One of the most generous things about United has been its routing rules, taken from the old Continental system. You could pretty much get between any two cities any way you wished, combining most flights on most airlines and crossing most regions.
It’s “whatever the computer would price” and the computer’s pricing algorithms have been very messy. Sometimes it wouldn’t let you do something you thought you should. But those instances were rare. More often you could get a whole lot more than was reasonable.
The pricing system always seemed to be hacked together, with workarounds. It used to be that if you booked an international business class award with a domestic economy flight on a 3-cabin United aircraft as a connection, the award would price as first class. Lots of glitches like that, and as Continental (now United) agents are rarely empowered to question the computer.
The situation is two-fold:
- routing rules have been updated and not just for one award but for several, in a way that forbids practices that are very important to the usefulness of United miles and likelihood of getting awards — like being able to travel via Europe to get to Asia, or via Asia to get to Africa.
- you can still book many of these awards on the website. In other words, the new published rules don’t seem to be implemented in United’s pricing logic.
Here’s a sampling of concerns expressed and my thoughts on each.
As always, I share my thinking on this blog — sometimes open to the criticism that I give too much context or drill too deeply into explaining my arguments, making for too-long posts. But you’re exposed to the bulk of my analysis, and can decide for yourself.
And, as well, can offer your own opinions in the comments, I like that the comments section is a free flowing place for ideas… even and especially when those ideas are critical of my own. It’s great to hash through all sides.
This was just a glitch that United is fixing, so it’s no big deal
There’s no question that United, since the merger with Continental, has probably had the most generous routing rules. It was no secret to the airline. I’m not sure it’s fair to say it’s a glitch, but I’ve always said that things which are substsantially more generous than industry norms tend towards mean-reversion.. they don’t last.
Still, it matters very much. The value of a mileage redemption program is a function of that program’s award prices, award seat availability, and the rules in play about what routes and airlines can be combined to put together the award.
If fully implemented these rules would take a large percentage of options between the US and Asia off the table, a large chunk of United’s partner flights would no longer be available as they have been in the past. That’s a substantial change in the flexibility of miles to get you where you’re trying to go.
But you can still book awards using the old rules at the United website!
That’s the saving grace, that I highlighted with screen shots in my original post.
Personally I would book these awards now, rather than waiting, because I assume that the changes to the language of routing rules was done on purpose.
It wasn’t just one award that changed, it was several, which makes me suspect it wasn’t just a mistake but intentional, and if it’s intentional I assume they’ll change the pricing logic. (They need to change the rules before or at the same time as the pricing, rather than changing the pricing first.)
There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to do this, if they don’t intend to enforce it.
That said, programming is hard — not least of which, it often seems, for United. So it’s possible that in their hacked-together system they don’t ultimately make that a priority. Which would be outstanding.
Still, it’s one thing to be able to book something on the web and another when it comes time to make changes on the phone with an agent who could disallow something as a violation of fare rules. I’d rather be able to do something because it’s within the rules, rather than able to do it in spite of the rules. That’s a distinction that will wind up mattering.
These changes were made without notice, but they’re just routing rules, and those aren’t historically announced publicly anyway
It’s a material change that alters how much United’s miles are worse. It doesn’t surprise me that United’s tweaks to routing rules are done without notice, but I still think — as I have long written — that the worst thing a program can do is substantially devalue your points without ample notice.
If you’ll no longer be able to fly to Bangkok via London, Rome, Frankfurt, Zurich, Istanbul, Brussels, Paris, etc. that takes away a ton of of flight availability that made United’s one of the easiest programs with which to get seats. It takes away a key redemption benefit that stems from its membership in Star Alliance.
And it does so after they already substantially increased the price of partner awards in premium cabins so it would be a double whammy.
Award routing rule changes are devaluations if they materially impact the usefulness of points.
This shouldn’t be called a devaluation because we don’t have enough data yet to know how it will work in practice
True, if United published new restrictions on awards in their fare rules but doesn’t actually ever charge more miles then it won’t matter.
I’m skeptical of this, it doesn’t seem logical that they would update the fare rules and then do nothing with those. I think it is more likely that the rules got updated and then the computer logic comes next.
But it’s absolutely true that right now you can still book awards at the old price, as I noted in the original post (with screenshots).
So it’s also reasonable to say that my post’s title should have been hedged more. So I changed it. Instead of saying that there ‘is’ a devaluation, I’ve changed it to say ‘may be’. That’s fair.
I shared further fault in the comments of the original post. I wrote the post title last, sitting in an airport lounge, with my flight already 5 minutes into boarding. I probably didn’t give enough thought to my post title, and on reflection the title of the post should have been more nuanced to reflect all of the information in the post. I should have waited until I was inflight to hit the publish button in order to improve the title. Reader feedback on that was heard, and appreciated.
Ultimately there’s no good news here even though we do not yet know how bad this will be in practice.
- You can join the 40,000+ people who see these deals and analysis every day — sign up to receive posts by email (just one e-mail per day) or subscribe to the RSS feed. It’s free. You can also follow me on Twitter for the latest deals. Don’t miss out!