United Didn’t Just Change their Award Prices, They Changed Upgrades Too

Friday’s award chart changes at United were biggest for redemption of awards on their partners and especially for first class awards. Coach awards, and most awards in North and South America, saw modest changes.

USA Today quoted me describing the crux of the changes:

Frequent-flier expert Gary Leff described the changes as “really nasty,” adding in his View from the Wing blog that “the biggest bloodbath is to first class partner award pricing.”

When the changes first came out they were myriad. I focused primarily on the way they added a new, separate award chart for redeeming miles (more expensively) on their airline partners as opposed to on United flights. While partner awards do cost MileagePlus more than awards on United flights, it still surprises me that they would charge more for award seats even on joint venture partners like Lufthansa. This isn’t just a crackup of alliances, this is a bifurcation of United versus its profit-sharing partners.

With all the changes going on, I didn’t focus initially on the changes to upgrades and that led some commenters to assume that there weren’t any. One meme in the comments was even that the changes would be good for upgraders — fewer people taking award seats, more seats left for upgrades which would be unchanged.

But as Wandering Aramean points out, that isn’t correct at all.

There are some significant rule changes for upgrades in “regional” international markets, however, which are universally negative.

For flights to/from Northern South America (i.e. narrow-body service to the region) and within Asia MileagePlus Premier members will no longer be eligible for complimentary upgrades.

This applies to both instant-upgrades for full fare tickets and the regular CPU process the week prior to departure. These routes will also no longer be eligible for upgrades with Regional Premier Upgrade (RPU) instruments.

And, while Global Premier Upgrade (GPU) instruments are still valid these routes will have a minimum fare requirement (W or higher) in line with routes typically operated as BusinessFirst or GlobalFirst, despite these regional flights having the lower service levels and cabin configurations in most cases.

Finally, bringing these routes in line with other GPU-only markets, Premier members are no longer exempt from the co-pay portion of the upgrades when flying in these markets. The changes to the upgrade rules are effective immediately, not in February 2014. That’s doubly bad news for customers in these markets.

(Line-breaks added)

Upgrades are already not a great use of miles. They were once the best, most leveraged use — but increases in pricing and the addition of cash co-pays make them generally uneconomic, especially compared to mileage awards or at last compared to the prices of those awards for the past several years up through these changes.

The additional restrictions on elite upgrades are a further devaluation of the program.

And in this case, the program has been devalued in ‘the Americas’ more than the award chart changes discussed earlier initially revealed.


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 assume when you mean Premier members no longer exempt from co-pay portions you are referring to miles upgrade and not GPU usage on intl routes?

  2. One wonders whether this isn’t a watershed for FF programs. There is an ever-increasing number of “free” miles available via 30, 50 or even 100,000 credit card offers. The offers permit (encourage?) manufactured spend, can often be repeated, and are broadly available. So the airlines give with one hand (see the current BA offer) and take with the other (see UA).

    It is beginning to be sort of a silly game, isn’t it?

  3. United simply took back all those mileage bonuses Folks thought they were earning by being loyal
    Imagine a bank where you deposit your money notifies you we will be taking all your interest back you earned over the years and deducting 60% off your balance as our cost of doing business has risen.
    United rising?
    It’s the same Continenal greed mongers at it again
    No more flying United.will fly southwest Alaska virgin American
    Out United and Delta Done
    While United team are at it take their 200 change fees and let them put it where the sun doesn’t shine

  4. They also downgraded the F meal service, now it has to be 900+ miles for a proper meal. Three things in one swoop. This reeks of desperation on UA’s part after seven consecutive quarters of shortcomings.

  5. Gary: I’m thinking more and more about starting to use miles for points + copay upgrades. The story is this. I’ll be cutting back significantly on travel soon (new baby!), hence will be dropping down to lower tiers of elite status — maybe losing status entirely — at least for a few years. When I travel for work, work will reimburse for economy class only. Of course if I buy a ticket using miles, I can’t get any reimbursement at all. My thought is that, at least for overseas trips, I should let work pay for an economy class ticket, and use my own points and copay to upgrade myself, choosing my carrier carefully to minimize the cost of the upgrade. Does this strategy make sense to you? If so, would love to see a comparative post on the cost of points+copay upgrades to various regions on different airlines, sort of an “if you have to do it, here’s the way to do it…” post.

    Of course, maybe I should just suck it up and fly Y!

  6. While I am all in favor of industry consolidation…
    I believe this is the biggest sacrifice felt in the recent mergers. It is not ticket prices, it is elite recognition. Fewer airlines = more elites per airline. Fewer choices = nowhere to jump ship to. The airlines have realized they can devalue the loyalty programs as much as they want and wont lose business.

  7. Hi Gary

    To burn my miles before the deadline, I called United today to book a ticket from US to North Asia with a stopover in Europe. In the past, as many people did, I had no problem with adding a stopover (and it is allowed in their rule!) but today they told me that if I pass two oceans, now they considered it as a round-the-world trip, so a different price! The agent, after talking to his supervisor, told me that all of the agents were told to be aware of this fare and it is clearly noted in their training. Is there any way you can clarify this? I have a feeling that they are starting early to mess up with our miles…

  8. @Peter D. Lederer and people like him. Credit card companies are PAYING for the so called “Free” miles.

    @Dwondermeant. I loved Continental. 75K put you at top tier. B fares cost to ERW-HKG cost only $500 more and one flight would earn about 24,000 elite miles. Platinum earn 2x miles. Stewardess were friendly. airplane clean. Cashews were unbroken. Food was served in coach. Jeff Smisek became President, he immediately took away food in coach and was starting to distroy Continental, until he moved on to distroy United AND Continental. Don’t blame continental, blame Smizek.

    @United. You are stupid because: (1) The Kettles don’t care about FF value and elite benifits. Why, because they don’t fly much. Frequent flyers care. The move to re-aline the FF program will have an immediate negative impact. Take that to the bank. (2) Wait, you cannot go the bank any more, because you are damaging your relationship with Chase by selling miles to them, then devaling the miles. (3) Also, your frontal assault against the the Star Alliance, with have serious negative reprecussions. The rational flyer will book away from United, unless United offers a significant discount. Plus, the alliance will respond in kind. Take that to the bank (if you find another bank.

  9. It’s actually been 4 strikes in 3 days:
    1) Miles devaluation
    2) No meal service in F on flights < 900 miles
    3) Removing upgrade searches on ExpertFlyer
    4) Changes to upgrade policy (RPU, W-fare, etc.)

    In all, in three days, the airline where I've dedicated the majority of my business in the last 9 years (as a 1k+ flyer) has gone from one of the best to one of the worst.

    dAArkSide…I'm ready!

  10. @MrWho. I started to respond to your comment. Then I thought, WTH, why should I waste my time. I suggest you go to the top of a mountain and meditate on it. In about 30 years, it just might come to you. I have also heard that eating beans helps improve intelligence. Maybe you try it.

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