Changes To United MileagePlus Stopover Rules & Award Fees

United has just announced some changes to their MileagePlus program. While there aren’t changes to award pricing necessarily, there are new rules as to how awards are priced. These take effect on October 6, 2016, so we’re getting two months notice.

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There are two main areas of changes — the booking of award flights, and the fee structure for award tickets.

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Let’s talk about the new fee structure first, as that’s less nuanced.

New MileagePlus award fees

At present, United has a rather convoluted pricing structure for changes to award tickets, as follows:

Award Ticket Change TypeFee
Change of date
(21 or more days prior to travel date)
$75 for a general member
*No fee for Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members
Change of date
(less than 21 days prior to travel date)
$100 for a general member
$50 for Premier Silver member
$25 for Premier Gold member
*No fee for Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members
Changing origin/destination at any time$100 for a general member
$50 for Premier Silver member
$25 for Premier Gold member
*No fee for Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members
Re-crediting miles$200 for a general member
$125 for Premier Silver member
$100 for Premier Gold member
*No fee for Global Services, Premier 1K and Premier Platinum members

For all awards booked on or after October 6, 2016, a new fee structure will apply:

MileagePlus-Updates-005

United is changing the reduced penalty window from 21 days to 61 days. That’s a change I would be fine with if the penalty itself were actually being reduced. Alaska Mileage Plan, for example, doesn’t charge a fee at all if you are canceling outside of 60 days.

So on the one hand, I appreciate the consolidation of rules and fees. But these changes are mostly neutral-to-bad depending on your United status.

Low-level elites are the big losers here

These fee changes hurt Premier Silver and Premier Gold members the most.

While they will now benefit from reduced cancelation fees, they’ll be paying more for any changes:

Award Ticket Change TypePremier Silver FeesPremier Gold Fees
Change of date
Current (outside of 21 days): No fee
Current (within 21 days): $50
New (61 or more days prior to travel date): $50
New (less than 60 days prior to travel date): $100
Current (outside of 21 days): No fee
Current (within 21 days): $25
New (61 or more days prior to travel date): $25
New (less than 60 days prior to travel date): $75
Changing origin/destinationCurrent: $50
New (61 or more days prior to travel date): $50
New (less than 60 days prior to travel date): $100
Current: $25
New (61 or more days prior to travel date): $25
New (less than 60 days prior to travel date): $75
Re-crediting milesCurrent: $125
New (61 or more days prior to travel date): $50
New (less than 60 days prior to travel date): $100
Current: $100
New (61 or more days prior to travel date): $25
New (less than 60 days prior to travel date): $75

I tend to find that elite members value the ability to change their tickets more than having reduced cancelation fees, so this is a diminishing of the Premier Silver and Premier Gold benefits.

Stopovers replaced by “Excursionist Perk”

To start, this is a ridiculous name. And that in and of itself sorta makes me distrust the whole thing, to be honest.

As United describes it:

The Excursionist Perk is a free one-way award within select multi-city itineraries. Members who book an itinerary with three or more one-way awards will be eligible to receive one of those one-way awards for free, if it meets all of these conditions:

  • The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)
  • Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.
  • The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.
  • The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
  • If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.

United also gives two examples of how the Excursionist Perk will work in comparison to the current system. The first is a simple Chicago > London > Paris > Chicago trip:

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Nothing surprising there, and that suggests no real changes to how most people use stopovers.

The second example is intriguing, as it’s still a relatively simple Mexico City > Newark > Las Vegas > San Diego > Mexico City trip, but one that they emphasize can’t currently be booked online:

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No mention is made of the fact that this could easily be booked on the phone with a United agent.

Both of these examples make it seem like nothing is really changing, which I don’t believe to be true.

On the surface, that sounds like the current stopover. But if you’re familiar with how United awards work in practice, you’ll recognize that this imposes more limitations.

  • The Excursionist Perk allows a stopover on an (effective) round trip so long as the stopover is in the same MileagePlus zone
  • believe this means an end to a stopover in Europe on the way to Asia, or possibly even a stopover in Japan on the way to Southeast Asia (as Japan is technically a separate region)
  • Awards will now price as a combination of one-way trips, and we could see more routing limitations imposed

United doesn’t publish all their award routing rules, and it’s always been a bit of trial and error. The fundamentals have been pretty constant, but I’ve been both surprised and disappointed by what the pricing engine allows in terms of segments, routings, and connections.

As an example, United has at times allowed you to route from North America to Johannesburg via either Beijing or Sao Paulo, with a stopover along the way, for 160,000 miles roundtrip in business class. (I say “at times” because the Sao Paulo option seems to come and go systematically, and I haven’t tried routing via Beijing recently — but this is a good proof of concept, so we’re going to use it anyway).

United-stopovers

Under the new Excursionist Perk scheme, I’m not sure how this would price. Will transiting 3rd regions still be allowed? Will this price as four one-way awards with one of them being “free”? It’s very unclear.

So, stopovers aren’t going away, but it’s key to note that the Excursionist Perk is designed to be different from the current stopover policy, and the old rules may not apply. We’ll dig deeper and report back.

What United isn’t saying is what concerns me most

I am almost certainly a cynic, particularly when it comes to these airlines and their loyalty programs. So the United claim that they’re introducing the Excursionist Perk to simplify things for consumers rings hollow:

…the stopover policy is based on fare rules with region and routing restrictions that some customers found confusing

The nice thing about rules and restrictions though, is that they are rules and restrictions. And so it’s possible to work within them (or around them).

And the emphasis on the “new website features” raises flags for me. If United wanted to make it easier to book multi-city awards on their website, they could do so, right now, without changing any of their award policies. The technical limitations are not currently aligned with the program limitations anyway.

So while it will be a few months before we can see how this works in practice, I’m concerned that this will remove phone agents’ ability to price complex awards manually. We’ve already seen this happen with Delta, where as far as agents are concerned “the price is the price,” and I can envision a situation where frustrated consumers are told to pound sand, because if an award didn’t price online it won’t be an option.

The most annoying change

Typically, it’s something buried in the FAQ that grinds my gears the most:

When flying with one of our Star Alliance partners, changes must be made at least 24 hours before departure.

Changes to tickets for flights within Japan (with no international connections) operated by ANA (All Nippon Airways) must be made at least four days prior to departure.

The 24 hours prior to departure are the best time to secure award seats in premium cabins. At that point the inventory is effectively distressed — the number of people purchasing walk-up full-fare international first class tickets is pretty low — so those otherwise unsold seats get released to award inventory. It’s not at all unusual to see multiple first class seats dropped in to award buckets at 23:59 prior to departure, even on routes that would never release award space otherwise.

So for those who like to streamline itineraries or improve connections closer to departure, that could be much more difficult beginning October 6th.

More importantly, the 24 hours prior to departure are when normal life happens for normal travelers. Trains are missed. The dog is sick. A meeting has to be rescheduled, or a strike delays other travel. Blocking passengers from changing their itineraries within 24 hours of travel is punitive, and could discourage people from booking Star Alliance partners (which may well be the intent).

Of course, this could also be a set of rules that is technically part of the terms, but is just never enforced. That is the current situation (these rules are on the books currently, but not in the system logic), and would be the best-case.

Bottom line

Full credit to United for announcing changes (somewhat) in advance. 60 days notice isn’t a tremendous amount of time, but it’s better than nothing.

In terms of the changes themselves… I’m skeptical. RTW awards weren’t a great deal, and American and Delta no longer offer them, so losing those is unsurprising. Having a simplified fee schedule is good, even if the new fees are particularly bad for some elite members.

I don’t like the fuzziness of the “Excursionist Perk.” My hope is that this represents marketing nonsense, versus a fundamental change to how awards are priced, and we’ll see what that looks like in practice in October. But I expect routing options to be more limited once these changes take effect.

This is our first read on the changes, so I’m sure we’ll have more updates as we’re able to dig in to the details, and of course will continue to cover this once the new rules are live.

What are your thoughts on the MileagePlus updates?

Comments

  1. I fear just what you did Tiffany: that future pricing on awards will be “that’s what the computer says it costs so that’s what it costs”, ie, the Delta mentality.

    The fee change doesn’t strike me as horrible and it’s nice there’s a realization that cancelling far out won’t be as much of a penalty for cancelling closer to travel.

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I think United currently gives two stopovers and an open jaw on an award ticket (by far the most generous policy of the US big three). It sounds like under these new rules, we’ll get one stopover and an open jaw max?!? That would seem to be what they’re doing with these changes.

  2. Not having status, I guess lower cancellation fees are more beneficial to me. Not that I’ve booked a United award in a while given inflated pricing for partners. Everything else seems like a downgrade.

    Sure wish United had a more flexible change/cancellation policy, e.g. like Singapore.

  3. I’m worried they are getting rid of layovers completely and considering them part of a “multi-city” trip, even if it’s a r/t. ORD-LHR-PRG-LHR-ORD would be r/t to Europe or r/t to Europe + an intra-Europe trip? What about BOS-NYC-LHR-PRG r/t? Would that be even more?

    It says:
    “How is the new Excursionist Perk different from the current stopover policy?

    The Excursionist Perk is not defined by time, while the stopover policy is. For international itineraries, a break in the journey over 24 hours is considered a stopover; for domestic, the break must be over four hours. Additionally, the stopover policy is based on fare rules with region and routing restrictions that some customers found confusing.”

  4. My thought is that I am glad that we didn’t waste any time or money chasing United status in 2016. We’ll be just fine with Lifetime MM Gold for me + spouse benefit Gold for the FCQ. With premium fares so cheap these dates, why bother with status when the airlines just screw you every time they get a chance?

  5. Sounds like a bad change and we may not have seen the worst yet.

    Your NYC-JNB via GRU or PEK would not have a stopover because the Ex-Perk has to start and end in one zone.

    For example, EWR-HKG-SIN-HKG-EWR would allow a stopover in HKG on either the outbound or inbound as SIN-HKG are both in the same zone.

  6. The biggest loss is being able to stop in Asia on the way to Australia or Europe on the way to Asia.

  7. I understand that SFO-TPE, TPE-PEK, PEK-SFO is a valid round-trip ticket under the new rule, and TPE-PEK is free. How about SFO-SIN, TPE-PEK, PEK-SFO? Is TPE-PEK free or not? Because SIN and TPE are in different regions, and is open jaw even allowed? Thanks.

  8. Looks like the Smisek gnomes are still running amok and doing whatever they can to screw their best customers. This MileagePlus program is doing a “death by a thousand cuts”. I am a long-time 1K (now lifetime Plat), 2MM flyer and I don’t hardly fly them at all anymore. The stopover perk was very beneficial to me, as was the “no-fee” re-deposit process.

  9. Perhaps they wanted to get rid of stopovers altogether, but realized that they can’t because Star Alliance rules require them to be available. Though if that was their goal, in addition to the fact that UA could probably just get away with flouting Star Alliance rules if they wanted to, an obvious first place to crack down would be by forcing stopovers to be valid only at Star Alliance hubs, which I believe is the official Star Alliance minimum standard.

    And I agree, excursionist perk has to be stupidest name of any FFP feature ever.

  10. I think Kev, above, summed it up perfectly.

    United is horrible, and I used to be a huge booster of theirs, maintaining 1K (back when it was, you know, good) for 8 years in a row. Now American is my first choice, followed by Delta for the US mainline carriers. I only fly United when absolutely necessary, which is just about never these days.

    And “Excursionist Perk?” What’s next, naming their business class “Polaris?” Just kidding, they can’t possibly be *that* ridiculous…

  11. PS – United’s Mileage Plus program should re-brand as “United Skymiles” because that’s what they effectively, literally, are. It seems the word “innovate” is utterly foreign to UA (and by extension, American).

  12. Just another step in pushing casual fliers residing in the US from United MileagePlus to Singapore KrisFlyer. Better award chart, better service, lower fees

  13. What’s the deal with anything more than a nominal fee to cancel and redeposit more than 60 days out? This is a “free ticket”, that due to limited availability they clearly would rather not give you at all. But then they say “oh, we don’t have to fly you there for free? You’ll have to pay a penalty fee to not take the flight we were so reluctant to give you”.

    That’s just absurd. SQ and a few others have a very minimal fee to prevent people from booking and canceling hundreds of times a year, but anything else is gouging their best customers, just because they can… 🙁

  14. While this will screw up my planned trip next year (my stopover was going to be LIM or CUZ and my destination SCL, so 2 different regions, thus no stopover allowed any more) and, I think, eliminate the “free one way” from your origin city (which I was quite fond of!), I think that those complaining that Mileage Plus is worse than skymiles or AAdvantage are completely out to lunch.

    Yes, they have restricted stopovers. On the other hand, the others have restricted them to none, so MilieagePlus is still better for stopovers. Routing rules have not changed, so still better than Skymiles with their journey controls and AAdvantage with their myriad routing rules. Don’t know about the changes within 24 hours rule with others, but that applies to a miniscule percentage of award flyers. So far as I can tell, the fees for changes/cancellations are roughly in line or better than others, except for AAdvantage allowing you to make changes to date/time/routing for no fee, but that disadvantage was already there.

    From what I can tell, MileagePlus is not as good as it was, but remains better than the other two.

    For @A, for your example itinerary, you would have to designate LHR as a connection city in the normal award booking stream. If you tried to price that out using the multicity tool with each individual segment, it would price every segment as a one way and you would have to pay for at least 3 of the 4 segments, but if the booking tool is working as it should, then you will be fine booking using a normal return, or, if you want a stopover at LHR, booking in the multicity, ORD-LHR(stop)-PRG-ORD. The only potential drawback I see (again, if the system follows their rules) would be that you might not be able to specify how long your connection in LHR will be (whereas with the current multicity tool, you could have anything from 2 to 24 hours if it was available).

  15. Just got my email from UA:

    “More flexible award booking and streamlined fees”
    “Starting in the fall, we are enhancing the way you book MileagePlus® award travel on united.com, giving you more flexibility and ability to build complex itineraries.”

    Just have to admire how hard these FF program people work, thinking up cool ‘enhancements’ that both simplify and improve our award booking experience. /sarcasm

    If it’s so much better, then why are the award booking professionals trying to puzzle out what the new rules even mean?

    It’s gotten to the point that I cringe every time I read the word “enhancements”.

  16. @Daniel, currently one stopover and two open jaws, and I don’t see anything in here that has changed that.
    Most of the United staff seem not to know that two open jaws are allowed, but it is in their rules.
    We flew MCO-FRA-LHR (destination), MUC-FRA-ORD-MCO (stopover)-EWR-YEG using united miles and all of the stopover/open jaws. When I couldn’t book it online because the multicity tool is less than perfect, I tried to book it over the phone and they were adamant that two open jaws were not allowed even after escalating to a supervisor. I managed to book enough of the itinerary online to have the open jaws included, then called back in within 24 hours to change and add some segments and it worked fine, no questions asked.

  17. I’ve actually changed a ticket withing 24 hr a few times (once was when LH F became available at 23:59), so if they start enforcing that rule it would be annoying. Come to think of it, I’ve also used the free stopover in Japan on the way to SE Asia. So under these rules, some of my BEST trips bought with UA miles would have been impossible.

    Thanks, UA. Of course, I don’t earn UA miles anymore because UA has fired me as a customer by making Mileage Plus worthless to me. But they are (were?) one of the more valuable Chase UR partners.

  18. Is free one-way still allowed?

    Ie. BKK-SYD-BKK-HKG

    (Final leg BKK-HKG being the free one-way.)

    Too many funny terms in this UA update and I am lost.

  19. Biggest lost for me is ability to route through Asia from USA to Australia for same miles as direct. Asia routings have much better availability.

    This is not an enhancement but pricing out segments individually. At least if the stopover is in the same region – then it is free. I guess this better than AA – which has no stopovers.

  20. United’s recent email titled “More flexible award booking and streamlined fees” is extremely disappointing. It is very misleading and deceptive that they would send out this email as though the changes were a primary benefit to their customers. It is not! Change fees have been increased for all members. Reduced change fee lead time has tripled from 21 days to 61 days. Domestic stopovers for reduced miles have been removed. The only benefit I see is reduced fees for redepositing miles.

    I’m left with a terrible taste in my mouth about the way United presented these changes. It would have been much more ethical to be clear about changes both on the plus AND minus side. (I had to dig into the FAQ to learn the minus side and even then it is glossed over.) Your article helped too. It is very clear that the minuses outweigh the pluses due to these changes for the vast majority of United’s customers.

    There is not mention of award booking fees in United’s updated policy. Does that mean they have been removed? (I’m guessing it does not or that benefit would have been made clear.)

  21. This also sets up the implementation of variable award pricing segment by segment and eliminating the inability to mix saver and standard.

  22. “The Excursionist Perk is not defined by time”

    Does this mean a simple roundtrip between regions that requires a layover will become more expensive?
    For example: BRU-EWR-LAS-EWR-BRU is currently 60,000 miles in economy.
    After the change, does it become like the second example in this post?
    BRU – EWR 30,000
    EWR – LAS free
    LAS – EWR 12,500
    EWR – BRU 30,000
    for a total of 72,500 even though you’re not doing a stop over??

  23. Excellent overview but I believe you missed highlighting one of the most important “enhancements” for higher end fliers. Until now, Premier Platinum members have always had ZERO award change/redeposit fees. Beginning in October, Platinum members will now have to pony up $50 per change within 60 days of departure. BIG downgrade for Platinum. Way to treat some of your best fliers, United!

  24. @DA got it right, slippery Jeff’s out and on the run and the feds are after him and yet the same old foolish crap continues. United’s got an interesting problem, the bean counters are looking at all the miles and the bank and figuring out how to lower their cost to redeem them all not overly piss off their dwindling faithful flying public. Years ago United was one of the top companies in the world vis-à-vis reach and lift, today they’re quickly becoming a second and third tier Carrier.

    I think the reality is their market is being eaten from the Middle East and Asia, new carriers getting into profitable routes and the net result is they need to change the liability that the miles represent and try to make more money based on cost centers. Changing a ticket has a human effort behind it and a cost, I guess they’re making money on their call center activity. They should make it free or very low cost if the traveler can do that all online.

  25. @ Randy – “Biggest lost for me is ability to route through Asia from USA to Australia for same miles as direct. Asia routings have much better availability.”

    Where are you seeing this change to the routing rules? These amendments are about stopovers, not routings. If I understand correctly, you can still route to Oz via Asia; you just can’t spend more than 24 hours in an Asian city on the way. Am I wrong?

  26. Has United always had 17 Regions? The Excursionist Perk is, essentially, worthless, unless you are going to Europe. Then, there is no change. It eliminates stopping in Europe on your way to Asia, Australia on your way to Fiji, or Japan on your way to anywhere. Fees went up (who really cancels and redeposits?) The 24 hour inability to change plans is pointless. One would think that the airlines would rather have a chance to sell a last minute recently vacated coach seat (from somebody who moved up) as opposed to a last minute first class seat.

    All that said, I flew Avianca for the first time (BZE-SAL-IAD) when UA wasn’t available. Hadn’t flown an International Airline in years. Shocked at how adapted I came to the extra fees, crummy service and attitudes and dirty planes that US Airlines provide. Regardless of the “no changes in 24 hours” issue, my big trips are covered by Travel Insurance…..I will likely seek out Intl Airlines for my travels when possible.

  27. Great overview of the changes. Presumably there is still no stopover permitted on one way awards?

  28. @ Josh — That’s not confirmed yet, but that’s how I read it as well. The computer is going to tell you what routings are allowed, and there might not be room to argue. So there could be situations where routing to Sydney via Incheon is allowed, but not Auckland via Tokyo — it will depend on how they program the computer.

  29. I am taking four young children to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright. In early August they told me that I could book a stayover ticket to spend a few days in London in both directions (from the states). This was going to be a life saver as (unbeknownst to any on this site) young children do not do well on long flights. I just had to wait until I got back from China to get one of the tickets with miles.

    The surprise came when today’s United rep acted like I was soliciting hard drugs when I asked for a Stayover ticket. It isn’t October yet, but already the response was “We don’t do that sort of thing.”

    Can we PLEASE bring back airship travel? Or make some hyperloops? Or at least high speed rail?

  30. @ Ryan Kerney — Hah! You can still have a “stopover” in one direction using miles, but they only allow one on an award ticket.

  31. @Tiffany – I wasn’t trying to use miles! They told me in July that a regular faire round-trip international flight from January to July would allow two stop overs between Washington and Colombo. The Miles ticket was allowed one stopover. The rep told me today that I would have to book a multi-city ticket to get these stopovers, which of course cost twice as much.

  32. @ Ryan Kerney — Ah, well, that depends on the specific fare rules of the ticket. They might have been offering one in July that allowed stopovers, but aren’t presently. This is probably a situation where a good travel agent could make an huge difference, honestly.

  33. So we are planning a trip to Europe next year. Itinerary is LAX-AMS then CDG-FCO then back home from FCO-LAX. Do you suggest to book our award seats now before the new changes kick in on October 6th?

    Thanks!

  34. It sounds like they are also breaking up what used to be considered RT tickets and making them a set of one-ways. Combine that with the new 60-day rule, it makes one trip with a few “one-ways” very expensive to cancel!

  35. Hello. I would like to use the existing system before it changes. I am trying to look for award from CGK (or SIN) to LAX with some hope of stopover in between, such as HKG, TYO, or so.

    Could anyone recommend how to find the best deal on this? I am familiar with AA but not with united.

  36. Had some conversation with UA agent and confirmed that UA indeed removed agents’ ability to price complex award travel tickets. Darm!

    Hope that helps.
    Cheers Michael

  37. And, in addition to my previous comment, UA seems to start blocking OZ award spaces on its website – I just checked OZ’s availability on NH for flights between ICN and PEK/PVG/KIX/TYO, it’s not showing up in any way on UA (while full availabiltiy is available from NH).

    Thank YOU UA.

    Cheers Michael

  38. This amenity clawback has put the nail in the coffin for my UA loyaly. I wrote a stern, unhappy letter to United. Ugh

  39. United wants to charge me $100 per person to change from den-las-sfo to den-sfo on the same day – no thanks, I’d rather spend my hundred dollars playing video poker in vegas.

  40. If I am going to Bali (DPS) via Taipei, can I stop over at Taipei for a few days by redeeming Mileageplus miles and then go to Bali? I called Mileageplus and asked them to price the ticket and they said this is considered 2 separate tickets. Any advise?

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