United’s New Award Pricing Is Everything I’d Feared

United MileagePlus announced changes to their award fees and stopover rules a few months ago, effective for tickets issued on or after October 6, 2016. The main change was to how United would handle stopovers on award tickets, and my concern was that the new system technology would limit routing options, and prevent agents from pricing awards manually.

We’ve spent the weekend playing with routings and options, and have some insights into the new MileagePlus pricing scheme.

Essentially, everything is pretty much exactly as bad as I’d expected it to be. MileagePlus is now less predictable than SkyMiles.

The calendar is broken again

This is a minor, minor, issue in comparison, but one you should know about. United’s award search calendar has recently done a good job of showing saver space for both United and their partners, but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem to be accurate at present.

I’m seeing many days that not only have premium cabin saver space, but have space on United metal, and the calendar still doesn’t show availability.

new-united-pricing-001

So you’ll want to search date-by-date versus trusting the calendar.

Multi-region routings are allowed, as long as it’s not your idea

One of the concerns I’d had about the new pricing scheme would be that routing options would be limited to whatever the computer decided was appropriate. This sadly seems to be the case.

Let’s look at a trip between Los Angeles and Auckland, for example. A simple one-way search on United.com shows one Air China business class routing, and an assortment of mixed-cabin awards:

new-united-pricing-004

But there’s a lot more available award space than that, if you’re open to an extra connection. Like A380 space on Asiana:

new-united-pricing-003

Which could connect to an Air New Zealand Dreamliner (by way of a quick Asiana 747 flight) for an avgeek trifecta:

new-united-pricing-002

United.com won’t organically display this routing, but you used to be able to pull something like this up using the multi-city tool, and still get the 80,000 mile price.

new-united-pricing-005

Doing so now, however, breaks the fare, causing the itinerary to price as two awards (80k + 40k):

new-united-pricing-006

This is frustrating, as it’s a perfectly legal itinerary. But someone has decided to filter it out of the results, so it’s not an option.

Let’s look at another example, this time from New York to Tokyo. Japan has been a little interesting for MileagePlus awards in recent years, as Japan is a separate region, so awards price at lower rates than the rest of Asia.

If you search for a one-way, United.com might suggest options through other regions in Asia, or through Europe:

new-united-pricing-009

And that’s great, but if you specifically want to route in a particular manner, you’ll pay for the privilege. So if I select the JFK-WAW-NRT option that organically displays, it’s 75,000 MileagePlus miles for the one-way.

If I instead try and use the multi-city tool to force the connection in Warsaw, the pricing becomes additive.

new-united-pricing-010  So you’ll pay 75,000 miles for the North America to Europe award, and then an additional 70,000 miles for the Europe to Japan portion, even though the connection is only a few hours, and is obviously a legal itinerary.

new-united-pricing-013

You may be able to encourage the website to suggest certain routings by using the advanced search tool and filtering really aggressively, but you’ll have to play with each trip to see what works and what makes the website explode.

Perhaps over time we’ll be able to get a collective sense of what routings are likely to be recommended by the system. In the meantime, however, it’s wildly unpredictable. Some connections will display, others won’t, and the logic isn’t immediately apparent.

Agents can’t (technically) fix pricing either

Escalating to phone agents is mostly useless, as they no longer have authority to manually adjust pricing. Bad agents don’t even acknowledge the problem, and good agents are just as frustrated as we are.

Connections are now only allowed at “natural” points along the flight path, and the computer decides what a natural path is. Given the computer was likely programmed by the same people that decided the new MileagePlus security questions were a) necessary and b) two-factor authentication, that’s not reassuring.

Basically, the folks on the phone can’t compile awards any differently than the website does. For partners that don’t show online (Ethiopian and Singapore Airlines), this is translating to itineraries pricing as multiple awards, even when there’s no logical reason for it.

It’s a ridiculous policy, and a troubling one.

Apparently some 1K agents have been willing/able to go into the “old system” to price awards properly, but I haven’t encountered one yet who would try for me. Hopefully we’ll get more clarity in the coming days.

When the “Excursionist Perk” works, it’s easy

Let’s say you want to travel from the U.S. to Madrid, and have a stopover in Vienna along the way. This is allowed under the new rules, as Madrid and Vienna are in the same award region.

You can search for flights using the multi-city tool (though to avoid frustration I’d search each segment separately first).

new-united-pricing-021

As results start to populate you’ll be given options for the individual portions of the itinerary, along with their price:

new-united-pricing-016

When you get to the segment eligible for the “Excursionist Perk” the price will show as “0 Miles”:

new-united-pricing-022

Once you’ve selected each portion of your trip, you’ll (hopefully) get to a screen listing the full itinerary, along with a total price:

new-united-pricing-023 new-united-pricing-024

Of course, I say “hopefully” because half of my searches resulted in the website erroring out.

new-united-pricing-018

Awesome.

Bottom line

The most unfortunate part of these updates is how United has handicapped their agents. “Simplifying” the options available on the website is one thing, but removing the ability of agents to manually price awards is decidedly consumer-unfriendly.

Given how notoriously horrible United.com is, limiting MileagePlus members to the options available on the website is rather horrible. Add in that Singapore Airlines (and sometimes Ethiopian) awards don’t even display on United.com, and that the website is frequently incapable of handling even simple itinerary changes, and it’s not only a much bigger change than many anticipated, but a recipe for frustration.

Hopefully United will loosen these restrictions up so that agents will again be able to compile awards. If not, this represents a significant devaluation to the MileagePlus program.

Has anyone found any instances in which the new UA award logic is not as bad as we’d feared?

Comments

  1. I’m curious why you think MileagePlus is restricting Ethiopian awards?

    I regularly find MileagePlus to have better availability on Ethiopian (and yes, it is ticketable) than even ShebaMiles does. I’ve been able to ticket MileagePlus awards on a sold out flight (viz. C0Y0) multiple times, most recently in August.

  2. So glad we each have only about 15,000 PQM for 2016 and maybe 300,000 RDM remaining. We’re mostly done with United, at least for now.

  3. Tiffany – just wanted to say thanks!! Your posts are always detailed, very ease to understand and enjoyable. Please contribute more, you are valued member of the team!

  4. Did you get the error message when searching for NYC-VIE-MAD or when you searched for NYC-NRT? Or both? I think that error message would definitely irritate me more. Ugh. If the agents can’t manually price these awards, then I don’t really see the point of even reaching out to them. :/

  5. I booked last night…their current (avail to customers) site is now broken. the CSR told me they have to use a “new tool” in order to book, as mine errored EVERY time no matter the fare, route, etc. They were “nice enough” to waive the phone booking fee (gee, thanks).

    In short, their web tool hasn’t been updated to the tool they will be using or the tool/site the CSRs are now instructed to use

    To be fair, I still got a stopover in LIM that I wanted, but no free trip to HI 🙁

  6. They either haven’t fully figured out their behind the scene IT issues for routing or this is a very bad negative change. I will hope its something they need to fix on the back end of their system. I haven’t done any United awards but with a growing stash of Chase UR its going to be something I will look into.

  7. I contacted them too and complained, but they just directed me to https://unitedairtime.com/

    Which is probably a lost cause. But maybe if everyone from all the points blogs and FlyerTalk goes on their and complains about how basic functionality has been lost, maybe they’ll do something.

    Even better, maybe somebody can find names for the right people at United to complain to and then everyone can send those people emails complaining about the changes. Most people at UA have the email format FirstName.LastName@united.com. Probably you won’t get Oscar this way, but everyone up to VP level should have this email format.

  8. This sounds terrible. Just to confirm you are saying that if you manually feed legal segments over the phone, agents can no longer use that to build the itinerary? United, if this is the case…you better fix this quick. Being able to build out trips was a huge value add and a reason I am loyal to your airline. Removing this ability is a negative game changer for me.

  9. This is really too bad. There used to be four advantages to United miles: 1. No YQ, 2. relatively generous award availability on UA and *A, 3. fairly reasonable miles prices for business class awards, and 4. generally reasonable routing rules (stopovers, multiple segments and open jaws allowed within reason).

    UA has removed advantage #4. I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before at least one of the other ones gets stomped on as well. Since I don’t earn UA miles by flying UA any more, it becomes a choice of whether to transfer Chase miles to a different *A partner, such as SQ, and eat the YQ in favor of more generous routing rules. Since SQ is so promiscuous with its credit card transfer partners, that looks like an increasingly attractive option, despite the expense.

  10. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for UA to empower agents to manually “fix” it – I’d guess that decreasing agent workload and call times is part of (but not the only) reason for this. i.e., this isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

  11. To be fair, I’m not sure that this is really worse than SkyMiles. A lot of the functionality that was removed was great fun for people who like to take advantage, but can you honestly say it was within the spirit of the program to be able to go far out of your way and get crazy free segments on awards?

    The excursionist perk, though stupidly named, does seem to preserve the most sensible form of stopovers, unlike Delta which axed stopovers altogether.

    And at least United’s website still finds most logical and direct connecting itineraries, unlike Delta’s site, which has a habit of ignoring or forgetting various itinerary options.

    Perhaps moving to a BA pay-per-segment model would make life easier for everyone, in that there would be no need to worry about whether pricing engines are adding up correctly or not.

  12. @ Bgriff — Well, I said it was less predictable, which I stand by. The website finds some logical itineraries, but not all of them. It still ignores/forgets stuff, just like Delta, and there’s no way to know what routes will be available on which days.

    Beyond that, these limits go beyond “limiting abuse.” If you want to overnight at your connecting city versus taking a redeye, for example, you can’t manually choose to have a 16 hour connection if the engine doesn’t display it automatically. I don’t think that’s taking advantage, and it’s a shame that United isn’t allowing their employees the authority to make those adjustments.

  13. “…within the spirit of the program…” is a mouthful, as the avalanche of advice on how to beat the system(s) in recent years has brought much of this on (free one-ways being an obvious example). Like so many, I’ve benefitted from advice on the blogs, but many of us have questioned the most loopy, manipulative schemes as ethically precarious and obvious red flags for the airlines. Do the airlines pull some awful things, treat people badly sometimes, etc? Yep, and we can (I do too) rationalize a lot of things as defensible on that measure alone. But over the past year or so those programs have been tightening down on the most manipulative practices. Totally predictable. And now United, exactly like classy classy Delta, has gone off the deep end and is flipping us all off.

  14. @Tiffany — true, though you could argue the idea of “any international connection up to 24 hours is valid” is somewhat of a miles-redemption novelty; you don’t always get that kind of flexibility on revenue tickets.

    To be clear I’m mostly just playing devil’s advocate and am sad to see these options go — but I can kind of understand where the airlines are coming from in cracking down on certain behaviors. Especially because the idea is that the typical customer who just wants to go from point A to point B won’t be affected, though clearly UA’s IT issues mean that isn’t actually true in practice.

    It is also possible, given UA’s propensity to copy DL, that this is a precursor to eliminating award charts at UA too, which would clearly be a negative development, even for people who aren’t trying to game the system.

  15. As a million mile flier with UA (flying mostly when they were in bankruptcy eating those crappy deli sandwiches on premium transcon flights), they slapped me down a couple years ago by breaking a promise it took me hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain when they devalued my status to Gold. Now they have increased my change fees while reducing non-elite change fees. The final nail for me is this multi-city search. First hiding the fact by saying there are “no other changes” when in fact they knew different. (I suspected this when seeing odd things happen with multi-city search over recent weeks.) Then the excuse of “awards not pricing properly” is complete BS. Every award built under multi-city search fit the rules. If something was unusual the rate desk always made the final decision. No tickets were issued that were not priced properly. Mr. Munoz wants a best in class airline. This is a curios way of going about that, Polaris or not. Time to move on to a different airline/program. My only regret is I didn’t drain my account.

  16. Horrible. Horrible.
    The website cannot even price a simple intra-Japan stopover which is legal. The united agent in technical support couldn’t figure it out either and put me on hold to contact their help desk.
    I finally gave up.

  17. Have you seen Point Me To The Plane’s analysis which demonstrates that the excursionist perk doesn’t even have to connect to the other flights? It seems the free one-way is still alive and even more flexible.

  18. Tiffany sets a very high standard for OMAAT writers.

    This is true analysis; detailed, precise and relevant.

    @Tiffany
    How are they handling SQ awards mixed with other *A airlines?

  19. @dale m: Could not agree with you more!! I am done trying to be loyal and now booking the airline I want depending on my destination, and at the exact schedule that suits me.

  20. @ Tiffany – good summary, but if I could make one suggestion if you update your post: focus on the things that affect not just avgeeks. These changes are so rough, even “regular customers” are being impacted. For example, did you know that you want to make *any* change to an award itinerary, you need to start all over again? That’s right, award seats have to be available on ALL segments of your itinerary, even if you’re just changing one segment (say, you find a better-timed connecting flight a few weeks after you book). It doesn’t matter if you’re already confirmed on the other segments. And agents are powerless to fix it…

  21. @ FFlyer — Thanks for the feedback! I tried to keep this one general, as I agree these changes adversely impact “regular” people. There are actually some ridiculous opportunities as a result of the new system logic, but it’s a bit complicated for a basic post like this.

    And I’m hoping the options for changes get cleaned up too — that part, at least, I don’t think is intentional.

  22. @Tiffany sez: “MileagePlus is now less predictable than SkyMiles.”

    I am nearly certain that once reports of people redeeming award travel on UA to various destinations and for varied itineraries, the claim that MP is now less predictable than SM will turn out to be a gross exaggeration, if not altogether bogus.

    I have a “before” and “after” test case study to show that some itineraries won’t be affected even a bit as a result of the new rules. Prompted by @Tiffany’s post in this heretofore very informative series, I scrambled to beat the October 6 deadline on which the new rules were to go in effect, not because I was particularly worried about it, but because I had just realized that I was 3 months behind in booking my Big-Time Annual Year-end Asian Escapade(TM), which I had completely to book by the end July last year. So, I after I settled on my rather complex itinerary for this 4-week personal travel in N and SE Asia, I did what I’d done each of the 5 prior years:

    — I searched for award availability to my destinations, one segment at a time.
    — Armed with the award availability from the prior step, I would get on the horn with a UA 1K Desk agent to have her [it was a “him” this time but it is immaterial] confirm the availability of each award flight that I’d found, and then she would link the segments into itineraries, taking into account MileagePlus rules about stopovers, open jaws, one-way vs. round trip, etc, as they relate to award travel. So, here’s what I ended up with:

    First, I was still short on PQMs and PQDs required to requalify for UA 1K, so I decided to use this TPAC trip to get what I needed, and in process kill two birds with one stone: I booked revenue round trip tickets to fly into PVG (LGA-ORD-PVG) in UA GlobalFirst and return to the US from HKG four weeks later, after my “Asian Escapade”, on a W fare for which I requested an upgrade to UA BusinessFirst using a GPU. That revenue ticket cost me just under $4K, which I put on my Chase Sapphire Reserve to meet the minimum spend and collect 100K UR points (first bird killed) and would get me over the 100K PQMs and $12K PQDs that I needed to requalify for 1K (second bird killed).

    As for the within Asia Year-End Escapade(TM) itself, which would be exclusively on award tickets, here’s what I got for a rather complex itinerary [the letters in parentheses, e.g. (X), are the classes of service between two cities: (X) is economy, (I) is business and (O) is first class]. I searched segment by segment, with the city at the end of each segment being a stopover destination where I would spend at least 3 day.

    A. Segment by segment award search:
    —————————————————
    NORTH ASIA
    — Segment #1: Shanghai (PVG) to Tokushima (TKS), Japan, I got:
    PVG-(X)-KIX-(X)-HND-(X)-TKS: 15K UA miles, $13.50

    — Segment #2: TKS to- Seoul (ICN), I got:
    TKS-(X)-HND-NRT-(I)-ICN: 30K, $25.40
    [with taxi from HND to NRT in Tokyo]

    NORTH TO S/SE ASIA AND STAY THERE

    — Segment #3: ICN to Singore (SIN)
    ICN-(I)-PEK-(I)-SIN: 40K, $38.60

    Segment #4: SIN to Bangkok (BKK), I got:
    SIN-(I)-BKK: 25K, $25.70

    Segment #5: BKK to Phnom Pehn (PHN) in the Kingdom of Cambodia, I got:
    BKK-(I)-PHN: 25K, $21.10
    PHN-(I)-BKK: 25K, $26

    Segment #6: BKK to Hong Kong (HGK)
    BKK-(O)-HKG: 35K, $21.10

    B. Piecing the segments together into itineraries and PNRs
    ——————————————————————————

    After confirming the availability of awards for every segment, the UA agent excused herself as she figured out how to piece the segments together into itineraries, which she needed in order to be able to determine how many miles it would all cost, me as well as to issue me the PNRs and the tickets. This is how she pieced things together in itineraries and PNRs.

    — PNR#1: PVG-(X)-KIX-(X)-HND-(X)-TKS-(X)-HND-NRT-(I)-ICN-(I)-PEK-(I)-SIN
    Cost: 55K UA miles/$78.10

    — PNR#2: SIN-(I)-PNR#3-(I)-PHN-(I)- BKK-(O)-HKG
    Cost: 60K UA miles/$73.30

    — PNR#3: BKK-(I)-PHN: This segment belonged in PNR #2 but it was overlooked (by me or the agent doing the booking). I found out later and it was added as a separate PNR and it cost 25K UA miles/$21.10

    Total miles cost after piecing the segments as above: 55K + 60K + 25K = 140K UA miles/$172.50

    Total it WOULD HAVE cost me segment-by-segment: 15K + 30K + 40K + 25K + 25K + 25K + 35K = 195K UA miles.

    A difference of 195K – 140K = 55K miles and that’s why I always let a 1K Desk agent confirm award availability and piece the segments for me!!!

    Now back to the claims unpredictability of award search/booking as a result of the new rules. What would be different if I did the above under the new UA rules? Absolutely nothing would be different. In fact, I just searched for the above today and it gave me exactly what it had given me when I booked the award travel above on October 5. I asked the agent if the new rules would make it difficult for me to reach out to one of them to help me book similar award travel in the future. She said not at all, and even encouraged it.

    The claim that “MileagePlus is now less predictable than SkyMiles” needs to be made with extreme caution! There is already a complex itinerary that challenges the claim.

    I will be doing soon in travel discussion board near you, a complete post on my planning of this Big-Time redemption, with an itinerary map and hotel award stays that I have already booked at each destination using a combination of HHonors points (mostly), MR points (including 9K starpoints transferred to 27K MR points) and HGP points. 🙂

    G’day!

  23. @FFlyer.

    Really good point. For example, suppose for example, you found on the website, RT, LGA-ORD-NRT and then back NRT-ORD-LGA. Not idea, but in business. Two days later you see JFK-NRT, but there is no availability in business on the way back at all. You could not make the change, because the computer would not show it. Not good.

  24. @FFlyer — Maybe if one wants to delete a segment is when must start over, because I easily added a segment that had been overlooked in my complex travel plan above. On the other hand, if one wants to delete a segment that depends on having award availability before or after it or both, then one might have to start over. This was true even before the rules change when a change would throw everything off. I am not saying you are wrong. I am just saying that certain restrictions may simply relate to the peculiarities of an itinerary and not necessarily to the rules change.

  25. @DSC. Not sure what your are talking about. I used as an example something that I have actually done on United.

  26. @DCS – Your example is not what we are discussing, nor did you get anything other than the single one way redemption values, even tho you tried to price it out for us city by city.

    PNR#1: PVG-(X)-KIX-(X)-HND-(X)-TKS-(X)-HND-NRT-(I)-ICN-(I)-PEK-(I)-SIN
    Cost: 55K UA miles/$78.10

    One Way PVG-SIN is 40K points in business class, but you went up to TKS so:
    Your trip
    PVG-TKS = 15K in economy
    TKS-SIN = 40K in Business
    PVG-TKS-SIN = 55K, what you paid. Hope you got a stop over in TKS.

    — PNR#2: SIN-(I)-PNR#3-(I)-PHN-(I)- BKK-(O)-HKG
    Cost: 60K UA miles/$73.30

    SIN-HKG is 35K points in First class on Thai through BKK but you went to PNH so
    Your Trip:
    SIN-PNH is 25K in Business
    PNH-HKG is 35K in First on Thai
    Which is exactly what you paid 60K.

    Sorry, no deal for you.

    Furthermore, numerous people have called UA for simple redemptions and have been told that agent can’t price it out. You happen to have a 1K agent and no doubt they are willing to help more than common folk.

  27. @Tiffany — At the beginning is usually a good place. But, thank you. I am happy because I’ll be all over N and SE Asia and paying comparatively little for it. In fact, about the same as I have paid in the past.

    The above is one data point in what I hope will be hundreds of data points from which we’ll get a better sense of the pros and cons of these changes. Some itineraries will be hit harder than others and some not at all. That’s how I’d put at this point.

  28. @MarkS — The key is in how the segments are pieced together. After it’s been done, it’s easy to claim foresight. Hindsight is perfect 20/20 vision 😉

  29. @DCS, glad you are happy with your trip. I’ve booked some very complex ones myself. But your point was things haven’t changed. They have. Your itinerary was valid then and it’s valid now. BTW: From one FF to another FF tip, a train is faster and less expensive than a taxi from HND to NRT.

  30. @MarkS — I am sure that things have changed, but it would be best to look at case by case because all redemptions are not created equal. For me, searching and finding awards has never been a problem. If you do not trust “united.com”, then search elsewhere (AC, NH) and compare, and get back to a UA agent with itineraries from elsewhere. If they refuse then that would be a major cause for concern, but my understanding is that agents will look if you suggest an itinerary. It is what I did. The agent had no clue whether or not what I was providing was from the UA website or from elsewhere.

    Thank you for the tip about taking the train rather a taxi from HND to NRT. I did not yet get to thinking about that because I would have 4 hours to get from one place to the other so I figured I had plenty of time. But the train will now be the first option I will consider.

    Cheers!

  31. @DCS, what is making everyone upset is that you can no longer just feed an agent a valid itinerary and have them price it correctly for you. If United doesn’t suggest it to you, then you’ll have to pay the segment-by-segment price for it, whether you book online or with an agent.

  32. Calendar has been broken for the last couple of years from my experience… You have to look at the detailed results. Have they ever fixed the broken expert mode fare buckets issue yet? Been going a year on that one. They won’t fix anything that is not in their direct interest.

  33. I always manually assemble my united i itineraries and call them in. It’s the only way i get the flights I need. Without that capability united miles are massively devalued for me!

  34. Agreed. The calendar is a mess, and agents don’t know what to do with the information. I spent two hours on hold trying to redo an award reservation from North Asia to Oceania, only to be told that there was an increase in miles because it was after October 6. Thanks, you could have mentioned that earlier in the call?

  35. The United award booking system is a joke! Only a week ago when I was planning my trip to Europe I was able locate exactly what I was looking for – a fantastic stopover in Zurich on my way from DC to Rome. I was so happy to use the miles from a United MileagePlus Credit Card sign-up bonus. All in all only 57.5 miles in Business for a one-way trip with the included stopover.

    What am I seeing right now? United wants more, nope MORE miles for the same trip. Why do I have to pay 30,000 miles more for a short hour and half flight in Europe? Have they lost their minds? These are the same planes, same destination and the same service (apparently actually even worse now). What exactly am I getting more worth additional enormous 30,000 miles for?

    This is really depressing. I feel like taken advantage of. I had a nice trip planned and now it cannot be done in the same way. United, please think you about your loyal customers and credit card holders. Is it really the time to move on to a different airline/program?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *