The Frustrations of Booking United Awards Before Their Gutted Award Chart Went Into Effect

Yesterday was another “award booking day,” where I spend a bit of time helping various friends with their award travel.

One managed a Bali trip in first class on Asiana and Singapore. Another started off with a Thailand trip, ran into a bit of difficulty, and settled on Bali as wlel. Both were using United miles.

Yesterday, it turns out, was actually award booking day on United for much of the frequent flyer world. That’s because as the New Year struck, so did United’s bloody award chart increase.

In fact, at one point yesterday the regular international awards phone number featured hold times in excess of 90 minutes. That’s the number I usually favor, instead of elite agents, because the international call centers are frequently very helpful. Domestic agents can sometimes be helpful, and sure their English skills may be better, but they also “know the rules.” Or sometimes they only think they do. And they can be far more confident in their knowledge… so much so that they’ll tend to write comments into a reservation, and once a nasty and unhelpful comment is made subsequent agents tend to defer to it, even if it’s wrong. (I’ve had plenty of amazing domestic agents, I just don’t always need or want their extra helpfulness. But yesterday I ventued into their territory, not wanting to hold for 90 minutes for my cherished Manila call center.)

The trouble with yesterday is that “award blocking” was in full effect. It was the last day of the calendar year and with all of the demand for awards United was pushing back to hold down costs. As I understand it, they budget for each of their partner redemptions each quarter. When the volume of awards they’re booking on partners (toughly speaking) is greater than the awards their partners are booking on United planes, they have to make a cash payment. And they try to cap the cash payments that they are making by preventing their own members from booking awards that are actually being offered by their partners.

Sometimes when they wind up ‘under budget’ with a partner they’ll release their blocking. And they do wind up under budget sometimes, because their blocking is so extraordinary. It used to be difficult to get Lufthansa flights, both transatlantic and intra-Europe. And it would be hard to get Thai Airways premium class seats from Europe to Asia, and occasionally transpacific segments from the US to Asia as well. But not that many other flights were blocked, except the odd route such as Bangkok-Kathmandu.

Blocking has gotten much more extensively lately. Yesterday I found Asiana flights to be broadly available (that is, that the awards Asiana was offering were bookable with United miles). Singapore flights were as well. But the real run was with Thai Airways.

Yesterday I couldn’t get anything at all into Bangkok for several dates in July: Beijing-Bangkok, Shanghai-Bangkok, Seoul-Bangkok, Hong Kong-Bangkok, Tokyo-Bangkok, Osaka-Bangkok, Taipei-Bangkok, you name it… (well, nothing on Thai Airways, though Asiana was available out of Seoul and Singapore out of Osaka.)

Today things got even worse. Again, looking in July, I found entire days where domestic Thai segments were blocked… Bangkok-Phuket showing no seats in United’s system over multiple days where Thai was offering availability on every flight during those days. Bangkok-Beijing and Bangkok-Shanghai were frequently filtered. And entire days of Bangkok-Hong Kong as well.

I prefer Star Alliance for redemption (and the first class flights available on Asiana are truly astounding, availability is just that good and around almost all days Los Angeles-Seoul and many days Seoul-Chicago), but United miles are frequently tough. Air Canada and ANA are much better currencies, even US Airways (at least until they change their award chart again). Now that United has changed its award chart, a business class ticket from the US to Asia has gone from 90,000 miles to 125,000 (a 39% increase). A first class award is now 145,000 miles, presumably flights via that Atlantic coming at an additional premium as before. I now value my American Express points (which transfer to both ANA and Air Canada) so much more than United miles.

My advice to elite United flyers is to credit all non-flight miles to another program, so that they can have their upgrades on United but have miles in other programs for when it’s time to redeem for an award..

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. I had extreme headaches in trying to redeem for something as simple as a one-way interisland award on Hawaiian Airlines. After FINALLY getting them to realize the one-ways are only 5000 miles, and not 10000, they claimed there was no availability. So, I asked for Island Air, which they didn’t even seem to know about, and voila, I got my seats. But it took hours of headaches and trying to decipher some very poor English.

    I’m definitely keen on keeping steady with American. Decent availability for my needs, English agents, flexible stopover rules, and very low redemption amounts. I couldn’t be happier.

  2. I tried to redeem trans-atlantic on LAX-LHR Air New Zealand. The agent could not even see the flight. She insisted that Air New Zealand did not fly LAX-LHR, and there was no convincing her otherwise. Then I tried to book a Business Class award from US-FRA on LH, and for the entire month of July there was “no availability from any LH gateway in the US”…..

  3. Apparently the LAX-LHR flight on NZ isn’t eligible for UA redemption, rather than being blocked in the traditional sense, at least as I recall.

  4. What would be your recommendation to non-Elite *A flyers? I am currently a DL elite, but I am at a UA hub (DEN). None of the large US mainline carriers really do it for me (if only AS had more service), my DL status is a leftover from living in SC. My main reservation on moving to UA completely are some bad experiences and hearing how hard it can be to redeem on non-UA airlines. Being that I travel to Canada a lot, should I credit my flying miles to AC? Is there a better option? Maybe credit to AS since they are a non-alliance carrier with Skyteam and One World agreements?

  5. Well where will you be flying?

    And how many miles a year?

    Air Canada’s program is good, I like redeeming with them as long as it’s not on Air Canada flights or else they’ll whack you with big fuel charges and fees. (Though of course they too could always devalue their award chart.)

    The other nice thing about Air Canada is just 35,000 miles to Star Alliance Gold status with them.

    I would definitely credit to Alaska rather than DL/CO/NW/AA if not going to be an elite with any of them, might as well pool your miles and have more redemption options (though redemptions on Alaska metal itself has gotten tougher with their new 3-tiered award chart).

  6. Right now my flying is mainly to Canada and last year was about 69,000 miles without any TATL or DEN-HNL; which is actually very strange for me. So I am a SkyTeam elite member with all the benefits (or lack thereof). I just find the Skyteam very difficult to deal with when redeeming miles and when flying to Canada. Not to mention to nearly useless PMUs that DL gives you.

    I’ve got about 400,000 miles with DL and another 25,000 on UA. This are mainly all BIS miles, as I don’t have any of the airline branded credit cards to pump up the accounts.

    I am flying more TATL routes and even there DL is a hard carrier to get away from since they have ramped up their service over the pond; especially with the addition of NW and AF/KLM routes they just seem to own the TATL market to cities other than LHR.

  7. While UA’s increases are hard to swallow, and the copays boarding on extortion, it should be considered that earning miles on UA is easier than on Aeroplan (your now preferred program) and most other STAR programs (unless one books paid premium fares). You seem to overlook the fact that a PremEx or 1K earns a 100% base mileage bonus on all UA and US flights, and even a Premier earns 50%. Over on Aeroplan, only top tier SuperElites earn the 100% bonus and only on AC flights, and mid-tier Elites get 50%, and first tier Prestiges a mere 25%.

    So while you can still argue UA’s previous award chart was indeed a bargain — when one could get a saver business class award to Asia or Europe (you’d just have to fly and earn a base of 35-45K and be a PremEx or 1K to actually get enough for those premium awards) — it was even more so because of the bonus miles given to elites. Even the increases would put a PremEx or 1K at about the same earning level as an Aeroplan Elite or Prestige.

    Yup, I’ve got some UA miles that have been somewhat devalued, but I do think you guys are protesting about something that just brings UA more into line with other STAR carriers.

    True, the STARnet blocking is an issue to be dealt with, particularly because as also an Aeroplan Elite, the more of you guys who join up to get access to premium STAR awards, the harder it is for me/us to get them!

  8. United offers more generous bonuses on cheap fares in many cases, other Star carriers offer far more generous bonuses on pricier fares, but that’s neither here nor there (and in many cases british midland can work better even on cheap fares).

    Easier to earn miles with United? Air Canada and Singapore are AMERICAN EXPRESS TRANSFER PARTNERS for goodness sakes!

    And while the United award chart changes bring them more or less in line with other Star carriers on PRICE, they are the ONLY Star carrier to block partner award inventory. So that makes pretty much EVERYOTHER Star carrier a better deal. United could give you a 500% mileage bonus as an elite and they still wouldn’t let you book seats that they are blocking…

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