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United raises partner award prices up to 10% after removing award chart

April 29, 2020
9 min read
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It hasn't been a great past couple of years for United loyalists. Last year, the airline decided to follow Delta's lead by removing award charts for its own flights and switch to dynamic award pricing. This was a shock to many United flyers in the beginning, but the aftermath wasn't as bad as we thought: Domestic flights largely went down in price, and partner flights weren't subject to dynamic pricing.

But both of those upsides came to an end this month. When searching for domestic awards for late 2020, I found that United has largely eliminated low-cost domestic award tickets. Just a couple days after that, United announced that it had pulled all of its partner award charts on April 28, 2020.

This means that award tickets operated by partner airlines can change in price at any time and that there is no longer any sort of standard rate to expect.

At face value, the removal of its partner award chart could be good or bad. On the bright side, some award tickets could go down in price. But if history has taught us anything (looking at you, Delta SkyMiles), this isn't the case, and partner award prices may skyrocket over time.

We've done some research to see how United's partner award chart removal actually affects award pricing across the board. Here are our current findings.

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United's new partner award pricing

Before we look at United's new partner pricing, it's worth noting that United has charged more for partner tickets for a while now. Up until partner award charts were removed, the carrier added a set surcharge to select international business-class bookings when the long-haul leg was operated by a Star Alliance partner airline.

For example, United charged 60,000 miles for a one-way business-class ticket from the U.S. to Europe if the flight was flown by its own planes. On the other hand, booking this ticket on a partner airline would cost 70,000 miles, effectively making partner awards 15% more expensive per the old award chart.

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United's move to dynamic award pricing for partner award tickets has — in many cases — simply made this surcharge significantly higher. I've found that international flights operated by United aren't any more expensive than in the past, but partner prices have gone up significantly. Here's a look:

Many partner flights to Europe are 10% more expensive

United has raised the price of most partner flights to Europe by 10% for flights departing June 1 or later, regardless of the partner, route or class of service. For example, the screenshot above shows a Lufthansa flight from Washington, D.C. (IAD) to Frankfurt (FRA) departing in August 2020. Both of these flights have saver-award space, but now price at 33,000 and 77,000 miles for economy and business class respectively.

The same goes for flights operated by SWISS. I searched for a nonstop flight from New York-JFK to Geneva (GVA) in early November. The prices were the same as the Lufthansa flight from IAD to FRA, showing that — at least in most cases — this pricing is the new norm for many partner award tickets.

United also operates a nonstop flight to GVA from its Newark (EWR) hub. A flight on this route was available the following day, and it cost 30,000/60,000 miles in economy and business class, respectively. This means that partner awards from the U.S. to Europe in business class are now a whopping 22% more expensive than United-operated flights on most dates.

These changes haven't been made for all partner flights, though. For example, I looked for a flight from Hartford (BDL) to Dublin (DUB) and found an Air Canada itinerary via Toronto (YYZ) that priced at the old 30,000/70,000 rates for economy and business-class flights respectively. Interestingly enough, all partner flights on this route priced at the old rates for the month of November.

This had me thinking: Are connecting flights from smaller airports exempt from the higher partner award prices? Much to my dismay, this is not the case.

To test my disproven theory, I ran a search from Des Moines (DSM) to Kiev (KBP) and found an itinerary that connects in Chicago (ORD) and Warsaw (WAW), with the long-haul ORD to WAW operated by LOT Polish Airlines. This itinerary priced at 33,000/77,000 miles one-way for economy and business class respectively.

Connecting to a partner flight could cost more miles, too

Interestingly enough, I found another route from DSM to KPB that connected in ORD and Zurich (ZRH). The ZRH to ORD leg was operated by United, but the ZRH to KBP leg was operated by SWISS. Oddly enough, this flight priced at 33,000/66,000 miles for economy and business class respectively.

I've never seen a long-haul United award price this way before, which leads me to believe that even tacking on a connecting partner flight now has the potential to raise the cost of your entire itinerary. Previously, United would only charge more if the long-haul segment was operated by a partner airline.

Flights to Asia are 10% more expensive, too

These price increases stretch beyond Europe, too. For example, I looked for a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Seoul (ICN) on Asiana Airlines. This ticket priced at 38,500/88,000 miles for a ticket in economy and business class respectively.

Things get even more expensive when you add a connecting flight to East Asia. Adding a Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore (SIN) to the end of the above LAX to ICN itinerary raised the cost of a business class flight to 99,000 miles one-way. This is even more absurd when you consider the fact that the SIN to ICN flight is in economy class.

In the past, United charged 35,000/80,000 miles for flights West Asia in economy and business class and 40,000/90,000 miles for flights to East Asia in economy and business class respectively. The new pricing shows a 10% increase in pricing on most flights from the U.S. to Asia, leading me to believe that this is the new normal for international partner flights.

Why did United make these changes now?

There's no doubt that these changes are bad for consumers. Award pricing on the most valuable tickets has risen by up to 10%, effectively devaluing United miles across the board. But as reported by Gary Leff at View From The Wing, it makes perfect sense for United to make these changes now.

For one, we're in the middle of the global coronavirus outbreak, and the vast majority of United flyers aren't thinking about redeeming their miles. United may figure that no one is watching, and that when people return to the sky, they'll have simply forgotten about the old partner award chart.

Further, United is in a tough financial situation. The airline has lost over $2.1 billion since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. and needs to save money wherever it can. Unfortunately, one great way of cutting expenses is devaluing its award program.

When it costs more to redeem for partner award tickets, fewer people will be able to redeem miles for these awards. Those who do want to redeem miles for partner award tickets will have to earn more miles by flying on United, spending on a United cobranded credit card or transferring in points from Chase Ultimate Rewards — all things that help boost United's bottom line.

In addition, it's beneficial for United to have its members redeem miles on flights operated by its own planes. United needs to fill otherwise-empty planes in a post-coronavirus world, and when one redeems miles for a United flight, the airline doesn't have to cut a check to the partner airline to cover the cost of the redemption.

Bottom line

These changes to United award pricing are disappointing for all United members, and frankly, I don't see much value in using United miles to book partner awards anymore. The prices are simply too high when compared to other Star Alliance loyalty programs like ANA Mileage Club, Air Canada Aeroplan, Avianca LifeMiles and even Singapore Airlines Krisflyer.

If anything, this stresses just how valuable transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards are. Instead of being tied to one loyalty program (and its respective devaluations), you can always move your points to another airline partner in the same alliance for a better redemption rate.

So if you've been putting your everyday spend on a United cobranded credit card, now may be a good time to switch to something like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. You can transfer the Chase Ultimate Rewards points earned with the card to a number of different airlines, giving you more flexibility in how you redeem.

Further, these changes make me worried about the future of United MileagePlus. These pricing changes show that its quickly going in the direction of Delta's ultra-dynamic, unpredictable SkyMiles award program. Will we see 320,000-mile one-way business-class tickets to Europe in the near future? Only time will tell.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.