I’ve written extensively about the changes coming to the United MileagePlus program this November. Now it’s time to share my opinion about them.
Let’s start with the positive. In some cases, awards will become cheaper than ever before. The 5K awards we are already seeing on some routes demonstrate far cheaper awards than United has historically offered. Furthermore, the lack of fees for close-in bookings is a customer-friendly gesture that removes an unnecessarily punitive penalty for business and other last-minute travelers.
But that’s where the positive ends. These 5K awards are usually the type of awards you want to pay for out-of-pocket anyway. Why pay 5,000 miles plus $5.60 for a flight between Los Angeles and San Francisco you can buy outright for $65? And with dynamic pricing, I expect United will mimic Delta: higher close-in mileage prices will more than offset the booking fee that will no longer be collected.
And how about the other side? So-called “Everyday” awards that used to be capped will now have no ceiling. That’s why I am expecting Delta-style pricing on premium awards going forward. That’s a sad thing for two reasons.
The first reason is that it guts the value of the MileagePlus program for the high-spending, high-earning travelers who have, to this point, used United’s “Everyday” (standard) awards to secure premium cabin intercontinental tickets at a high yet fair price when partner space is not available. With these fares expected to balloon, in some cases tripling or quadrupling, a huge value proposition of the program will disappear. Second, it no longer gives United a competitive advantage over American and Delta, which already have very high “standard” award pricing.
The News Isn’t Surprising, Just Disappointing
I was not at all surprised by the news. The writing was on the wall, wasn’t it? The .pdf award charts were recently removed from united.com. When I asked United why about a week before last Friday’s announcement, I was told by a spokesperson:
We don’t have any updates on the award chart to share today.
“Today” was the operative word…surely these changes have been months in the planning.
When I received the call from Luc Bondar on Friday morning, I knew exactly what he was going to say. Not because the info had been leaked to me, but because I’ve been speculating for months that United would shift to a more dynamic pricing model.
That doesn’t make the news any less disappointing. Rather, it just reflects the current state of affairs in the world of miles and points, especially in North America. United made these changes not to add value to the program, but because it could.
United defends its changes in this way:
Increasing award travel prices for the most in-demand flights lets us offer lower prices on other flights. If your award travel is flexible, these updates will help you make the most of your miles.
That’s flawed logic. Of course you can “make the most of your miles” if your travel is flexible. That doesn’t have much to do with charging substantially more for the same flight as before.
Once again, United has tried to sugarcoat an overall negative change as a positive one. No one who knows much about how to smartly use miles will appreciate these changes.
One (Bad) Surprise
One very disappointing surprise in this news was that changes took effect immediately for travel on or after November 15, 2019. This represented a no-notice devaluation and is different than how United has handled changes to its MileagePlus program in the past.
I really wish United had given passengers at least some notice before these changes kicked in. No-notice changes diminish trust and create skeptical and cynical customers.
My Greatest Fear
United will not change pricing on partner awards in the near future. That’s good news. But the removal of award charts also removes accountability. Delta also did not immediately increase the price of partner flights overnight. It happened over time. But when it happened, it was swift and painful (30% price increase). And of course, Delta denied a devaluation…how can it raise the price when there is no price published?
Much more so than SkyTeam, Star Alliance partners tend to release award space at the last minute. That makes booking last-minute awards a much more valuable proposition on United than on Delta.
My fear is that United will start charging more miles for close-in bookings, just like Delta. Flying to Asia on Delta? It’s 105K miles if you are booking within 21 days of travel or 85K miles if you are booking more than three weeks out. Delta pays the same price to its partner for award space. The increased pricing is simply a mileage-based close-in booking fee.
If United starts charging a premium for close-in partner awards, its greatest program offering, then I don’t see how it will make sense to continue with the MileagePlus program for my own travel needs.
Look For Odd Gaming Opportunities
United will continue to make use of married segment fare logic to control mileage pricing. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, you can read a primer on that here.
I hope that United will not follow Delta’s path and offer some odd, non-sensical “gaming” opportunities.
For example, say you want to book from New York to Rome on Delta. You may find that your price drops substantially if you add a “throw-away” segment on a partner.
In this example, New York (JFK) to Rome (FCO) is 125K miles one-way in business class if booked alone:
But throw in an Alitalia segment to Venice and the same Delta flight on the same date in the same class of service drops to 86K:
In what world does it make sense for an airline to charge far fewer miles when adding a partner segment it must pay out-of-pocket for?
That’s the world of married segment logic. While we can certainly “game” the system should United go down that path, I hope it doesn’t offer such odd pricing in the first place.
There’s more I could say, but I think you get the point. These changes are good for the uninformed flyers who use their miles for poor-value redemptions when they should be paying for the ticket and using a cashback credit card. For those who appreciate using their miles for premium cabin redemptions on partner airlines, there are no changes just yet…but they’re coming. Mark my words.
What are your thoughts on the 2018 MileagePlus changes?