Disclosure: I do not receive a commission for this card.
The United MileagePlus cards have gotten a lot of blog ink over the last few weeks as the public offer has been hiked up to 55,000 miles (plus a $50 statement credit) for people who have not had the bonus in the last 24 months and do not currently have the card. That is a 66% increase over the regular offer so it is something to excited about! But, even with the attention on it, many people still might forget about one of the perks of holding a United MileagePlus card.
A Great Perk Of The United MileagePlus Cards
I will say up front – this “perk” is one that I have always thought was an insane use of miles and one that should never be considered for the savvy traveler. However, finding myself in a couple of travel situations recently, I saw the tremendous value that is possible with this and how it can be wonderfully suited for some situations.
Any Seat, Any Time
This great perk is the Any Seat, Any Time feature. This allows you to book a ticket with your miles, even if it is the last seat on the plane! The bad news? That incredible availability comes at a cost – for domestic tickets it is 25,000 miles for a one-way instead of 12,500 miles and is even higher for international tickets.
Here is how award availability works. There are always at least two tiers of award tickets (Delta is launching their 5-tier award structure in 2015) – the saver availability and the higher availability. The saver seats are a limited number of seats that have been made available for award travel at the lowest level. These are the seats that disappear that fastest but also may show up as available when you are approaching the travel date (within the last couple of weeks before departure). The airline will typically release more saver availability as the date for the flight nears as it realizes it is not going to be able to sell all the seats. But, most people cannot wait until the last minute, plus there are times on very busy routes/travel periods that the airline does not need to release saver availability because they only have one or two seats left on the whole airplane.
The higher tiered award level is for a greater amount of availability. Different airlines release that according to different parameters, but with United, the Standard availibility is actually broken down in two different ways. The first way is that the standard availability offers a greater amount of award tickets than the saver class. But, even that inventory can run out.
The great part is that if you have the United MileagePlus card, that standard availability all of a sudden has every seat available to it. That means, if there is one seat let of the plane, you can book that seat at the Standard level.
Why Is This Valuable?
The value in this Any Seat, Any Time perk of the United card is that it still allows you to realize tremendous value from your United miles. Obviously, we all want to get the maximum value out of the miles which is why so many people redeem for premium cabin travel. But, that same great value can still be obtained when the coach ticket is at an extremely high price and you need to be on a certain flight.
Let’s look at an example.
You are in Las Vegas over Labor Day Weekend and you need to get back to work for Tuesday morning. Anytime you try to fly east from Las Vegas at the end of a weekend, you are going to find ticket prices high. In this case, flying back to the NYC area costs a minimum of $560! That is a lot of money to spend on a one-way, domestic ticket. The problem is that award availability is also quite scarce with prices like that. So, you are left with paying for that expensive ticket, or you can use 12,500 extra United miles and secure your economy award ticket.
United charges $780 for that same exact ticket! Let’s take the $560 number, available on Delta, out of fairness to get the truest value of the miles. That means that your 25,000 United miles for the one-way ticket cash in at a minimum value of 2.2 cents per mile. That is a very strong redemption value and actually a tiny bit higher than what I get when I redeem for economy tickets to Europe! Would I rather use that 25,000 + 5,000 miles for a one-way to Europe? Absolutely, but if I need this flight, then this is the best value for me at the time. It is only costing someone an extra 12,500 miles over the regular ticket, so that actually makes those miles have an even higher value.
That is just one situation but the numbers can be duplicated across a variety of scenarios. These include having to book a ticket to go to a conference in a city where there is a large number of conferences or events (happens all the time), having a family emergency or funeral and tickets are expensive and award availability is non-existent, or having an event that you had planned on flying to but the prices were much higher than you thought when you signed up (like a marathon in some city).
Domestic vs. International
The greatest value lies in domestic situations since it is only 12,500 more miles for a one-way ticket. Once you start looking at international tickets, the cost in miles really goes up. For example, to fly to Europe on a saver economy ticket (one-way) costs 30,000 miles. If you go for the standard availability (and last seat on the plane), that price jumps to a staggering 65,000 miles. That is actually higher than the saver availability for business class travel (on United) to Europe!
Another issue with international tickets is that this Any Seat, Any Time feature only works on United-operated flights. That means it will not help you to get on that particular Lufthansa flight that you want to travel on with a friend – only United.
To figure out what you would need to redeem for a standard international award vs the saver international award, double the price of the saver and add 5,000 – 10,000 miles. That is a big hike and really should only be considered for the most desperate of situations. Still, in case such a situation arises, it is nice to know that the option is there. If you want exact numbers, check out the interactive award chart here.
Knowing When To Use This Perk
Of course, you should always check your options first.
If you are not getting at least a 1.5 cents per mile value, than consider using Ultimate Reward points to purchase the ticket outright. This is because you will get a 1.25 cents per mile value in purchasing the ticket plus you will earn miles for flying on a purchased ticket.
Make sure you search for other carriers before you go this route. If you are flying from a hub, those will tend to be the most expensive tickets, but they also tend to have the greater award availability. So, check with other carriers to see if they have award tickets available. Just know that if the tickets are very expensive and have no award availability that it is more than likely that the other carriers will be having the same situation.
If you are using this option, it is more than likely because you have no flexibility in your schedule at all. If you have the tiniest of flexibility, it may be incredibly cheaper to go with the flights the next morning. You can also look at flying out of a nearby airport, but just remember to not go through a ton of hoops – it is only 12,500 more miles!
Of course, using more miles is never something that we want to do, but there are circumstances where we are faced with a must-take trip and the tickets are at unsightly prices. When that is the case, it can be a huge savings to be able to book any United flight you want for only 12,500 more miles (on a domestic, one-way ticket). All you need to do to be able to book those flights is to have the United MileagePlus card and be signed into your account. While it may seem like a terrible thing to do, having the Any Seat, Any Time perk can be a big saver and is a great perk to have with the United MileagePlus card.