United Charges You Cash to Upgrade and More Miles for Awards

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been predicting it for awhile. United announced changes to its frequent flyer program today.

First, the minor change, they are restoring 500 mile minimum earning for elites matching Continental and American (leaving US Airways more or less out in the cold denying 500 mile minimums even to their elites). What’s more, they’re crediting the minimum miles retroactively so that elites won’t even be hurt by the change that took effect back in July.

Second, starting July 1, 2009 they’re making mileage upgrade awards more like American — upgrade on any fare, but with a co-pay. Even domestic upgrades come at a $50 cost on top of the current 15,000 miles each way (I miss 10,000 mile confirmed upgrades!). Hawaii upgrades bump up slightly, to 17,500 miles each way from their current 15,000 and United will now be tacking on a co-pay of “$250 – $500” .. holy smokes! That’s the same co-pay range as Europe and Asia! At least on the international flights, though, you no longer have to purchase a more expensive fare to be eligible to use miles for upgrades. So the only real losses here are affordable Hawaii upgrades and the $50 nuisance fee to confirm a domestic upgrade. (I’ll still do it on my Los Angeles and San Francisco transcon flights, but the confirmed regional upgrades given to 100,000 mile flyers just got more value — by $50 apeice, since they don’t require a co-pay to secure a domestic upgrade.)

Third, the bloodbath to the award chart. United has offered a great value award chart, even after increasing mileage prices back in October, 2006. Business class from the US to Asia for 90,000 miles is a great deal, as is 120,000 miles for first. And I knew that wouldn’t last. But effective January 1 business class awards increase by 35,000 miles (39% in a single shot!) and first class awards increase by 25,000 miles (‘only’ 21%!).

One Mile at a Time has this to say about the award chart changes:

Australia is seeing increases of 20,000-25,000 miles for premium cabins, while Europe and South America are seeing changes of 15,000-30,000 miles! I realize UA was a bargain prior to this, but they’re priced higher than the competition for the most part now.

He also shared my very first thought when I saw this, “Now if only United would get rid of Starnet blocking, I could maybe accept this… ”

Except that United is now getting closer to the award chart pricing of far more generous frequent flyer programs that do not block. Air Canada’s award chart now looks like a real value. At least until they follow down United’s path, they offer first class from the US to South Asia for 120,000 miles. They’re an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner. And though they’re known for high award taxes and fees, if you combine multiple partners on an award those fees don’t seem to get tacked on.

Meanwhile, US Airways’ award chart is similarly attractive in many instances. Other programs offer awards for less, and do not block available inventory.

This change makes United a far less valuable program. Collect your United flight miles if you’re striving for elite status, especially 1K, but if you have the potential to earn large numbers of miles through non-flight activity, consider crediting those miles to other programs (just not Delta’s, and try to keep it in Star Alliance or oneworld).

Update: One Mile at a Time sees a silver lining:

[T]he mileage requirements in all classes for Central Asia/India/Africa have remained the same, and the changes to the Middle East are no more than 5,000 miles! I’ve actually not explored most of those destinations at all, so if anything this will give me a good reason to check them out. In a way I should be thanking UA for these “enhancements,” since they’ll undoubtedly widen my horizon, if only because of the lack of increases in mileage required for these places.

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. What is wrong with Delta’s program? They are the easiest to get miles on (at least for my hub)

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