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One of the perceived advantages of booking an award ticket with United Airlines versus American Airlines (or many other airlines) is the limited number of routing restrictions. The most notable of AA restrictions is not being able to connect through a third region when traveling from one region to another, with few exceptions (more info on AA rules). While AA does not officially publish this ‘travel via third region' restriction, it is known if you book enough award tickets, as are its exceptions. These restrictions can be confirmed over the phone by any American customer service agents.
When it comes to United, there is, in theory, no “travel via the third region” restriction on awards. Evidence of this is the fact that United will allow you to connect in Europe when traveling between North American and Asia. Additionally, United will allow you to connect in Asia when traveling between North American and Oceania; AA allows neither on a single award. However, in practice, United does have cumbersome “travel via third region” restrictions which often make understanding what they will allow a mystery given that, unlike AA, these are not known even to their most astute agents.
Case in point, I was recently working on booking an award for a client (two passengers) that requested business class travel from Cape Town to Honolulu. This client did not have enough points/miles with any one rewards program to make a redemption for two seats on a single booking. However, he did have enough Starwood Preferred Guest points that he could transfer to Aeroplan for one award. He also had 64,000 miles with United.
As a United business class award from Cape Town to Honolulu requires 85,000 miles, that meant that if he was willing to purchase 21,000 United miles we could then book two separate award tickets. He'd book one with Aeroplan (via the Starwood Preferred Guest transfer) and one with United. The client agreed with this strategy. After confirming Saver award availability, we completed the required miles purchase at a cost of $564.38.
First Attempt to Book Award
The Aeroplan award was easily bookable online, United not so much. We tried all the tricks I knew of to try to get this to work online, but was not successful. Since this itinerary required three connections, I was not surprised by this, so I proceeded to call United in an attempt to complete the booking.
I booked the HKG-ICN-HNL portion online and then called United. (Note: United allows you to change or cancel an award without penalty for 24 hours after completing a booking, so you should always book as much as possible online and then call to simply add the additional segments required when the United website will not allow you to book the itinerary you want.) In this case, we needed to add CPT-JNB-HKG to the itinerary.
The first agent I spoke to was able to find all the flights. A United partner award from HKG to HNL requires 60,000 miles; by adding the new segments an additional 25,000 miles should have been required. Nonetheless, the agent informed me that an additional 55,000 miles would be required.
I quickly realized what was happening. United was pricing these route as two separate award itineraries. Therefore, instead of requiring 85,000 miles they required a total of 115,000 miles. I pleaded my case to the agent. She mentioned that the system was not allowing this route as a single itinerary and would only price it as two separate award itineraries.
I asked to speak to a supervisor; the results were the same. Time for HUCA (Hang Up Call Again).
Second Attempt to Book Award
I then tried calling and booking the entire itinerary over the phone from scratch, after canceling what I had already booked online. The results were the same with both the first agent I spoke to and then with another supervisor. The reasoning was consistent throughout: awards from South Africa to Hawaii must transit the Atlantic Ocean, not the Pacific.
The client had already spent over $500 in purchasing miles to make this itinerary possible. There was no way he was spending another $700+ to purchase 30,000 more miles. At this point, I requested that the miles purchase be reversed while we figured out what to do. Thankfully, United agreed to do that.
Logic Goes out of the Window
Here is what makes this situation particularly frustrating. This is the route United was not allowing us to book (map courtesy of Great Circle Mapper):
On the surface, nothing about this route justifies United not allowing it as part of a single award itinerary. There is absolutely no backtracking and even if a one-stop through Hong Kong were an option it'd come to 12,921 miles — it really couldn't get more direct than what we wanted to book.
However, on their website, for the day after the date the client wanted, United was allowing the following route to be booked as a single award itinerary:
In other words, the route that required 14,926 miles, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and half of the Pacific Ocean was valid, but the route that required 13,282 miles of flight and only crossed a portion of the Pacific Ocean was not valid as a single ticket. Figure that one out. Indian ocean routing limitation?
As a result, now our client is hoping to earn enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points and United miles to be able to eventually book two separate United awards before availability for the same route of his Aeroplan CPT-HNL award itinerary disappears.
If United is going to have award routing restrictions that are seemingly unreasonable, it is time for them to at least begin publishing them. Otherwise, there is absolutely no way of knowing for sure what is allowed and what is not.
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