With award charts no longer published, United Airlines has made changes to the way it prices awards on its own flights and on partner flights. Here are six observations.
1. Across-the-board increase in cost for close-in departures
Across the board, United has increased the cost of awards booked within 30 days of travel. When “saver” space is available (X, I, and O class), United is tacking on anywhere between 1,500 and 3,500 miles. This applies in every region of travel on both shorthaul and longhaul flights.
United has even added language to its website explaining this:
Why do I see higher award prices close to the trip departure date?
Award pricing is based on a variety of factors, including demand, route, airline, and how far in advance the award ticket is purchased. Generally, booking your award flight further in advance will help you find the lowest price, and booking closer to departure may result in a higher price.
This is flawed logic, but I’ll save the analysis for a follow-up post.
2. Flights on United Metal Increase Within 30 Days; May Be Cheaper Outside of 30 Days
On United, domestic trips that traditionally would have priced at 10K for flights under 700 miles and 12.5K for flights over 700 miles are now pricing up to 2.5K miles higher in each direction.
Generally, United is going by the following:
- 2,500 mile surcharge for flights within seven days of departure
- 2,000 mile surcharge for flights within 26-27 days of departure (yes, it depends)
- 1,500 mile surcharge for flights within between 26-27 and 30 days of departure
I use the term “miles surcharge” only as a comparative tool to historic saver pricing, since “saver” awards are now a thing of the past in a loyalty program that does not publish award charts.
Flights outside 30 days may cost as little as 5K miles, but these are generally on routes where it simply does not make sense to burn miles when the dollar cost of the ticket is so cheap.
Take Los Angeles to San Francisco for example:
This bucks the trend of the pattern I outline above, since the prices drops below the historic 10K one-way level when booking 21 days in advance. But note that these appear to be exceptions to the general rule above.
3. Partner Flight All Increase by 3.5K Miles
As I outlined earlier, all partner awards now cost an extra 3,500 miles if booked within 30 days of departure. That includes even 8K short haul nonstop flights within a region, which now rise in cost over 40% to 11.5K miles.
Take Frankfurt to Paris, for example. A flight that would have historically cost 8K miles now costs 11.5K miles when booked within 30 days of departure.
But for bookings more than 30 days away, the 8K price remains. This remains true for any nonstop award flight of 750 miles or less located within a single geographic region, as defined by MileagePlus.
The 3.5K mileage cost increase in every region applies to all cabins of service.
Take Lisbon to Newark via Frankfurt today:
or Los Angeles to Taipei on Tuesday:
4. Elites Hit Hardest
These changes come as something of an even exchange for non-elites, since United also waived its $75 close-in processing fee for award bookings within 21 days of departure. But for MileagePlus elite members who were not charged this close-in booking fee, the increase in pricing represents an immediate devaluation.
If you value United points at about two cents each, the extra 3,500 miles equates to $70. United merely replaced the close-in processing fee currency.
5. Domestic Awards That Price At 15K Miles Or Less Still Bookable By Partners
United is still booking economy class awards that cost up to 15K miles in “X” class on domestic flights. That means those awards are still bookable by United’s Star Alliance partners, like Air Canada Aeroplan or Avianca Lifemiles.
For example, it now costs 15K miles for last-minute ticket from Madison to Newark. That flight still books into “X” class and is also available via Aeroplan for 12.5K miles.
The same is true for premium cabin awards. The new close-in surcharge of miles still keeps the award booked into an “I” booking class and therefore accessible by partners.
In short, at least United is not pricing its inflated close-in awards at higher levels only bookable via MileagePlus…at least not yet.
6. These Changes Comes Without Notice
After assuring us that “there are no plans” to increase the price partner awards, the increase in pricing comes as a sad confirmation that words cannot be trusted.
Is it time to dump your United miles? I’d say the answer is yes. Not because awards now cost a few thousand miles more than yesterday, but because we do not know how bad the next devaluation will be. Since award charts are gone, there is nothing holding United back from rapidly raising pricing overnight…just look at what Delta did.
So my strategy going forward is to earn them and burn them. Keep your flexible points in Chase Ultimate Rewards or Marriott Bonvoy for as long as possible.
It’s like the ghost of Jeff Smisek has returned with the “changes you’ll like” mantra. These increases of 1,500 to 3,500 miles strike me as so petty. They infuriate elite travelers like me and for what? United really botched this one. We all knew award prices would eventually go up. But by raising prices in a dishonest way, United forfeited more trust and soured many who otherwise be willing to accept many of the 11/15 changes to the program.