Saving Money When Cancelling an Award Ticket and Redepositing Miles

Points, Miles, and Martinis says that instead of paying $150 to cancel and redeposit miles on an award ticket you don’t plan to take, you can change an award ticket to the least expensive mileage redemption you can find and then be out miles instead of money.

Since I have no United elite status, I’ll incur a fee to get the 280,000 United miles redeposited back into my account.

Instead, my plan is to change my ticket to an award that requires fewer miles, like a 5,000 mile Hawaii intra-island award. Apparently United will refund the difference in both miles and taxes paid. So if all goes as planned, I’ll receive about 270,000 United miles and about $200 back in taxes and fees. But I haven’t tried this approach yet so I can’t say for sure if it will work.

But that doesn’t seem correct to me. Here are United’s fees.

He’d still have to pay a $75 fee to change the origin and destination on his ticket, as well as being out the 5000 miles. He saves $75 in the process, but the 5000 miles are worth at least that much to me.

A top tier elite of course would have no fee at all for a change or cancellation, and thus doesn’t need a strategy here.

But for someone looking to cancel without penalty, the best approach is to wait — there’s no reason to cancel until the days leading up to the flight itself unless you need to use the miles for something else in the interim. And the more time that passes, the greater the chance of a schedule change. Schedule changes are often like get out of jail free cards, “the new schedule doesn’t work for me” and then you cancel for free.

A change of a few hours, or a re-routing, or a change in equipment that means a flight will be in perhaps business rather than first class is often required. If you’re booking award travel particularly far in advance, though, schedule changes are a pretty reasonable bet — or at least there’s enough of a chance that it’s worth waiting for one.

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, 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. The last sentence in that paragraph you cut out also read “But I haven’t tried this approach yet so I can’t say for sure if it will work.”

    Thanks for posting this as I really don’t fly United and haven’t had time to sit down to look though the process. My challenge is the entire flight is on Singapore Airlines so I’m concerned about just hoping for flight change. Is there a threshold that has to be met(i.e. more than 5 minute change or more than 50 minutes?) Plus waiting around for a “possible” flight change doesn’t make a lot of sense when I can redeploy the miles elsewhere.

  2. I had booked tix for my family to fly BOS-AMS in July. But we had to change things and ended up flying on DL on different dates. So my UA awards were out there and had to be used by mid Dec this year. I set up new reservations for us for November and did so on purpose:

    1) we may go – we have family there
    2) they will probably change the schedule.

    And if they do that and its drastic enough, guess what: The fees to return miles can be waived.

    on Aug 31 I received an email stating whole new connection cities and times–greater than 4hrs for one of the flights. This gave me the ability to cancel it all in one short phone call to UA, and the miles should hit this week. That’s a 240k swing and no fees.

    So my advice, aside from getting lucky, is to book something out that you think COULD change. To do research on what partners (in our case, LH changed two flights of our itin) may have issues or changes or times of year that could be better for this possibility.

  3. @The Weekly Flyer — the quote from your blog was just the idea/strategy you were offering, it wasn’t meant to characterize or mischaracterize your take on that idea. (in other words, it wasn’t about “The Weekly Flyer is wrong” when you hedged on your suggestion, but rather it was about “here’s one idea — and actually it does WORK — but that idea isn’t as desirable as it might have seemed.” Again, apologies if you felt that a longer excerpt would have been fairer to you, i genuinely wasn’t seeing it as personal criticism!

  4. Hi Gary – No problem. Mentioned it because I was really looking for suggestions on that strategy since I don’t fly United (earned most miles fom 5k Per Hyatt night promo + Chase) and this post is great perspective. M

    Your idea with Marathon Man’s suggestion is fantastic, pick a routing that has a high probability of changing. I doubt the SQ coded flight SFO>ICN>SIN will change or change enough to warrant a fee free change. The SIN>MLE flight could change.

  5. Gary– I wrote about this a few weeks ago:

    I agree with your analysis.

    Step 1 is wait.

    If step 1 fails, I do think Step 2 is “change the award to intra-Hawaii.” Your analysis that $75 is worth ($72.50 because of $2.50 segment tax) is worth less than 5,000 miles is correct.

    But as my sister (non-United elite) found out by cancelling and as I recreated with screen shots, United only charges a $50 change fee online, not the $75 clearly states. That means you save $97.50, which I think is worth slightly more than 5k miles.

  6. Didn’t reailize the website would undercharge that’s cool. I might still pay to cancel, effectively buying the miles back at just under 2 cents apiece, but it’s close.

  7. Regarding MM’s advice, how does one pick a “routing that has a high probability of changing”?

  8. Similar to marathon man’s strategy, a few year’s ago I booked a round trip flight when it was cheaper than a one-way, and chose the latest date possible for the return trip (that I was not going to use). The flight schedule eventually changed for that return trip and if I had been smart, I would have requested a refund for the return.

  9. @mark – Lets take WeeklyFlyer example of original flight from SFO>ICN>SIN. Assuming his source is SFO and destination is SIN what he could do is add additional leg in between without any charge from United, as he is not changing source or destination. Or he can make the route more complicated right away adding as many routings as possible between SFO and SIN making sure the connection time between various legs is “small”. This will highly increase the probability of schedule change and he can then cancel the ticket without any charge when “any” of the flight schedule changes

  10. @Mark. One more point which could be useful. When you alter the connections online sometimes you will not be able to find “tight” connection flights. For example a booking from SJC-IAH-FRA-SFO will try and not give you a connecting time at IAH of < 1 hour. But if there is a flight leaving to FRA from IAH even 30 minutes after you arrive at IAH you can "Phone In" without any charge and add that connection instead of the original one you might have.

  11. This is not about “saving” money but I have a question about changing “award ticket”. I have a booking for SYD-LAX one-way in UA First for standard award of 160K miles and am hoping that saver award will open up at the last minute. And if I get lucky, what will be the fee for change in award type and redepositing miles in this case? I am also wondering if I am able to do this without having enough miles(80K) left in my account after 160K used for my current booking. Thanks.

  12. Since you are changing award type, you will pay the close in fee to book, and the cancel fee to redeposit.
    In fact I LIKE the new United fees. They are fine and seem reasonable and have tiers for status.
    The old one cost 150$ to change an award for most of my travels.
    US charges 250$ for intl awards and does not allow ANY changes once travel begins and you forfeit the miles.
    DL now takes ALL your miles within 72 hrs and often the agents do not let you change the return, even though it is permitted under the new rules
    AA charges 150$ for any changes to the route. (I was once charged 150$ each to change from LHR-IAD to to LHR-ORD-DCA, but recently I was able to change CTU-HKG-SFO-ORD-DCA to CTU-HKG-ORD-DCA with no fees – I had a CX F award and it was cheaper to stay in F with no fees than to redeposit and book a new C award with fees to save 12k miles)

    Anyway my advice is to change the award to a time FAR away. My HI trip was canceled at short notice. To cancel and redeposit was 75$ each. I changed my IAD-SFO-KOA to Feb 2013 and once I knew the new plans, changed them back to the new dates in October (>21days, no fee).

    So if you have enough miles, change the outbound to a time far away and book a new saver award. You can then add stops and wait for changes to schedule.

  13. If i purchased a non refundable ticket(thru Chase rewards) on Quantas to Austraila and the times changed, so instead of a 2 hour connecting time I only have 1.25 hours, is that a good enough reason to cancel? If it is not refundable what would happen? Do I have to cancel right after they changed the itinerary or can I do it any time before the flight? Thanks for any help.

  14. James H. – I recently made a change similar to yours (changed standard to saver on an existing reservation). UA now considers this a change – not a redeposit – so the fee for general members is $75 ($50 for Silver, $25 for Gold; waived for Platinum and 100k). And you don’t need the 80K miles in your account. BUT – you need to make sure the miles actually re-deposit correctly. The res agent has to place this on the correct queue, or it won’t happen. I had to follow up on my change to get the miles back.

    Gary – I believe Points, Miles, and Martini’s strategy is extremely limited in its applicability. The change needs to be to a different award (change of cabin, and/or change between saver and standard award) in the same award region (for example, US to Europe).

  15. UAPhil- Thank you for sharing your experience. I really appreciate it. I will make sure that the difference in required miles are re-deposited correctly, that is if I get lucky.$75 is a small fee to save 80K miles after all.

  16. Great post and I’m on board with your analysis/math. I’m praying for a schedule change on a complicated award (booked by you guys, actually) in October, as my work plans have shifted and I might need to cancel the whole vacation. It’s 220K U.S. miles, so I will happily pay the redeposit fee on the two tickets ($300, I believe).

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