United’s Newest Customer Unfriendly Campaign: Increase the Cost of Award Tickets

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In a bold move to become the world’s most “flyer un-friendly” airline, United announced that starting February 1, 2014 they will require more miles (a ton more in some cases) for award travel – especially on partner airlines. While these drastic changes are no doubt consumer-unfriendly, we shouldn’t be too surprised since United has been on a roll since their merger with Continental to shred any goodwill Continental had built up with their flyers. Whether it is mind-numbing technical failures, flight delays or a fractured/non-transparent elite program that preferences non-elites over top tier members, United has worked extremely hard at disenfranchising their most loyal customers.

Although I don’t fly United very often (mostly because when I do I deal with nasty/clueless employees or my travel reservations simply aren’t honored), I rank their frequent flyer miles as the most valuable mileage currency out there thanks to low fees on award tickets, the ability to book one-way awards and great airline partners in Star Alliance. I have used them to fly the world’s longest commercial flight in Singapore business class, to hob knob with celebrities in first class on transcontinental flights, and soon I’ll be flying on a one-way award from New York to the Maldives in business class on EVA and Singapore that I was able to book using 60,000 miles and about $20 in taxes and fees. If were to book the same trip after February 1, it would cost me 80,000 miles one-way- a 33% increase.

That’s because United announced this morning that it would be raising the mileage redemption levels for some awards over 60%, and upping the mileage necessary for some of the most popular redemptions such as those to Hawaii. The airline has also created a whole new chart for redemptions on partner airlines (it currently uses a single chart for all awards, whether on United itself or otherwise). The new changes will go into effect for award tickets booked on or after February 1, 2014, so if you plan to use miles for any of the affected award zones and classes, book your tickets by January 31, 2014.

Explaining the move in an interview with Today in the Sky on USA Today, United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said, “We’re increasing miles required in these markets for the first time in several years to account for the increased cost of providing transportation, particularly in the premium cabin and particularly on the Mileage Plus partner carriers.”

Johnson also had this parting shot to add in the interview: “We faced a decision other airlines have faced — to either increase the number of miles required for partner awards or to eliminate them altogether.” That smacks too much of a scare tactic for my taste, and the thought that United would eliminate partner awards altogether is just plain ridiculous.

This really reminds me of the Hilton devaluation in February and stings even more than other airlines including Delta and Air France/KLM who have announced major award chart mileage devaluations in the past several months.

 

Here's what the new chart will look like from North America.
Here’s what the new chart will look like from North America.

Before I get into it, here are links to the current chart and the new chart:

Old United Award Chart Through January 31, 2014

New United Award Chart Starting February 1, 2014

United Redemptions

First, the good news. Many redemptions on United itself aren’t changing and many of the devaluations occurring are on business and first class redemptions. Domestic redemptions on United will remain 25/50/70 for economy, business and first.

Now the bad, a lot of other popular redemptions will change. One big difference here is that awards to Hawaii will now cost 45,000 miles in coach instead of 40,000 miles roundtrip. 5,000 miles isn’t much, but that’s still a 12.5% increase.

If you’re flying to Southern South America, you’ll now be paying 10,000 more miles roundtrip in business class and 5,000 more miles roundtrip in first.

Premium awards to Europe will be going up.
Premium awards to Europe will be going up.

However, the other major change that caught my eye is that business and first class redemptions from North America to Europe are going up. They are currently 50,000 miles each way in business and 67,500 miles each way in first. After the devaluation, they will be 57,500 miles in business (115,000 miles roundtrip) and 80,000 miles in first (160,000). That represents a 15% increase for business class redemptions and an 18.5% increase in first class.

If you’re flying from North America to the Middle East, roundtrip you’ll be paying 5,000 more miles in coach, 20,000 more miles in business and 20,000 more miles in first (but wait till you see how high partner redemptions in this zone are going to get!).

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.15.58 AMRedemptions to Africa will now be 80/140/170 roundtrip, whereas they used to be 80/120/150, so you’re paying 20-30,000 more miles for business or first.

Finally, using United miles to Asia can be a great option since the airline has its own extensive list of routes to major destinations there. Here’s how much it’ll currently cost you to fly to various parts using United miles.

Japan: 65/120/135
North Asia and South Asia: 65/120/140
Central Asia: 80/120/160

Post-devaluation, here’s what it’ll cost you.

Japan: 70/130/160
North Asia: 70/140/160
South Asia: 80/140/160
Central Asia: 85/140/180

Though many of these awards are up just 5,000-10,000 miles, that jump from 135,000 miles to 160,000 miles for first class to Japan and the fact that all these business class awards are now going to cost 140,000 miles roundtrip is going to make redeeming miles a much more expensive proposition for a lot of flyers.

Business and first class redemptions to Oceania will also go up 10,000 miles each, while business class redemptions to Australia/New Zealand will be up 5,000 miles and economy and first remain the same.

United now has a Star Alliance partner chart that's distinct from its own.
United now has a Star Alliance partner chart that’s distinct from its own.

Partner Redemptions

Here’s where all of the truly depressing news is, though. One of the best reasons to rack up United miles is because you can use them on its fantastic network of alliance partners including Lufthansa, Singapore, ANA, South African Airways and more, but if you want to do so, it’s going to take a lot more miles starting next February.

First the not-too-terrible news – redemptions in the US the Americas will remain mostly the same – the changes that do occur are the same as on United’s chart, so 5,000 more miles to Hawaii and more miles to Southern South America. Now let’s get into the downward spiral.

Awards to Europe currently look like this:

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.30.42 AM60/100/135 for economy, business and first class. Post-devaluation, they’re going to look like this:

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.31.31 AMEconomy awards will remain 60,000 miles roundtrip, but business class awards are increasing 40% to 140,000 miles, and first class awards are up to 220,000 miles – up 85,000 miles or 63%! I love Lufthansa first class as much as the next person, but there’s no way I’m paying 220,000 miles to fly it.

South America business and first class awards are only up 5,000-10,000 miles over current levels, which hardly seems much at all after those Europe numbers.

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.33.42 AMTo get to either Northern or Southern Africa, you’ll be paying 80/160/260, instead of 80/120/150 for economy, business and first. That’s right – a first class ticket will now be 110,000 miles more expensive – that’s a 73% jump.

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.35.22 AMIn what is the largest bump, first class redemptions to the Middle East will now be 280,000 miles roundtrip! That’s up from 150,000 miles – an 87% jump.

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.40.10 AMSo whereas before you’d be paying 80/120/150 for economy, business or first, you’ll now be paying 85/160/280.

Now let’s get to Asia, where using United miles on Star Alliance partners like Singapore, ANA and Thai has been a great deal in the past. Here’s what the new chart will look like for that region:

Screen shot 2013-11-01 at 9.41.55 AMAnd just to give you the quick rundown of mileage increases by award here…

Japan: +5,000 in economy, +30,000 in business, +85,000 in first
North Asia: +5,000 in economy, +40,000 in business and +100,000 in first
South Asia: +15,000 in economy, +40,000 miles in business and +120,000 miles in first
Central Asia: +5,000 in economy, +40,000 miles in business and +120,000 miles in first

Finally, getting to Oceania and Australia/New Zealand is also getting a lot more expensive. Though economy award remain the same for both, to get to Oceania, you’ll be paying 150,000 miles instead of 120,000 miles in business, and a whopping 220,000 miles instead of 150,000 miles in first class – an increase of 70,000 miles!

To Australia/New Zealand, business class redemptions will be up 25,000 miles to 160,000, and first class awards will require 260,000 miles roundtrip – an increase of 100,000 miles.

All in all, this is a lot of very disappointing news, but it is not the end of the world. These devaluations always and always will happen periodically and the key is to stay ahead of the game. While it stings, it is a good reminder of why it is important to diversify your points and miles portfolio to maximize your earnings however possible. There are more ways than ever to accrue miles on everything from everyday spending to lucrative credit card sign-up bonuses and those will still be around.

Speaking of which, although your first impulse might be to complain to United – and you should do so constructively by calling MileagePlus and formally voicing your concerns and dismay – if you are a Chase credit cardholder of one of the products that accrues United miles like the United Explorer, Sapphire Preferred or Ink Bold and Ink Plus, it would also be a good idea to call the bank and tell them how frustrated you are because the points you earn with their cards are worth much less now. Chase is a major partner of United and pays for the miles it distributes to cardholders, so they have a huge stake in the value of the MileagePlus program, so it’s important that you let the bank know that these devaluations really impact consumers. They’ll relay that negative feedback to United, and possibly effect some positive change.

If you wish to do so, you can contact Chase Customer Service here, or call 1-800-432-3117. In the meantime I’m off to start booking all my Star Alliance awards before this devaluation goes into place!

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