What United / Continental Tie-up Means for You

I was traveling when this was announced, and quickly all the news sources and blogs picked up the story. So I’ve been pretty silent.

Continental entering a codesharing, marketing, and potentially revenue sharing (on certain international routes) agreement with United. They’re leaving Skyteam and joining Star Alliance. There will be reciprocal frequent flyer earn and burn, and lounge partnerships. But all the details remain to be seen, in particular, what about reciprocal upgrades for elites of each program as Continental currently offers to Northwest elites and vice versa.  Of course all this will likely take until mid-next year to come to fruition.

The bottom-line, though, is this: the move is strongly positive for Continental frequent flyers, with little upside and some risk for United frequent flyers.

Continental offers perhaps the best domestic premium product in the U.S. but one of the stingiest programs for award redemption. Continental miles will become worth a whole lot more because they will be able to be used on Star Alliance airlines — which means premium class award redemption across the Atlantic and Pacific, something that is next to impossible now with Continental (and with their partners in Skyteam, the stingiest airline alliance for award redemption).

United flyers don’t get a whole lot when it comes to redemption, Continental doesn’t make it easy to get award seats. But they do get competition for those Star Alliance redemption seats from all the Continental flyers with large mileage balances who now have an opportunity to cash out for much more valuable trips.

For Continental folks who occasionally find United flights more attractive or affordable or the opposite, this will help claw towards elite status. So if you fall in this camp it’s a positive.

And sure, United flyers can earn Mileage Plus miles on Continental under the proposed partnership. And those miles will count towards status.

But the upside doesn’t really outweigh the risks if you’re a United member. On top of award redemption competition, there’s just all of the consumer-unfriendly practices of Onepass to be afraid of — stingy award redemption, especially for premium cabin travel; required co-pays for international upgrades; exorbitantly high award charts (United generally requires fewer miles for the same award); and a lack of confirmed upgrades for top tier elites. These things scare me and my large stash of Mileage Plus miles.

Bottom-line: For Continental flyers, this is good. For United flyers, the future is unknown, perhaps little will change, but there’s some risk out there.

Of course, my entire opinion could change depending on the details of reciprocal upgrades that ultimately emerge.  The unique selling proposition of Continental’s program is unlimited complimentary upgrades.  Other programs have copied it, but they pioneered it — and they maintain a domestic first class cabin worth upgrading into.  If Continental elites suddenly have to compete against United elites for advance upgrades to the front cabin on Continental flights, then Continental flyers could be disadvantaged and there would be an actual benefit to United elites to be gained from this partnership.

I don’t expect things to work that way, however.  First, because United and Continental have incompatible upgrade schemes — different tier levels (United top level requires 100,000 miles while Continental’s requires 75k) and different upgrade structures (unlimited for Continental, earned- or purchased-certificated based for United), so I don’t see an easy way for them to integrate advance upgrades.  Second, because United and US Airways provide a model for expectations — reciprocal upgrades at the airport on day of departure.  That would be my guess about where this partnership goes, at least over the next couple of years, and in that case my estimation of the winners and losers stands — not much for United flyers to gain, and a whole lot of upside for Continental’s members.

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. I’m not so sure that the deal is a great one for UA passengers, but to claim that OnePass has “customer-unfriendly” practices seems a bit rough to me. RTW tickets are way less expensive on CO, but that won’t really matter since the reciprocol earn/burn means that UA passengers will be able to book at UA levels and use CO as an operating carrier; it does not mean that UA pax will have to pay CO rates to redeem their UA miles.

    CO will open up a slew of new connecting routes for a number of European destinations, including adding flights in the biggest hole of the *A network: NYC-LON.

    I wouldn’t expect reciprocal upgrade benefits or E+ access, so that’s a wash.

    i do agree that OnePass members will make out better, but Mileage Plus folks aren’t really geting hosed all that badly in the deal.

  2. I’m a United frequent traveler and I am actually looking forward to this because I think it’ll be easier to get reward travel to the Carribean (from Denver). Continental has a lot of flights from Houston to Central America and the islands …

  3. Totally wrong…. I’ve had no problem redeeming even awards to Europe during the summer with Continental, using either NW, DL, AF, or CO.. that is a LOT of choices to Europe. Anyway, anyone with UA miles who is in ‘burn mode’ (as they should be because UA product stinks) is now going to be burning those miles for CO seats. What do OnePass members get? Less flexibility to Europe, and the only new option is United, well whoop de do, lest I repeat myself, their product stinks on ice.

  4. You’ll never see as many premium class seats available across the Atlantic as are offered by Star Alliance member Lufthansa. And Swiss and Austrian aren’t bad for this either. As long as Continental doesn’t block its members from redeeming awards being offered by other airlines, this will be a huge increase in award availability.

    And the idea that currently using CO miles for transatlantic *premium cabin* award travel during the summer is somehow easy (except at the easy pass level) is just silly.

  5. @Nope:
    CO loses AF/KL/AZ/OK as European-based carriers and gains LH/LX/LO/TK. That really isn’t a terrible swap and doesn’t really kill the options all that badly.

    Redemption on TATL summer flights in J isn’t terrible, especially using AF as a partner. They actually make a pretty reasonable amount of inventory available. I cannot speak to whether it is more or less than LH does, and one cannot book F seats using OnePass miles, but it isn’t all bad.

  6. You are right on the mark saying that Skyteam is the stingiest airline group to redeem miles on. NWA/DAL suck. I have nt had much experience on CO. Of course now DAL/NWA are merging so their tough to get awards will become tougher.
    Oh well. Thanks for the discussion of elite comparisons.

  7. I am a Platinum CO One Pass.
    I fly most 48 states, primarly New England, SouthEast, Florida and SouthWest states; and Arizona and SoCal, escpecially San Diego, Plam Springs and LAX.
    Never international, except Toronto, so I don’t care about flights to Europe or Asia.
    Have interest in Hawaii.

    My questions?
    1.) Do I stay with CO, or make strategic move to Delta/NWA and work to Medallion with Delta?
    Or do I stay with CO, and partner up on the UA Star program….Is USAir in STAR?

    2.) What is First Class like on UA and USAir in comparison to CO and NWA?


  8. CO becomes more valuable not less with Star Alliance. Yes, US Airways is in Star Alliance. UA’s domestic first class is better than NW’s but not as nice as CO’s.

  9. But is future Star Alliance with CO a better bet than SkyTeam Delta/NWA; and change my frequent flyer program to Delta?

  10. CO is my favorite…..but use NWA to places CO can’t get to…..and rates on CO from CLE are very high …..

    Heard a lot of bad stuff about UA and USAir, which will be my new Star options; so trying to bump that against possible NWA and Delta….with Delta as my Medallion acct…

    Every NWA flight I am on, I get bumped to First, and although not as nice as CO, seating is great vs coach and all flight crew has been very nice….

    Guess I’ll stick with CO and future Star for a year and tryout UA and USAir as options to CO on those places not served well by CO…


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