United’s New Domestic Free Drink Policy. Is It as Generous as You Think?

Brian Sumers writes that since Wednesday United gives a free first drink to top elite frequent flyers seats in coach.

Free booze is now available in coach on all United Airlines and United Express domestic flights – but only if you’re a special frequent flier.

United Airlines told employees this week that its Premier 1K and Global Services customers now receive one free drink on all flights. Most booze qualifies, but United says you’ll still have to pay for the 375ML “premium” wines.

…One of my favorite parts about these United internal announcements are the suggested scripts. Here are two optional lines flight attendants may use:

  • “Good afternoon Mr. Johnson, as a Global Services –or-1K customer, I’d like to offer you a complimentary beverage today.”
  • “Good evening Ms. Smith, as a Global Services –or- 1K customer, we invite you to have your first drink on us.”

This is being portrayed as a new way United is being generous with its customers, and the marketing seems to work: Customers are calling this a very good change and great news. I’m not so sure.

  • United has sent out 10 free drink coupons a year to 100,000 mile flyers for eons. You even used to be able to ask for extra coupons.

  • In recent years Platinum members have gotten 5 free drink coupons.

  • The first drink free for 1K and Global Service members policy may replace free drink coupons. That could mean the end of free drinks for Platinum members.

  • In practice flight attendants often didn’t collect the free drink coupons. You could have more than one free drink on a flight with the coupons, and the coupons lasted more than 10 drinks total.

  • With coupons you could buy someone else a drink, given them a drink chit. How often are most Global Services members in domestic coach anyway?

United won’t give away their premium wines even to Global Services members often spending $50,000 or more with the airline in a year or directing substantial corporate business to the airline still have to buy those.

And there’s no free snack benefit in coach. That makes United less generous than American and Delta.

Delta got rid of their free drink coupon for non-upgraded elites who checked in online (Delta was the most generous with free drinks, giving those to Golds even). Delta does now offer a free drink/snack in their extra legroom economy section (though elites not in ‘Comfort+’ no longer get a free drink).

American gives a free drink and free snack to their 100,000 mile Executive Platinum members in seated in coach.

Free drinks are serious business, Southwest Airlines just settled a class action lawsuit over their inflight drink coupons

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. […] View from the Wing criticizes United’s new complimentary beverage policy for Premier 1K and Global Services members because it might mean fewer drinks overall, and the inability to share free drinks with other non-elite passengers. Basically, a new policy in which drinks are provided to those customers on every flight suggests that the end of complimentary drink coupons, which could be saved or shared with other passengers (e.g., if the elite member usually gets an upgrade or pays for first class). […]


  1. AA doesn’t give elites the premium wines and neither does Delta – so why make that comparison?

    Enough of the biAAs around here.

    United is rising.

    And nice to see the old drink chit.

  2. Let’s see if the chits go away before proclaiming their demise. This is a good thing for the thirsty UAL top-tiers!!

  3. Jeez Gary – You’re turning into scrooge here. Just let the chits fall where there may and then you can proclaim the end of the world. I don’t think the announcement is a bad thing.

  4. How in the world did you manage to spin free drinks for elites into a bad thing? That’s ridiculous, and this is coming from a 1k that doesn’t drink.

  5. @joelfreak United already offered free drinks to 1Ks (and Platinums) this is not new but in many ways more limiting, at a minimum it isn’t some additional benefit to celebrate

  6. @Greg I sure hope that United ‘is rising’ though I think it is very much too early to tell, the key comparison to American and Delta is that both offer complimentary snacks while United does not.

  7. Maybe they can amend it to free drink or snack… esp for those who don’t drink.

    Better than nothing though I guess.

  8. Only Gary can turn a slight positive change from UA into a negative move. *rolleyes*

    While GS/1K, and Platinum members get 10 and 5 drink coupons annually, respectively, presumably GS/1K members fly more than 10 segments per year. With the last-minute upgrade up-sell program in place, it’s hard to get an upgrade on domestic flights, even as an 1K member. I, for one, appreciate the new program if I ended up sitting in coach, which I did in the past 4 out of 8 flights. That’s 40% of drink coupons redeemed in the span of 3 weeks. Also, FA are ever more diligent in collecting the drink coupons, since they now have to scan the barcode and record the seat number as part of the transaction. Yes, there are some old-school FAs out there who would not collect a drink coupon for a mini, but they are exceptions than the rule.

    Also, Delta does not offer free snacks, unless you count the little packets of peanuts or Biscoff cookies in coach, or if you are lucky enough to be in the minuscule C+ section so you can get an item from the first class snack basket – no drinks/snacks in preferred seats, so it’s not a guaranteed free drink.

  9. Gary – it’s not more limiting. You’re making random guesses as to how it could be more limiting down the road, but today it’s not. As of today drink chits are still there, and for all you or anyone else knows, they still could be there in the future.

    And even if they weren’t there in the future, I think you’re one of very few (barely any) who would argue this is a bad thing. As noted above, most 1K’s/GS usually fly more than 10 segments anyway. And while you could pull the ‘not in coach card’, that’s beyond the scope of the entire argument. It has no relevance, so the whole point of the free drinks is for coach.

    As others have said, the constant twisting of good UA news into somehow bad UA news really does get old.

  10. @Ray why would ‘the not in coach’ card have no relevance to the question of whether this gives Global Services members more free drinks than they receive today?

    The point remains that:
    * This isn’t materially more generous than what United offers today, so shouldn’t be deemed doing something special for their best customers. That card only works if UA didn’t already provide free drink chits.

    * This is less generous than American and Delta, because United continues not to offer free snacks.

  11. I think it’s a wash, but you’re missing one advantage of the vouchers. When I travel on business (most of the time) I don’t care about a free drink or snack because I can expense that. (I do care about an upgrade, though!) So, I keep my vouchers for when I travel with my family on vacation.

    Hyatt gets this. When I check in, as a Diamond, I get a choice between points and an amenity. If I’m traveling on business, I’ll often take the points unless I know the amenity is special. If I’m on vacation, I’ll often take the amenity.

  12. As someone who flies United in Economy quite regularly, I am happy with the change.

    Maybe I am just a simple person but I will take free “regular” wine and free beer and free jack and cokes all day.

    While I will never be GS, and that’s fine, it’s a nice benefit to the rest of the guys out there and I would assume for the majority of your United blog readers.

  13. Whoop ti do. GS and 1K fliers aren’t in coach that much, and when they are, giving them one free drink isn’t a big deal. Yes, worthy of reporting, but in reality a very small issue. UA is dying to earn a better public view. Slimesek did a great job of alienating his best customers (GS and 1K) and this is an easy and cheap way to make them a little bit happier. It is strictly a business decision and not because UA is being nice.

  14. Gary… I have to disagree, it IS materially more generous than what was offered before Wednesday, which was no proactive recognition for GS/1K in economy class. Yes, there were, and still are, drink chits, but the bigger issue is that post-merger UA finally recognizes that an egalitarian, all-elites-are-equal experience falls short of the standard elsewhere, and that us top-tiers actually want to feel appreciated for our business.

    It’s not a negative by any measure, and the bigger impact may indeed be symbolic.

  15. I’ve never been offered the drink, or heard the script. I’m pleased with the changes lately, but fear I’ll need to ask for the drink – which I dont think I would do.

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