Whenever I receive an email from a US airline announcing award program changes I cringe – because they usually are bad. And when the announcement contains the word “enhancement”, I’m on full alert because it is airline double-speak for the opposite! Why the airline marketing people insist on this non-sense is beyond me, because it is very transparent and erodes whatever little credibility the airlines have left! Read why these changes are bad and what you should do now after the break!
The first change announced by United is regarding award booking and they claim: “You can now book more customized multi-city award travel on united.com“. Borrowing the ratings from the fact-checkers in the US election circus, I’d call that 3 out of 4 Pinocchios for being mostly false with a grain of truth (see the Washington Post excellent fact checking approach here):
Fact is that United is eliminating some of the most attractive routing options for complex itineraries, making award travel up to 50% more expensive in some cases. The only kernel of truth is the “on united.com” part, promising that you can do more online in the future!
The key devaluations are in the elimination of stop-overs as they are possible now, as well as of around-the-world tickets. Those were some of the last hidden corners of value in the United award charts. Let me give you an example of that: United allowed you so far a stop over and two open-jaws on international multi-city itineraries. I just returned from on of those trips and here is the routing:
I started my trip in Manila, Philippines, and flew to Frankfurt, Germany (my country of birth) on Thai Airways, to visit family for a few weeks. This was a “stop-over” in United terms on my way to the second destination, Washington D.C., the capital of the USA! I continued my United journey (after various other legs of the trip booked separately) with the return trip from San Francisco, California, to Manila! The full flight was MNL-BKK-FRA (stop-over) FRA-IAD (outbound;open jaw) SFO-NRT-MNL (return). This flight in business class using partner airlines was 160,000 miles. Under the new rules, this itinerary would have been 235,000 miles or 47% more!
It is true that booking these awards could not be done online and required a call to book, after looking it up online segment by segment. While I do appreciate the convenience of (hopefully) booking these flights online in the future, for a saving of 75,000 miles (or at least $1,125), I don’t mind making a 15 minute phone call!
And United is adding an “Excursionist Perk” for limited stop-over options within a region. I will check out the new online experience as soon as it goes live and will provide an update on it. I do recommend that you book any complex bargain trips now while you can!
The second change impacts the fees for changing or canceling an award ticket. Award availability is usually best far in advance of travel, I often book early and make changes as my travel firms up or better flights become available. That was especially true for the complex itinerary I provided as an example above. So, the fees to change or cancel matter! United claims that the “fee structure for changing or cancelling award flights is now streamlined“. I’d give that 2 Pinocchios for being at least half-true.
United’s old fee structure was complicated and fees for cancelling awards were very steep. The new fee structure is indeed simpler and more streamlined – but also brings much higher fees in the majority of cases! The new structure is as followsYou now pay the same amount for changes and cancellations, depending on your elite level. In general, the change fees are higher than before, but cancellation fees for a redeposit of your miles are lower. But there is more bad news hidden in the fine print: The change and cancellation fees are now effective 60 days or less from travel, instead of the old limit of 20 days. And if you are flying on a StarAlliance partner, you can’t change your ticket at all within 24 hours of your flight! Across the board, the changes are negative in 55% of the cases, positive in 22.5% and unchanged in 22.5%, making it an overwhelmingly negative picture. The biggest impact is on Gold and Silver elite members and the smallest on 1K and Global Service members:
All of these changes are effective for awards booked on or after October 6th, 2016, so you have about 6 weeks to book awards under the old rules. You can find the full announcement with all the gory details here! I will make sure to book one last multi-city itinerary while I can and will try to avoid changes after that the best I can!
Overall, considering the move to revenue based earning and previous devaluations, this makes United’s MileagePlus program even less interesting. I will look more closely at alternative StarAlliance rewards programs going forward, like Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer, Thai Airway’s Royal Orchid or ANA’s Mileage Club programs to earn and redeem miles – and you should, too!