Yesterday was another “award booking day,” where I spend a bit of time helping various friends with their award travel.
One managed a Bali trip in first class on Asiana and Singapore. Another started off with a Thailand trip, ran into a bit of difficulty, and settled on Bali as wlel. Both were using United miles.
Yesterday, it turns out, was actually award booking day on United for much of the frequent flyer world. That’s because as the New Year struck, so did United’s bloody award chart increase.
In fact, at one point yesterday the regular international awards phone number featured hold times in excess of 90 minutes. That’s the number I usually favor, instead of elite agents, because the international call centers are frequently very helpful. Domestic agents can sometimes be helpful, and sure their English skills may be better, but they also “know the rules.” Or sometimes they only think they do. And they can be far more confident in their knowledge… so much so that they’ll tend to write comments into a reservation, and once a nasty and unhelpful comment is made subsequent agents tend to defer to it, even if it’s wrong. (I’ve had plenty of amazing domestic agents, I just don’t always need or want their extra helpfulness. But yesterday I ventued into their territory, not wanting to hold for 90 minutes for my cherished Manila call center.)
The trouble with yesterday is that “award blocking” was in full effect. It was the last day of the calendar year and with all of the demand for awards United was pushing back to hold down costs. As I understand it, they budget for each of their partner redemptions each quarter. When the volume of awards they’re booking on partners (toughly speaking) is greater than the awards their partners are booking on United planes, they have to make a cash payment. And they try to cap the cash payments that they are making by preventing their own members from booking awards that are actually being offered by their partners.
Sometimes when they wind up ‘under budget’ with a partner they’ll release their blocking. And they do wind up under budget sometimes, because their blocking is so extraordinary. It used to be difficult to get Lufthansa flights, both transatlantic and intra-Europe. And it would be hard to get Thai Airways premium class seats from Europe to Asia, and occasionally transpacific segments from the US to Asia as well. But not that many other flights were blocked, except the odd route such as Bangkok-Kathmandu.
Blocking has gotten much more extensively lately. Yesterday I found Asiana flights to be broadly available (that is, that the awards Asiana was offering were bookable with United miles). Singapore flights were as well. But the real run was with Thai Airways.
Yesterday I couldn’t get anything at all into Bangkok for several dates in July: Beijing-Bangkok, Shanghai-Bangkok, Seoul-Bangkok, Hong Kong-Bangkok, Tokyo-Bangkok, Osaka-Bangkok, Taipei-Bangkok, you name it… (well, nothing on Thai Airways, though Asiana was available out of Seoul and Singapore out of Osaka.)
Today things got even worse. Again, looking in July, I found entire days where domestic Thai segments were blocked… Bangkok-Phuket showing no seats in United’s system over multiple days where Thai was offering availability on every flight during those days. Bangkok-Beijing and Bangkok-Shanghai were frequently filtered. And entire days of Bangkok-Hong Kong as well.
I prefer Star Alliance for redemption (and the first class flights available on Asiana are truly astounding, availability is just that good and around almost all days Los Angeles-Seoul and many days Seoul-Chicago), but United miles are frequently tough. Air Canada and ANA are much better currencies, even US Airways (at least until they change their award chart again). Now that United has changed its award chart, a business class ticket from the US to Asia has gone from 90,000 miles to 125,000 (a 39% increase). A first class award is now 145,000 miles, presumably flights via that Atlantic coming at an additional premium as before. I now value my American Express points (which transfer to both ANA and Air Canada) so much more than United miles.
My advice to elite United flyers is to credit all non-flight miles to another program, so that they can have their upgrades on United but have miles in other programs for when it’s time to redeem for an award..