United Now Charges a Fee for Close-In Booking of Awards – Collected in Miles Instead of Money

When United Airlines introduced dynamic pricing for awards – the elimination of award charts – program head Luc Bondar told me that this new way of varying prices applied to United flights and that partner airline flight prices weren’t changing. Though the award chart would no longer be published, partner awards would still use those same prices.

United’s Star Alliance Award Chart Was Supposed to Remain in Force

Last month I asked about a FAQ on the United website that said United’s partner award flight prices could vary. It was re-confirmed that what MileagePlus President Luc Bondar told me still held true – that partner award itineraries would vary price when United flights were part of the itinerary.

United gave me that confirmation in writing. They saw when I represented that to readers. Only it was like Obi-Wan Kenobi insisting his claim that Darth Vader killed Luke Skywalker’s father was technically accurate, from a certain point of view.

Here’s what happened:

  • United eliminated close-in booking fees November 15

  • At the same time, close-in booking of partner awards (and United awards) became more expensive, for instance a Lufthansa non-stop to Europe went from 70,000 miles to 73,500 miles.

Here’s Detroit – Frankfurt one way on Monday, November 18:

However book out a month and it’s still 70,000 miles:

Partner award prices have changed with dynamic pricing. And despite claims to the contrary United does have a close-in booking fee, it’s just collected in miles instead of US dollars.

Whether for partner awards or United awards, pricing is generally higher closer to departure – bumping up within a month of travel, higher within one to 25 days prior to travel, and highest within a week of travel. That doesn’t surprise me for United flights, I just thought we could rely on United’s assurance for a bit more time on partner awards.

United spokesperson Maggie Schmerin, who re-confirmed last month that Luc Bondar’s representations to me “remain[ed] accurate” now offers,

Between April 5 and November 15, we did not change partner award pricing for all future travel booked during that time – which I shared with you and Luc shared when we said it wasn’t changing at that time, even though we did change United award pricing for awards beyond November 15.

Through the published FAQ and our exchange, we’ve maintained that the number of miles needed for partner awards may vary and that the chart posts the minimum amount needed.

As the judge in the class action lawsuit against United over broken promises to million mile elites said, “I feel as though maybe they should say “Don’t rely on anything we say at the top of every page” and people would probably be well advised to probably take that thought.”

When I said that United was re-confirming there was no change to how partner awards would price, I also said it’s inevitable that they’d raise partner pricing. That’s because:

  • Dynamic pricing benefits the airline not members
  • Removing transparency is never good for the customer
  • And the temptation to inflate the currency simply becomes too great when you can do it without telling anybody

We’ve seen this at Delta where the best awards have gotten much more expensive – often double – and it appears we’re beginning to see that at United too.

United doesn’t pay more to partner airlines for close-in travel, yet they charge their members more. And this change hurts elite members the most who had previously been exempt from cash close-in booking fees but aren’t exempt from the close-in redemption surcharge. That’s a strange thing to do at the same time they’re asking for more money from elites than ever.

It’s sad that United maintained they weren’t making changes to partner award pricing – and then did so immediately on the very day they eliminated close-in booking fees in cash.

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. At some point you will agree that regulation of currencies like points and miles is required, as inflation and devaluation happens without any notice. All airlines and points systems are doing this. Rules must be set for notice of changes to programs, and prices should be posted.

  2. UA broke the promise for sure, but nothing new there. That is why I am focusing on the positive: (a) the number of points we are taking about are rather small, and (b) if you are like me, the increase is immaterial because I seldom, if ever, book award tickets less than 30 days before departure…

  3. This particularly sucks for 1K members, because we didn’t pay the close-in booking fee but will now have to pay the higher point value.

  4. The executives at UA are __________s (fill in your favorite obscenity). They are giving the middle finger to all their customers. How does UA attract such despicable people to work for them? These moves hurt everyone, including UA with all the bad faith they are generating. Their motto seems to be “How can we make people hate us more?” or “”Trust what we say? You’ve got to be kidding!”

  5. Yawn.

    This is the new reality. And it’s a direct result of the credit card mileage earnings that Gary and company push nonstop. Miles are so easy to earn and people don’t associate them with value or effort. It’s inevitable that award prices will go up and keeping coming up.

  6. @Bob

    Miles are easy to earn not because Gary and Ben and a bajillion others have blogs, but *because the banks and airlines make it easy to do so.* They create the game and the rules. The rest of us just play it.

    And I play it from the sidelines with extremely little revenue flying. The *airlines* are the ones who de-emphasize the miles accrued from flying and favor earn from non-flying activity. Gary and Ben certainly aren’t responsible for setup, are they?

  7. Today’s 3,500 is next year’s 4,500 is 2021’s 5,500.

    IMO Marriott has been the king of a lack of ethics the last few years, but UA is closing the gap quickly.

  8. @Jake – I’m not following the logic, airline frequent flyer programs have never been highly regulated (there was never a time when they were more regulated, there’s been no deregulation). Moreover programs are actually SUPPOSED TO BE REGULATED by the Department of Transportation however DOT’s Inspector General says the agency improperly ignores them. In other words, there’s regulatory negligence not deregulation.

    See https://viewfromthewing.com/federal-government-investigated-frequent-flyer-programs-heres-found/

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