I’m Not Burning My United Miles Before the Devaluation, But Here’s How You Can…

United’s big devaluation goes into effect February 1.

Make no mistake, it’s huge, some awards go up 87%!

At the same time it’s not as bad as we think. It all depends on how you use your miles.

  • The biggest increases are in international first class partner awards. That’s where you’ll find the 80%+ increases.
  • International business class partner awards go up too, that’s where you’ll find increases of ~ a third.
  • They’ve created a separate category of United flight awards that do not go up as much as partner awards, you’ll see increases there of ~ 15%.
  • Flights within the Americas, and coach awards, don’t really change in a material way.

If you redeem for coach, the ‘devaluation’ doesn’t really hit you (except that higher prices for other awards may mean more people are trying to redeem for coach who used to redeem for premium cabins, making those awards harder to get). If you redeem for domestic US travel, Canada or Mexico, or South American then don’t worry so much.

I saw this change as a Very. Big. Deal. because my preference is for international first class awards.

But the truth is that United miles really had a sweet spot in international business. First class awards were a reasonable value, I’ve long though, but for a US-based frequent flyer, given availability, business class is where it’s at.

Here’s why:

  • Transatlantic: United, Lufthansa, and Swiss offer first class cabins. But Lufthansa only releases first class award seats to partners within a couple of weeks of travel, and Swiss doesn’t at all. That means United is the only realistic first class option for most passengers, and their first class is really a business product by world standards.
  • Transpacific: Singapore doesn’t release premium cabin long haul awards from the US to its partners. ANA almost never does (cities with 2 flights in a day might, during Winter especially) except at the last minute. You can find space on Asiana and Air China, and on Thai from Europe to Bangkok and intra-Asia. Those are your real first class options.

I tend to find American AAdvantage miles much more useful for international first class awards — Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, even British Airways (with fuel surcharges, and less availability than there used to be), Etihad. I even have a Qantas first class booking to look forward to, though those are hard to get.

I’ve burned through some United miles in advance of the devaluation, but I’m done and I’m not going for zero. I’m down to about half a million miles, and I recognize that there’s still great availability on Star Alliance airlines in business class. It’s good to keep a stash of United miles going forward. For business class, even on partner airlines, United’s new chart actually remains competitive.

First class is nuts, but that’s not how the points are most valuable for most people anyway. I’m saving some points for one-way business class awards. And some business products, like EVA Airways, are really top notch. I’d take an EVA Airways business class long haul flight on their 777-300ER over United Global First any day.

Now, if you want to redeem for first class before the end of the month, I’d focus on:

  • US – South Asia via Europe, flying United first class to Europe (or Lufthansa business) and Europe to Bangkok on Thai.
  • US-Asia on either Air China or Asiana.
  • Intra-Asia on Thai, you can get first class award seats Bangkok – Hong Kong most any day, Bangkok – Beijing frequently as well. Bangkok – Tokyo is tough unfortunately and most routes don’t have first class. But the goal here, if you’re looking for experience, isn’t the Thai flight but the first class ground experience departing Bangkok. You get that even flying Bangkok – Hong Kong.

And if you don’t get in on booking international first class with United miles before February 1, remember that some awards actually go down in price. North Asia – Australia goes from 130,000 miles roundtrip in first down to 100,000, so Beijing – Bangkok – Sydney in Thai first is going to be fewer miles than before.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Meh! Saw this and started racking my brain trying to figure out how I could meet the minimum spend. I’ve got a 50k mailer that’s got a far more reasonable spend so I think I’ll stick with that one.

    If only this were the deal a few months ago when we were renovating the kitchen & bath, haha.

  2. I burned all of my UA miles before devaluation kicks in.
    Actually thinking on moving my miles earning somewhere else, even when flying on UA, any suggestions? Or do you think UA is still the best to earn miles?

  3. By chance I’ve used alot of UA miles in last year and have a trip for my wife and I to Africa booked on TK for Feb, so feel have made good use. I’m not inclined to burn just for the sake of travelling (I do more than enougjt for work) but i hace changed my pattern for aquiring miles. Now Amex is my preferred card for expenses (in US) and i am focusing on building MR points. The other side is I wonder if there will be more avsilability when I do want to LH first class. As I don’t do it too often I am happy ro pay more if the avsilability is improved.

  4. Gary,

    I happen to agree with you regarding UA’s devaluation. I’m just not much of an F guy, and given the reduced availability on partner F, it’s not a big deal. Sure, it does suck to have to pay a slight premium for J awards, but it is what it is.

    One devaluation that really did suck, but really does have it’s uses, was the whole BA distance chart thing. While I’m not completely in love with their current chart, it certainly has its uses. My dad and I will be traveling around North Asia in the coming months, and I had to get him ICN-NRT and NRT-HND tickets. Total airfare would have been $600 or, which was I was able to save by redeeming 12,000 avios points. 5cpp is actually pretty good on a coach award.

    So, while the strategies may change, the game ain’t over.

  5. I’ve burned about half my ~ 1,000,000 UA miles with planned trips in the first have of 2014, and like you I think I’ll stop there and hang on to the rest. I’m 99% international, so I have been hoarding miles to get into premium cabins on those flights, so the devaulation does hit me somewhat. To my mind it’s one more nail in the coffin of UA, and part of the reason I won’t be accruing any more UA miles going forward because of this and their generally shitty product/service. I plan to switch allegiance for paid trips, just not sure to whom (probably AA).

  6. We fly international F most of the time, but didn’t have room to fit in anything to burn our >1MM UA this year. With both Hyatt and UA devaluations, URs have gone down significantly in value and MRs are more valuable for what we need. As such, most of our spend has moved from Chase to Amex (PRG/SPG).

    UA’s F redemptions on partners are obscene.

  7. Gary, I generally agree with you. But if someone is set on redeeming in F to Europe (for example), UA still charges fewer miles for UA metal than Miles & More will charge for LH metal.

  8. Burned every last UA mile. As MM flyer since the 90’s I was really irked that “we promise” means nothing to these people. I’ve moved all my earning and flying to other carriers, primarily foreign for overseas and AS domestically.

    No reason to do business with people who have repeatedly proven that they are not good to their word. There are ethical organizations out there, but United isn’t one of them.

    One million real butt in seat miles and they lost my business. I hope they lose others too. AS is a great outfit. I’d love to see them grow and grow at the expense of these kind of businessmen.

  9. United’s post devaluation pricing is not that obscene – it’s on par with most of star alliance.

    Aeroplan, Krisflyer, United, Miles and More have pretty similar redemption rates post Feb 1 (and non-UA has plenty of surcharges). Avianca is the black sheep

  10. Japan to Tahiti in C with MP+ remains the great ghostly award chart bargain, at times there is no inventory in any class twelve months out. Finding business class on Air Zealand is as rare as finding a Holiday Inn with a 60s era Great Sign.

  11. I’m trying to arrange a vacation this fall on a partner airline, and I’m running into what I assume is a common problem — biz availability is terrible. The biggest problem is that I am trying to book for 3 passengers, and it appears that only 2 seats are ever released at a time. Any tips/tricks?

    I was hoping that I could book 2 passengers on one day and the third the next, which isn’t ideal but I can live with. Of course most of the available award space isn’t contiguous in time.

    The other thing I’m considering is booking 2 in business and the third in economy and watching for a third seat to open up before the trip. Seems unlikely though. Any recommendations?

  12. Following up on my comment, I ended up being able to book 2 passengers on one reservation all in business, and the third on a second reservation in mixed cabins. I’ll watch the econ flights to see if a third seat opens up since United is excellent about rebooking award tickets.

    Now that I’ve done that, I’ll share the details — in November we’re going to go to the Maldives with a stopover in Istanbul on the way back! I’m super excited; we have four nights in each location with a lot of travel in between. I was only able to confirm 2 passengers in business class on the IST-MLE and MLE-IST segments.

    Should we tell the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa that you sent us?

  13. Oh, further, the advice you’ve given about where award tickets are available has been extremely helpful. I now regret my focus on United and realize that I should be putting my spending on my Chase Sapphire or AmEx so that I can transfer to the programs that will actually allow me to book Singapore Air or Korean Air directly. Unfortunately I still have about 1.5 million United miles to spend…

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