do within walking distance of the PHV (that’s usually our home base). Shoot me an email and I can give you a pretty good outline of the markets and some other cool stuff. Oh! And consider the hour train ride to Bratislava for a good day trip.

  9. Wow! This is so good to know. Does our Chase Reserve count as a United Credit card? Otherwise which united card would you recommend? Thx.

    • No, the United cards will just be the United branded cards like the United MileagePlus Explorer Card or the United Club Card. I’d get the Explorer when the bonus is at least 50k miles.

      • And when you have the bonus and it is time to pay the annual fee next year, you can downgrade to the no fee one (can’t apply for it, can only downgrade to it) and keep the expanded award availability.

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