United Announces Heartbreaking Award-Travel Changes

Apr 5, 2019

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Update 4/5/19: United has clarified that these changes will kick in on, not after November 15. This post has been updated to reflect that revision.

You know that sinking feeling in your stomach when you have to say goodbye to a beloved pet, or your favorite restaurant decides to exclude you from their delivery zone? I’ve got that today — and this time, United Airlines is to blame.

Luc Bondar, United’s vice president of loyalty and head of the MileagePlus program just detailed some changes I find heartbreaking, which have already kicked in for travel beginning November 15.

First, I’ll mention a positive development Luc shared: United will be eliminating its close-in booking fee. Currently, the airline charges a fee for booking award travel less than 21 days before departure — $75 for general members, $50 for Silver elites and $25 for Gold elites. That’s going away for travel beginning November 15.

Luc included one other tiny bit of good news — itsy-bitsy relative to the devaluation coming, really. As we reported earlier this week, miles and elite credits are now posting as soon as a flight arrives — two and a half minutes, on average, so essentially before you even step off the plane. That’s great, and covered in full detail here.

The End of Award Charts

Now, prepare to have your day ruined. While award charts can be confusing to interpret, power users have no trouble deciphering the intricacies, and in some cases even have certain region pairings memorized. I could tell you in my sleep that United prices Polaris business class awards between North America and Europe at 60,000 miles each way, for example, while Star Alliance business requires 70,000 miles for the same redemption.

Award charts like this one — for travel from the US to Europe — will soon be going away.

For travel beginning November 15, those charts will no longer apply, and the airline will be removing them entirely for United-operated flights after that date. Luc explained that this will allow the airline to “do a better job of matching award supply with customer demand,” but that can be done with a chart still in place, if you ask me. This feels more like a copycat move, following in the footsteps of Delta, which yanked its own charts in early 2015 and has quietly been boosting redemption amounts ever since.

Pulling the charts eliminates much-appreciated transparency, but not to worry — I’ve added them all below (for travel including the Mainland US, Alaska and Canada), so they’ll serve as a reference even after United deletes them from the site later this year.

Expanded Dynamic Pricing

United rolled out its first batch of “dynamic” redemptions in 2017, with the introduction of “Everyday” awards, which replaced standard pricing. Then, last week, we noticed a new far-lower saver award tier, with certain economy awards available for as little as 5,000 miles each way. As TPG Family editor Summer Hull speculated there, those lower redemption turned out to be a sign of big changes to come — the devaluation we’ve learned about today.

Luc said that following the introduction of dynamic pricing, the overall average redemption price decreased in 2018. Beginning November 15, variable redemptions will become the norm — rates will vary from one day to the next, and even from one flight to another, across all redemption fare classes, which won’t be changing at this time. With this model, Luc explained that “customers who have more flexibility are able to get better award pricing than they see today.” So what does that mean in practice? Summer Hull digs in.

Partner Awards

While United’s own flights are priced a bit lower — if you’re able to find a saver award, that is — moving forward you might actually save by booking a partner redemption, instead. For now, the airline hasn’t shared any plans to increase the rates of partner awards, such as those operated by Star Alliance carriers, including ANA, Lufthansa, Swiss, Thai and others.

United won’t be making changes to partner redemptions, such as Thai Airways first class — at least not yet. Photo by Zach Honig.

And what about those charts? “As of now, we do not have plans to remove the partner award chart, but that could change in the future,” a spokesperson added.

Partners also open up an interesting alternative to MileagePlus, even when it comes to redemptions for United-operated flights. At this point, United doesn’t have any input when it comes to how partners price flights booked using their own currencies, so customers with transferrable points will have a huge advantage in the future.

For example, rather than transferring points to MileagePlus from Chase Ultimate Rewards to book a Polaris seat to Europe pricing at 110,000 miles through United, you could send 55,000 Amex points over to Aeroplan, and book the same United-operated flight there. Time will tell when it comes to how this will actually play out — there would need to be availability in the “I” fare class, for example — but that’s certainly been the case with Delta.

Bottom Line

Fellow travelers often ask me why I choose to fly United, even after the infamous #BumpGate incident, poor in-flight experiences and countless other service issues. Well, first, United and Star Alliance fall under my airline beat, so earning top-tier Premier 1K status is actually part of my job. But I choose United for personal travel when I’m paying out of pocket as well.

Aside from the frequent upgrades I enjoy as a 1K, the primary reason I choose United is MileagePlus — I’ve found the program to be tremendously valuable, and I know what to expect when it comes time to redeem. Removing published award charts is a huge step in the wrong direction, though, and if it turns out that I no longer find value in premium-cabin awards, I’ll be far less likely to keep coming back.

If you’ve been building up a large cache of United miles yourself, it’s time to start thinking about redeeming those miles before the new rates kick in. I’m especially concerned about what the airline may have in store for partner redemptions in the future — no news isn’t necessarily good news here, though as of now, it’s still possible to book at fixed rates. And with a published award chart to reference.

Current Award Charts

Finally, since they’ll soon be going away, I wanted to capture United’s current award charts. Note that these no longer apply for travel beginning November 15, but they’ll still serve as a useful reference for which awards represent a “good deal.”

Featured image by Zach Honig/TPG

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