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Update 10/11/16 12:46pm ET: United just provided the following statement about this change:
The new MileagePlus redemption award changes have been designed to make multi-city searches easier, give our customers greater flexibility, offer the Excursionist Perk, and provide efficient options that meet their travel needs. Selecting the multi-city option where United offers nonstop service will break up the search into two separate awards. We believe our multi-city pricing is consistent with the industry. Additionally, our customers have greater flexibility when booking multi-city travel. United.com offers ways to optimize searches – for example, you can select preferred connection cities, specific airports, etc.
October 6 was a sad day for many points and miles enthusiasts, as United restricted its loose award-routing rules in an announced program devaluation. The one stopover and two open jaws per award ticket that were allowed have been reduced to one free stopover (now called the Excursionist Perk), as long as the stopover is in a different region than your origin on a round-trip itinerary.
However, since October 6, another change has popped up while using the United.com multi-city search tool, and it’s not for the better. In the past, if you didn’t like the routing options returned by the United.com round-trip search function, you could use the multi-city search tool to find additional choices and time your flights and routing exactly as desired.
For example, if you used the round-trip function on United.com and searched EWR-IST and didn’t like the proposed routing through Frankfurt, you could go to the multi-city search tool and search EWR-CPH, then CPH-IST to have as close to a 24-hour layover as possible in Copenhagen to see the city. You could manually select the flights you wanted, and the ticket would be priced at the same rate as an award ticket booked using the round-trip or one-way search function.
Now, however, United.com and phone agents are pricing segments individually when you attempt to pick flights that aren’t shown as an option in the round-trip United award search. I did a simple EWR-LAX search using the round-trip search function and selected flights given to me as an option. The trip cost 25,000 miles, as it should:
I then searched the same EWR-LAX route on the same dates, but with the multi-city search tool. I then manually selected the exact same flights. I was quoted 50,000 miles for this trip:
This is a Saver round-trip domestic award ticket, which under the old rules would have cost 25,000 miles. Instead, United is pricing it per segment and wants 50,000 miles. In theory, agents will see the same (higher) award rate when plugging in each segment individually.
New Rule or Bug?
In the past, these types of bookings may have led to the phone agent putting you on hold while they talk to the rates desk and they usually came back with it all sorted. Since October 6, most agents have been unable to price itineraries at the “old” rates. They too are confused and not sure why this is the case. I was able to have an agent “correctly” price a round-trip itinerary to Europe that included a stopover with flights I manually selected. She had to use “the old system” and also stated she doesn’t know how long it will continue to work. This took an hour on the phone with her after I already spent an hour working with several other United agents.
Here’s another example from TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig for a one-way EWR-HKG flight with connections in Canada, Tokyo and Taiwan. This is a valid one-way routing which should cost 40,000 miles, but picking these flights manually on the multi-city tool results in United quoting him 57,500 miles — 35,000 for Newark to Tokyo and 22,500 for Tokyo to Hong Kong:
He was able to speak with a United Premier 1K agent who was eventually able to price the itinerary at the “old” rate after recreating it (and after 40 minutes on the phone). That award was issued at 40,000 miles — for the exact same flights.
That said, a United representative confirmed that the second booking was a fluke — it, too, should have priced at 57,500 miles. Essentially, phone agents should see the same award pricing that you get on United’s website (which makes sense), but in this case MileagePlus members certainly don’t come out ahead.
What does this mean? Unfortunately, the ability to select your own flights via the multi-city tool without incurring additional cost was removed on October 6 as part of the latest MileagePlus program changes. It’s not a bug — United has confirmed that this change is by design.
The ability to select the exact flights you want could be considered an added luxury, and perhaps United decided to make this change in the spirit of legacy carriers now charging more for anything seen as a “extra.” The vast majority of frequent flyers search for award flights as a simple one-way or round-trip, but for those of us who know to use the multi-city tool to optimize routings, we’ll now need to redeem significantly more miles to book a nearly identical trip.
Have you tried pricing a multi-city itinerary since October 6? Please add your experiences below!
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