NOT A GLITCH: United Massively Devalues Even Simple Roundtrip Awards, Either Take the Routes They Suggest or Pay More Miles

Back in August United announced new change fees for awards and new limits award stopovers. They eliminated round the world awards as well.

This was a devaluation, but — at least based on the announcement — seemed to be in areas where United was more generous than the competition. They’ll still allow stopovers, just only in the same region as your destination. If you’re flying between the US and Asia with a connection in Europe you used to be able to stop over at your European connecting point. Now that costs more miles, since United prices it as a separate award.

It turns out the changes were more draconian than what United announced. You can only book awards at the award chart price that United presents to you. Any awards you build yourself online, or with an agent, will price each portion of the trip separately — even for a simple one way or roundtrip without any kind of stopover at all.

And since United’s IT has long been a weak spot, failing to offer even simple connecting options that are available, it’s frequently necessary to put together awards segment-by-segment. Charging more for United’s inability or unwillingness to display awards that are available is both a major devaluation and an affront to members.

Here’s how this works: you only get to choose flights that United offers you at the published price. Even the flights you want are available, if United’s systems don’t suggest it — and you get the website to put the flights together with multi-city search, or you get an agent to build the itinerary one flight at a time — they’re going to charge you separately for each flight segment.

  • Even though saver awards are available
  • Even though the route and connections are permitted under United’s rules
  • And even though United publishes a price for that routing
  • United is still going to charge you more miles.

Since United announced the changes that were going into effect and this wasn’t one of them, and since it seems like an ‘unfair and deceptive’ practice (of the kind DOT says they’ve been mistakenly failing to act against, charging more than the published price for an itinerary), I assumed it had to be be a glitch.

However a United spokesperson tells me,

There is not a glitch on the new site for multi-city — that functionality is working as we previously announced. The new MileagePlus award changes are designed to make multi-city searches easier, give our customers greater flexibility, offer the Excursionist Perk, and provide efficient options that meet their travel needs. Selecting the multi-city option will break up the search into separate awards. We believe our multi-city pricing is consistent with the industry.

For more coverage,

  • Dan’s Deals wrote about this yesterday wondering if it was a glitch, noting that “[i]f United.com comes up with [New York – Los Angeles – Auckland – Sydney] it’s 80K [miles] in business class. [If it doesn’t and] I use multi-city search it can be 92.5K [miles] or 110K [miles] depending on how I input the search.”

  • Tiffany wrote about it this morning and sums up the changes rather aptly — that “[m]ulti-region routings are allowed, as long as it’s not your idea” and “MileagePlus is now less predictable than SkyMiles.”

As I concluded when Hyatt made more changes than they announced they would on August 1, I shouldn’t need to run down a list of all of a program’s features and ask whether or not those are changing, too.

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. Delta had been doing this for a while, United is merely sticking with their “copy everything that Delta does, except the good ones” motto.

  2. @Joe this is worse than what Delta does, they practice journey control with their own flights, but you can still piece together flight-by-flight partner saver awards and usually get it to price.

  3. Well, you put Hillary Clinton supporters in charge of United’s FF program (and Delta’s) to change the terms, this is what you get. Welcome to the program where “We say one thing in public, we do another in private”, and the final result is what you get.

  4. So does it say in the terms and conditions of the award program that they offer an award chart with x miles between region1 and region2 but ONLY if their site provides the routing?

    This is a massive problem… The award chart is completely meaningless.

  5. For folks experienced in gaming frequent flyer programs, there’s no question this is a bad thing. Seats are scarce enough as it is, and this makes them scarcer.

    Of course, if you’re an airline, do you really want to help the gamers? I think the answer is (unfortunately for us) “no.” Remember, for the vast majority of their customers (including most of their highest fare customers), these changes are meaningless.

    There is, of course, a long history of weird routing rules on award travel. Like AA’s weird “married segment” rules that make some award seats available if you know how to hunt for them. And, heck, I just noticed this week that UA is currently pricing some transpacific Global First award seats for less than their business class. So the game continues.

  6. Doesn’t surprise me at all. I wish I’d defected when CO & UA merged. I fly every month, always through IAH or ORD. From DTW, we used to get flights from EWR or CLE. Now, we pay more to earn less miles as they want to route us all through ORD. Forget using miles, I can’t even get a decent fare anymore.

    UA doesn’t care about their FF program. I miss CO.

  7. As a million mile flier with UA (flying mostly when they were in bankruptcy eating those crappy deli sandwiches on premium transcon flights), they slapped me down a couple years ago by breaking a promise it took me hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain when they devalued my status to Gold. Now they have increased my change fees while reducing non-elite change fees. The final nail for me is this multi-city search. First hiding the fact by saying there are “no other changes” when in fact they knew different. (I suspected this when seeing odd things happen with multi-city search over recent weeks.) Then the excuse of “awards not pricing properly” is complete BS. Every award built under multi-city search fit the rules. If something was unusual the rate desk always made the final decision. No tickets were issued that were not priced properly. Mr. Munoz wants a best in class airline. This is a curious way of going about that, Polaris or not. Time to move on to a different airline/program. My only regret is I didn’t drain my account.

    As is this major BS:
    “The new MileagePlus award changes are designed to make multi-city searches easier, give our customers greater flexibility, offer the Excursionist Perk, and provide efficient options that meet their travel needs. Selecting the multi-city option will break up the search into separate awards. We believe our multi-city pricing is consistent with the industry”

    If they want to eliminate some of the more complex mult-layover itineraries it’s their program.Tell us when you announced the changes. Don’t hide it (that is industry consistent) But eliminating building valid routes that simply either take a later flight or fly a different carrier is NOT consistent with the industry.”

  8. Wow. Two and a half years ago I was able to assemble a stopover and open jaw itinerary to Africa using UA miles. I used the ANA site to find the flights and spent an hour on the phone with UA booking it. It was no problem at all. Yet another redemption experience I will never be able to repeat.

    It’s depressing knowing that each time I score a great redemption it’s very likely the last of its kind for me. LH First Class Terminal, AA business LAX-LHR, Hyatt Cancun Caribe Regency Club (Category 1!), AA 321T First for 37.5k Avios, Park Hyatt Sydney 2 free nights (5/24 hinders it), Hilton’s long-dead ALON award, and some others I can’t readily recall.

    Aspirational programs should not continually deflate their rewards; that dampens the customer’s enthusiasm about earning points. 20 years ago I confidently saved hotel points for several years to earn an award. Now we all need to think much shorter-term.

  9. I wrote about this yesterday morning (and again at night), where I argued that in some ways, UA has taken the worst of DL (charge you whatever the computer says) with the worst of AA (everything as one-way) with this new change.

    The problem isn’t limited to multi-city pricing either. Some airports aren’t coded with the right regions, and the Excursionist Perk isn’t working correct in some cases as well.

  10. @ nsx — Last time I checked, you could get 2 “free” nights at Park Hyatt Sydney for 60,000 points. That is still a good value if you need to stay at a high-end property.

  11. Attention Mileage Plus members:

    Say “Hello” to Mr. Scott Kirby! Your new UA President!

    Enjoy! There’s more to come…

  12. This effectively kills SQ, ET, and any other airlines that UA doesn’t display. If their IT/website actually worked I’d have no issues but it doesn’t which makes this all the more ridiculous.

  13. @nsx:

    CO/UA intra-South Asia J awards for 35k miles round-trip, with stopover and (when it was CO) EK J. complete with the bar, as well as SQ J.

    US “mini-RTWs” in F for 120k miles (USA-HKG-USA), including LX F (not available outside M&M except for flukes) and LH F (only available close-in outside of M&M). Pair that with the aforementioned S. Asia award and you get a LOT of premium class travel for 150,000 miles.

    Sic transit gloria mundi.

  14. Couple of things that bear highlighting – it’s not just about the gamers!

    1) This really hurts members trying to search for awards between two non-hub cities – how do you get from Savannah to Siem Reap? The website sometimes can’t put something really complex like that together, and you have to do it manually. So you’re condemned to paying extra miles…
    2) Making any change to an existing reward requires searching for the ENTIRE THING over again. If you’ve got a three-segment award and you just want to change the first segment, you LOSE the inventory of the 2nd/3rd segments and have to start over. Not even agents can fix this…

  15. Melissa – thanks for bringing Hillary Clinton into the conversation. I guess Trump was right in the first debate. She is responsible for every bad thing that has happened in the last 40 years. Damn you Hillary – now your messing with the frequent flyer programs.

    On a different note, I switched to Delta this year after flying 2 million miles on United. I have noted that Delta beats United in every single way except for the FF program. However, it is clear that United is working on making that worse.

  16. @Gary – Considering the impact of this change, are you going to use your status with the FF community to lobby up the chain in UA and see what can be done? Having an award chart that defines prices between regions but then charging a different rate because your IT team wasn’t able to get the system to work right is still fraud, no? Go to the media and use an example with a domestic award which doubles in price but they refuse to price per their award chart so that the masses understand the significance. Then again, maybe they will completely copycat Delta and pull their charts?!

  17. Everyone is still missing the big story. Try to change a segment of an itinerary and inventory has to be available for the entire itinerary at the time of the change.

  18. Has anyone tried booking online and then calling in within 24 hours to add the last leg with no change fee that the website wouldn’t show on initial booking? Will the agent ask for more miles even though it is within the award chart allowance?

  19. Gary, you should press back at UA. What do they have to say for themselves? Are they actively trying to drive customers away?

  20. This seems like a good place to provide a perspective I just provided elsewhere, except that folks here will have the benefit of a cleaner (i.e., someone what proofed) post:

    I am nearly certain that once reports of people redeeming award travel on UA to various destinations and for varied itineraries start to pile up, the claim that the sky has fallen as a result of these rules changes will turn out to be a gross exaggeration, if not altogether bogus.

    I have a “before” and “after” test case study to show that some itineraries won’t be affected even a bit as a result of the new rules. Prompted by @Tiffany’s series of very informative posts over at OMAAT on these very MileagePlus award rules changes , I scrambled to beat the October 6 deadline on which the new rules were to go in effect, not because I was particularly worried about it, but because I had just realized that I was 3 months behind in booking my Big-Time Annual Year-end Asian Escapade(TM), which I had completely booked by the end July last year. So, after I settled on my rather complex itinerary for this 4-week personal travel in N and SE Asia, I did what I’d done each of the 5 prior years:

    — I searched for award availability to my destinations, one segment at a time.
    — Armed with the award availability from the prior step, I would get on the horn with a UA 1K Desk agent to have her [it was a “him” this time but it is immaterial] confirm the availability of each award flight that I’d found, and then she would link the segments into itineraries, taking into account MileagePlus rules about stopovers, open jaws, one-way vs. round trip, etc, as they relate to award travel. So, here’s what I ended up with:

    First, I was still short on PQMs and PQDs required to requalify for UA 1K, so I decided to use this TPAC trip to get what I needed, and in the process kill two birds with one stone: I booked revenue round trip tickets to fly into PVG (LGA-ORD-PVG) in UA GlobalFirst and return to the US from HKG (HKG-ORD-LGA) four weeks later, after my “Asian Escapade”, on a W fare with which I requested an upgrade to UA BusinessFirst using a GPU. Those revenue tickets cost me just under $4K, which I put on my Chase Sapphire Reserve to meet the minimum spend and collect 100K UR points (first bird killed) and would get me over the 100K PQMs and $12K PQDs that I needed to requalify for 1K (second bird killed).

    As for the within Asia Year-End Escapade(TM) itself, which would be exclusively on award tickets, here’s what I got for a rather complex itinerary [the letters in parentheses, e.g. (X), are the classes of service between two cities: (X) is economy, (I) is business and (O) is first class]. I searched segment by segment, with the city at the end of each segment being a stopover destination where I would spend at least 3 days.

    A. Segment by segment award search
    ———————————————————
    NORTH ASIA
    — Segment #1: Shanghai (PVG) to Tokushima (TKS), Japan, I got:
    PVG-(X)-KIX-(X)-HND-(X)-TKS: 15K UA miles, $13.50

    — Segment #2: TKS to Seoul (ICN), I got:
    TKS-(X)-HND-NRT-(I)-ICN: 30K, $25.40
    [with taxi from HND to NRT in Tokyo]

    NORTH TO S/SE ASIA AND STAY THERE

    — Segment #3: ICN to Singore (SIN)
    ICN-(I)-PEK-(I)-SIN: 40K, $38.60

    Segment #4: SIN to Bangkok (BKK), I got:
    SIN-(I)-BKK: 25K, $25.70

    Segment #5: BKK to Phnom Penh (PHN) in the Kingdom of Cambodia, I got:
    BKK-(I)-PHN: 25K, $21.10
    PHN-(I)-BKK: 25K, $26

    Segment #6: BKK to Hong Kong (HGK)
    BKK-(O)-HKG: 35K, $21.10

    B. Piecing the segments together into itineraries and PNRs
    —————————————————————————————-

    After confirming the availability of awards for every segment, the UA agent excused herself as she figured out how to piece the segments together into itineraries, which she needed in order to be able to determine how many miles it would all cost me, as well as to issue me the PNRs and the tickets. This is how she pieced things together in itineraries and PNRs.

    — PNR#1: PVG-(X)-KIX-(X)-HND-(X)-TKS-(X)-HND-NRT-(I)-ICN-(I)-PEK-(I)-SIN
    Cost: 55K UA miles/$78.10

    — PNR#2: SIN-(I)-PNR#3-(I)-PHN-(I)- BKK-(O)-HKG
    Cost: 60K UA miles/$73.30

    — PNR#3: BKK-(I)-PHN: This segment belonged in PNR #2 but it was overlooked (by me or the agent doing the booking). I found out later and it was added as a separate PNR and it cost 25K UA miles/$21.10

    Total cost after piecing the segments together as above: 55K + 60K + 25K = 140K UA miles/$172.50

    Total it WOULD HAVE cost me segment-by-segment: 15K + 30K + 40K + 25K + 25K + 25K + 35K = 195K UA miles.

    A difference of 195K – 140K = 55K miles and that’s why I always let a 1K Desk agent confirm award availability and piece the segments together for me!!!

    Now back to the claims of the purported “thermonuclear devaluation” of UA miles and of sky falling as a result of the new rules. What would be different if I did the above under the new rules? Absolutely nothing would be different. In fact, I just searched for the above today and it gave me exactly what it had given me when I booked the award travel above on October 5. I asked the agent if the new rules would make it difficult for me to reach out to one of them to help me book similar award travel in the future. She said not at all, and even encouraged it. That’s all wanted to hear.

    The claims of doom need to be heavily caveated, since is already a complex itinerary that challenges them.

    I will be doing soon on a travel discussion board near you, a complete post on my planning of this Big-Time redemption, which cost me comparatively very little, with an itinerary map and hotel award stays that I have already booked at each destination using a combination of HHonors points (mostly), MR points (including 9K starpoints transferred to 27K MR points) and HGP points.

  21. @DCS My response to your false premise on OMATT

    Your example is not what we are discussing, nor did you get anything other than the single one way redemption values, even tho you tried to price it out for us city by city.

    PNR#1: PVG-(X)-KIX-(X)-HND-(X)-TKS-(X)-HND-NRT-(I)-ICN-(I)-PEK-(I)-SIN
    Cost: 55K UA miles/$78.10

    One Way PVG-SIN is 40K points in business class, but you went up to TKS so:
    Your trip
    PVG-TKS = 15K in economy
    TKS-SIN = 40K in Business
    PVG-TKS-SIN = 55K, what you paid. Hope you got a stop over in TKS.

    — PNR#2: SIN-(I)-PNR#3-(I)-PHN-(I)- BKK-(O)-HKG
    Cost: 60K UA miles/$73.30

    SIN-HKG is 35K points in First class on Thai through BKK but you went to PNH so
    Your Trip:
    SIN-PNH is 25K in Business
    PNH-HKG is 35K in First on Thai
    Which is exactly what you paid 60K.

    Sorry, no deal for you.

    Furthermore, numerous people have called UA for simple redemptions and have been told that agent can’t price it out. You happen to have a 1K agent and no doubt they are willing to help more than common folk.

  22. So this really comes down to the routing decisions made by one computer programmer somewhere within the bowels of United airlines. And only he knows the exact algorithms used. And the formula might change so a routing today may be unavailable tomorrow (even though it is still valid). If we could just figure out who that programmer is, maybe we could influence his algorithms! Or at least he could tell us the exact algorithms.

  23. People, I know it’s fashionable to pile on Delta but the comments that Delta does this too are not accurate.

  24. @That Guy: Really? Do you have a link to that change? If true, I would pray for schedule changes as opportunities to revise one or more segments without disturbing the rest of the trip.

  25. LOL. It looks like we’ll be cross-posting all day!

    @MarkS — The key is in how the segments are pieced together. After it’s been done, it’s easy to claim foresight. Hindsight is perfect 20/20 vision 😉

  26. I am sure that things have changed, but it would be best to look at things case by case because all redemptions are not created equal. For me, searching and finding awards has never been a problem. If you do not trust “united.com”, then search elsewhere (AC, NH) and compare, and get back to a UA agent with itineraries from elsewhere that you prefer. If they refuse then that would be a major cause for concern, but my understanding is that agents will look if you suggest an itinerary. It is what I did. The agent had no clue whether or not what I was providing was from the UA website or from elsewhere. At united.com agents see exactly what you, but they can look elsewhere if you make a suggestion of an itinerary. During the trip above, I will do a side trip to Siem Reap (REP) for which there was no *A availability. I suggested to the agent to look for SQ awards (not visible at united.com). He found none and without prompting he searched for regional carriers and then suggested Bangkok Airways (PG) but said that I would have to pay money because PG is not a partner. I suspect that it may come down to how good the agent assisting you will be. The one assisting me this time was the best so far — a native of Peru working from home, who even wanted to chat about events around the world!

  27. @DCS, what is making everyone upset is that you can no longer just feed an agent a valid itinerary and have them price it correctly for you. If United doesn’t suggest it to you, then you’ll have to pay the segment-by-segment price for it, whether you book online or with an agent.

  28. Just in case anyone is curious about *A carriers that offer awards for the type of complex itinerary I described above, I have added the carrier in the parentheses containing the class of service, e.g., (X, CA) would be an economy (X) award on Air China (CA):

    — PNR#1: PVG-(X, CA)-KIX-(X, NH)-HND-(X, NH)-TKS-(X, NH)-HND-NRT-(I, OZ)-ICN-(I, CA)-PEK-(I, CA)-SI

    — PNR#2: SIN-(I, TG)-PNR#3-(I, TG)-PHN-(I, TG)- BKK-(O, TG)-HKG

    — PNR#3: BKK-(I, TG)-PHN

    So, I have 4 *A carriers — CA, NH, OZ and TG — involved. In SE Asia, TG reigns supreme for redeeming UA miles on a *A carrier, since things “soured” with SQ.

  29. I booked effectively an RTW ticket on UA before the devaluation for 70K in Y. If I want to make a change to that, what rules will be in effect? The ones at time of ticket issuance or time of change?

  30. @DCS, this is the issue.

    Before the deval 10/6 I booked the following:
    ORD to FRA United O-GF
    FRA-DUS LH J
    Stopvover in DUS (more than 24 hours)
    DUS-NRT ANA J
    Overnight layover in Tokyo
    NRT-PVG ANA J
    Destination Shanghai – Stopover
    PVG-VIE OS J
    Overnight in Vienna
    VIE-ARN OS J
    Overnight in Stockholm
    ARN- ORD SAS J
    160K points

    The changes that were announced stated that the extra stopover (in this case DUS) would be eliminated, but replaced with a “regional” based stopover. So something like NRT-PVG from the above would be allowed. And it is allowed now (if Japan is in the same region as PVG which they’ve failed to publish what’s where). But the round trip itinerary was built with Multi-city before. And with the new changes you can’t build something like this.

    In fact it’s worse, let’s say you did a search from PVG-JFK. You might get Air China through Beijing, or ANA through Tokyo or maybe even LH through Frankfurt. Even OS through Vienna.

    So let’s say the ANA ticket that goes through Tokyo looks ok. If you try and build it on the multi-city it will price out as 2 rewards, not one as the UA standard search did, even tho it’s the very same flights. And if there are say 3 ANA flights to Tokyo on that day and you wanted to take a certain one you are at the mercy of the reward search. If your flight isn’t there you can’t build it.

    All your itinerary is a bunch of one way tickets that they put into a ticket or two for you. It’s not the different carriers. In my example above it would be like saying:
    ORD-DUS :80K
    DUS-NRT-PVG: 75K
    PVG-VIE-ORD: 80K
    They would be happy to put this in a single ticket if I paid the 225K points.

    And by the way, you can get SQ in Asia all day long with UA.

  31. Didn’t take Kirby long to put his foot print on how United will conduct it”s business. As soon as Kirby jumped to United without signing a non- compete clause I knew the fix was in. Now there is not one US Airline who wants to differentiate itself from the other and be more consumer friendly. Frequent Flyers benefits will soon be a thing of the past.

  32. @MarkS- Will you be trying to piece together that itinerary yourself at united.com as a multi-city or will you get the segments and see what a UA agent does with it? For me that is the key and I need to see as many data points as possible.

    I have not gotten an award seat on SQ in 2-3 years going to through UA, so I am not sure about how you get SQ awards “all day long.” I have been happy with TG, which is ubiquitous in the region. Nevertheless, I will get around all that now that I will be accumulating loads of UR points on my CSR and have joined KrisFlyer. I will just redeem URs directly either as cash or as points on SQ

  33. @dcs. I did. That’s how I got your pricing. Hey, you did good and what you wanted. Good for you. But it’s not the change that people are mad about. I like TG as well. If you want to go to my site and read about my 4 SQ flights this year using UA points you are welcome, rewardflying.com.

    I’m not sure how SQ redemptions will play out with this new change anyway seeing they don’t price on the website.

    Enjoy your trip @dcs

  34. @MarkS — More data points will definitely help us fully establish the pros and cons due to these changes, and maybe come up with “creative” solutions to get around any of the cons.

    How ever “bad” the changes at UA might end up being, they won’t affect redemptions on SQ using UR points. In any case, I will check out your site. The last time I flew on SQ was in 2013, from MNL to SIN.

    I will have fun on this trip, thank you! New Year festivities on Pattaya Beach (first time there), and then off to PHN, which, along with TKS, are new cities that I am adding this year to this annual event.

    G’day!

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