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.