United Announces New Award Change Fees, Limits on Free Stopovers

United just announced changes that will go into effect on October 6.

A week and a half ago I had heard about an early August announcement of October changes and now we know what those are. United is:

  • Introducing a new, better online award booking engine.
  • Imposing new restrictions on free stopovers on roundtrip awards
  • Eliminating round the world awards
  • Revamping award change fees (to be mostly higher and more restrictive)

United has had some of the most generous award routing rules in the industry for a program that prices awards based on the regions traveled (versus distance flown). And they’ve been generous in allowing stopovers on roundtrip awards. For elites their change fees have been on the low end for a US frequent flyer program.

I’ve long written about regression towards the mean in frequent flyer benefits, things that are significantly more value than what competitors offer don’t last and on October 6 United will get a little less generous — while still maintaining some of what makes their award rules more generous than Delta’s and American’s.

Improved Online Award Booking, Especially for Multi-city Trips

The award booking engine will let you specify connection city for an itinerary, or cities in which to avoid connections, as well as only show your preferred class of service for a segment. They’ll also let you filter out results based on connecting times, avoiding redeyes, and inflight amenities.

A new booking engine sounds great but we’ll see how it works in practice. That’s just about convenience, not value.

Limiting Award Stopovers

United says they are eliminating free stopovers on roundtrip awards and replacing that with a new ‘Excursionist Perk’ — which really means limiting what kinds of stopovers you can have.

The reason they say they’re doing it is because “[m]any members found the stopover policy to be confusing.” So they’re introducing something more confusing but also more limited.

In order to have a stopover now,

  • It cannot be in the award region where your travel originates. So if you start in San Francisco, you cannot have a stopover in New York enroute to Europe.

    This also limits you from booking a traditional free one-way award where you return to your home city but call that a stopover and tack on an additional flight in the region to a point beyond (e.g. fly back home to Newark and add on a free Newark – Los Angeles flight to use later).

  • Your award has to end in the same award region where travel begins. So while you can still have a double open jaw, you cannot have a stopover if you depart North America to Europe and return to South America.

  • Your “free one-way award” (which is how they describe what they’re giving you) must be the same award type or lower (you can’t have a free standard or extra miles award) and must be the same cabin or lower (no business class free one-ways on an economy redemption).

  • The origin and destination of the ‘free one-way’ segment on a roundtrip award must begin and end in the same region. So you can fly to London, stopover, fly from London to Istanbul and stop (since London and Istanbul are both considered Europe) and then fly back to the US from Istanbul. But you cannot have a stopover in Europe enroute to Asia on a US-Asia award.

  • Your first qualifying stopover is free in an itinerary that has more than one.

They’re eliminating stopovers on domestic awards (which used to be available for 10,000 extra miles).

Changes to existing awards with stopovers will be allowed without additional miles but “[a]ny changes to the first flight will require a reissue of the ticket and new pricing may apply.”

Revamped Award Change Fees

Here are United’s current award fees:

For all awards booked on or after October 6, 2016, new change fees will apply as follows:

The cut-off date for lower-cost changes moves to 60 days from 21-days (ouch). Platinums no longer get totally free changes (since there’s a fee within 60 days). Silvers and Golds get lower redeposit fees but higher change fees. And they appear to have dropped the distinction between whether or not a change involves a different origin or destination city — all changes would appear to get the same fees even simple changes to date and time.

If your status changes between the time of ticketing and time of change and results in a different fee, we will apply whichever fee is lower.

New change rules are also explicit that you have to make changes to awards within 24 hours of departure, something that was the case at United prior to the Continental merger and a rule I’ve loved not having to follow since then. We’ll see if that gets hard-coded into the computer.

Why I’m Breathing a Sigh of Relief

Eliminating round-the-world awards would have bothered me years ago, Continental’s used to be a great value, but they’re so overpriced (200,000 miles in economy, 350,000 miles in business, 450,000 miles in first) as to not be very useful for many nowadays. So I discount that change significantly.

The meat of the issue is in how stopovers will be restricted, and how and when United will impose change fees on award tickets.

I’m grateful that stopovers will continue to exist in some form, since neither Delta nor American offer those for free on roundtrip awards any longer.

However new award rules, being programmed into a new online booking interface, where stopovers are being restricted by region should be a sign that United isn’t about to get rid of award charts.

In the spring of last year United announced its intention to introduced revenue-based awards by the end of 2015 but did not say whether those would be an add-on or replacement for some current awards. So that’s something folks have continued to worry about. I hope this is suggestive that we have existing award chart and region-based redemptions for awhile.

It’s not quite ‘United Rising’ but it could have been a lot worse.

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. Very good outline of these changes, Gary.

    I’d love some clarification on tickets that have stopovers and openjaws.

    Also, any change to the closein award booking fee? Thanks.

  2. I think they have just messed up my plan for next year. I was going to go from MCO to CUZ (or LIM), stopover there, then go to SCL as my destination, then return to MCO. I think the “free one way” being CUZ (or LIM) to SCL will violate the “all in one region” restriction. I think I will have to use ANA miles (which will cut out the CUZ option because I would have to pass through LIM twice) or Krisflyer miles. I can’t set up a partner Krisflyer award online, so trying to figure out if it would work under that program and what it would cost is going to be a major pain.
    United was easy. A little more expensive, but easy.
    On the other hand, if the website multi destination works better than it does now, that will be a very positive change.

  3. Thank you Gary.

    This statement:
    “But you cannot have a stopover in Europe enroute to Asia on a US-Asia award.”

    That’s a bummer. I’ve used that twice now and it is very handy.

    With that restriction though, does UA restrict routing US-Asia via Europe and vice versa? I also had Asia-US routes via Europe on J in the past, with long layovers, and that is a nice way to squeeze in quick visits.

  4. @Bob there doesn’t appear to be changes to allowable routings at this time, it’s just the stopover in a separate region you won’t be able to have

  5. @farnorthtrader MCO and CUZ/LIM/SCL are in diffrent regions. As long as your stopover is in your destination region you’re fine.

  6. It also looks like cancel and redeposit for non-elites went from $200 to 75/125. That’s good.

  7. Will they really charge $200 to cancel and redeposit post Oct 6 for award tickets issued pre-Oct. 6?

  8. @Gary Leff, that is the problem, my stopover would be in either LIM or CUZ, (Northern South America region) and my destination would be SCL (Southern South America region), which, by my reading, would mean that it would not be allowed because the LIM/CUZ to SCL would have to be in the same region.

    “The origin and destination of the ‘free one-way’ segment on a roundtrip award must begin and end in the same region”

    I think my itinerary would have the same problem as NA to Europe to Asia, just over a much smaller geographic area and, therefore, seeming to make less logical sense.

  9. More monopolistic price setting as the DOJ snoozes and continues to allow consolidation

  10. It seems like every time negative changes are announced bloggers ‘breathe a sigh of relief’ and say it ‘could have been worse.’ As long as the programs gradually eliminate perks no one seems to mind.

  11. I am very afraid for Aeroplan’s rules now, empty your accounts gentlemen. MR and UR just spread at least a cent in value.

  12. @Omar

    Well, some of these changes aren’t negative. Outside 60 days, it just got way cheaper for me to do a redeposit, and no increase in change fee. Inside 60 days, My redeposit is still significantly cheaper, albeit change fees went up a bit. That’s not “spin”, that’s an honest to goodness real decrease in fees for me.

    And yes, I’d much prefer that the airlines make small cuts every year. I’ve got more miles than I can reasonably spend in the forseeable future. Small, gradual cuts means that in 5 years, my miles are worth only slightly less than they are today. That’s fine, I can still redeem them on some very nice exotic trips.

    But if they make significant, across the board changes overnight, such as tripling the cost of a business class award? Yeah, that’s a real problem for me, because maybe in three years I’m planning on using my UA miles for X trip. If said trip is no longer attainable, (or no longer attainable with a marginal increase in miles) then I’m going to get pissed.

  13. @Omar I slam programs regularly for their changes, I’m saying this doesn’t surprise me and i’d have expected worse because they are retaining some semblance of stopovers and they are retaining the importance of award regions.

  14. @Sam more flights they pay partners for with stopovers, and if they can get you to burn more miles for the same trip each mile is less costly to them

  15. THESE are just SOME of the MANY ways how criminal, crooked, incompetent executives are driving these corporations into bankruptcy during the next downturn, for which they are never held accountable (as all ships have risen NOW with the high tide during this better time, with their massive corporate welfare). SO, NO MASSIVE CORPORATE WELFARE FOR THE CROOKS NEXT TIME. AND HOW ABOUT HOLDING CRIMINAL EXECUTIVES ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR CRIMES?? Utter crooks at United: *I* DIDN’T *WANT* TO GO THROUGH EUROPE THE LAST TIME *YOU* ROUTED ME THROUGH THERE. YOU routed me through Europe to get to Asia. NO more MASSIVE CORPORATE WELFARE FOR THE criminal US airlines, EH?

    Rather than to crooked, anti-American multi-national corporations, the GREATLY generous welfare of the GREAT PEOPLE of this GREAT country is best spent on our GREAT veterans AND our GREAT starving children, who were born into a poor AMERICAN FAMILY.

  16. Oh, and to the UTTER-CROOK EXECS AND BOARD at AA: you have factored in my NOT BOOKING your flights because they are laughably overcrowded, you crooks charging for an aisle or window seat ON AN AWARD for which I have ALREADY PAID with my business, into YOUR CRIMINAL BREACHES OF FIDUCIARY DUTY with your bullshit and criminal financial models for screwing your loyal customers, haven’t you? Yeah, you’ve stolen the owners’s money (to say NOTHING OF YOUR MASSIVE WELFARE ON THE BACKS OF AMERICAN TAXPAYERS) to cover your exec/board liability insurance policies for your crimes but have you thought through all of your personal liability for your crimes??

  17. Not to mention the laughable 10 abreast in economy on the 777. I WILL NOT BOOK THIS YOU F-ING CROOKS. I bet my life not one of you crooked execs on AA has flown this long-haul economy. NO MORE MASSIVE WELFARE FOR US AIRLINES, including at the expense of our roads and bridges, our veterans, our children, our elderly– the GREAT people of this GREAT country.

  18. I’m hoping someone can advise on this, so I don’t have to spend an hour on the phone with a United agent on Skype from Latin America.

    I’m currently on an award ticket.
    Flight out: Belize City to Lima (already flown).
    My return flight is set for early November. Santiago Chile to San Francisco (stopover 3 weeks) then to Aukland, New Zealand.

    So this is a double open jaw ticket with a stopover. Originally when I booked this, I assumed that I would be able to extend my trip, and do the SCL>SFO (stopover)>AKL leg later if I wanted, like in December or January.

    Am I totally locked into this ticket now? Or can I only change it if I do it before October 6th?

  19. Anytime an airline speaks of ‘enhancements’ and ‘streamlining’ (and ‘fairer and simpler’ in the case of Qantas) you are right to be fearful of what nasties lay therein.

  20. @J ~ you need to calm down guy! Just let karma deal with the execs you hate. Many of them are pretty dim and will not be nimble enough to deal with the inevitable collapse/recession which would happen in the event of a Trump presidency. Yet the solid voting block he has are the very ones who have nothing whatsoever to gain from Trump, ever, (or any Republican president for that matter). In fact they will be royally and comprehensively screwed over like never before! Still wanna vote for him? Much like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving.

  21. J.. assuming that is your real name (r u from State Farm?)… simmer down. You are not alone. We read blogs like this because we know that the house always wins. And when we figure out there game, they get a new deck of cards. The bankruptcies were the ultimate rig.
    As for Glenn t comments on trump/clinton… I think we are watching a case unfold for congress to impeach either one that wins.
    This theory floating around that extremely divided voters will pick the right candidate disregards the possibility or scenario that neither of the two is suited for the office. With enough political and financial graft, and if a congressman or senators own reelection is at risk, you can get 2/3’s of them to agree on anyyhing.

  22. New lower change fees for non-elites are a huge win!

    If we’re lucky DL and AA will follow suit.

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