How Big a Deal Are United’s New Changes to Award Rules?

This morning I wrote about United publishing new, highly restrictive rules for how you can put together awards on flights to several destinations.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Many commenters on the original post felt I was making too big a deal of these changes.

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.

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, 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. Another breathtakingly long post. Good info…but it goes on and on and on… And, this was a follow-up to an earlier post!!

  2. Reading between the lines of everything that’s been said seems to mean that the routing and seat availability remains unchanged, it’s just that it’s going to cost you an extra award to fly the segment(s). So in effect a mileage devaluation?

  3. Any reason to believe, as a previous comment stated, that this applies only to us departures and not to canada departures (along with the new three segment rule? Thanks

  4. I’m really not following here

    AA had those routing restrictions for ages and you’re they’re biggest fan

    UA aligns with AA rules then all of a sudden they’re chopped liver ?

    Double standards is all I see.

  5. I won’t go quite as far as Patricia, although you do know that I think you have some underlying hostility towards UA that I have never fully understood.

    As a practical matter, how do these routing rules compare to DL and AA? How do they compare to US’s pre-merger routing rules?

    Or perhaps we should leave the deep and thoughtful analysis to Seth? 🙂

  6. Agree with Patricia. How is this a bigger deal than AA cutting the Explorer Awards altogether and jacking up prices- a change you smugly said ‘we probably don’t use anyway’. Sorry, I just see backtracking here. Consistency with reaction to award changes would be appreciated.

  7. This would be a bigger deal to me if they hadn’t previously: (a) jacked up the prices from transoceanic flights on partners, and (b) already started restricting people from more than 4 segments between US-Asia. Those changes already effectively undermined the ability to put together cool multi-stop routings via Europe.

  8. The only truly bad change I guess is no routing from US to north/south Asia via Europe. This is often necessary to get premium cabin awards to Asia, especially at peak times. Very few people go to South Africa via South America… South African is canceling their EZE service so you’d have to connect in GRU to either SA or ET. Due to the visa requirements for leaving the airport GRU is generally not ideal for Americans/Canadians to transit if an overnight stay is required. If transited in GRU, a yellow fever certificate would also be required to enter South Africa. I don’t think US-Asia-Africa were ever allowed, just like no Europe on a US-Austrulia award. US to north Asia via South Asia is generally never used since SQ long haul premium is not bookable with MP and *A doesn’t have many flights to HKG. EVA air’s TPE hub is still north asia so it should be fine.

    If UA wants to add another big blow, make it no more US-Austrulia via Asia and that will pretty much make premium award to Australia with MP impossible. You rarely find LAX-SYD/MEL availability and NZ will never give you any premium award seats ex-California.

  9. I appreciate this post by Gary and the previous one on United’s apparent changes in its frequent flyer program. While I don’t always agree with everything Gary writes or the positions he takes -and am not naive about his blog boosting his income – I’m surprised by the pushback he’s received on this issue. Perhaps there was a bit of hyperbole in his first post, but it still was useful to learn about this development. Even if he hadn’t been posting in a rush, writers don’t always get their words exactly right. Plus he’s modified his language in response to criticism.

    More to the point of these particular posts, I appreciate this news in that I’m holding a complicated award itinerary that could be undone if United applies these rules retroactively. I doubt United would do that, but I wouldn’t put anything completely past the current management team. So the news makes me more vigilant in monitoring the status of the ticket. In addition, I’d been contemplating a change in that itinerary to a more preferable routing. The news gives me pause about messing with the ticket at all.

    Those who blast Gary for criticizing United more than American for their respective frequent flyer program changes are of course entitled to their points of view. As someone who formerly flew more than 100,000 miles per year on both airlines for many years, but who now concentrates mostly on American and its partners, I’m more tolerant of American’s changes than United’s because United has devalued its FF program far more in direct ways (e.g., skyrocketing award redemptions for partners)and indirect ones (cutting off Expert Flyer access so that EF can no longer conduct searches or provide email alerts on UA upgrade and award availability). Plus the UA FF deterioration is taking place in the context in an overall deterioration in the airline’s IT system, operations and attitude toward customers. So yeah, I don’t like it any time an FF program makes changes for the worse, but I’m far more prepared to cut AA some slack since its overall FF program, operations and customer service remain pretty good.

  10. Huh. I made the prediction a few weeks ago when you were blasting AA’s restrictive award booking practices following the elimination of their distance based awards that this was more likely to happen rather than AA relent and become more accommodating. I’m beginning to suspect these blogs get followed rather closely. I think what has driven the changes is that when you book multiple partners it ends up costing them more than a simple one or two partner roundtrip booking.

  11. I’ve taken 13 RT’s from the US to different parts of Asia over the last 3 years. Japan, China, Singapore, and Bangkok. All on United, ANA, *A partners. 10 revenue tickets and 3 award tickets. Not once did I consider or even think to book via Europe. I don’t care if it’s in an Etihad Residence, I wouldn’t spend double the time to get to the same place.

    Once, whilst living in Buenos Aires, I did fly HKG-FRA-EZE in LH First, but not sure if this would be affected per @Anders point above.

  12. Seth is an ass (Wandering Ass is how I refer to him). He does this to Ben and Brian’s blogs as well with his drivel and whining.

    I’ve learned to disregard him any time he tries to stir the pot. You should learn to do that as well, Gary….He’s like a field mouse pounding his chest in front of a Lion…

  13. I am really upset at you bloggers! How dare you make me read your ideas–and then CHANGE those ideas? This has ruined my whole day, and my whole week, and I just don’t know whether I’ll be able to cope!

  14. @SparkyinCA – Agreed. He seems to be dismissive of anyone/anything that doesn’t agree with what he’s saying.

  15. I would support Seth. Reading 3-4 posts on flyertalk and publishing a blog entry with eye catching headline is not really looking out for your readers.
    Its become a race on who can find something useful from FT and be the first to publish…

  16. For SOME United flyers, this IS a HUGE deal. Sadly, I’m one of those flyers who collect UAL miles (vs. AA miles) just for this ability when I travel to Africa or South Asia.

    Gary, thank you for posting this, but I hope you end up being wrong about this devaluation.

  17. You have repeatedly highlighted that your backup is loyalty or alliance to foreign programs. Perhaps it’s now time to push aggressively this thinking. For example, when Chase allowed the transfer of MR points to Singapore, it completely changed the way the game is played again. I normally use my UA miles to fly from EWR to HNL on those flatbeds for 40,000 miles (after their devaluation). If you have no elite status with UA, it’s an additional $75 last minute booking fee. Just confirmed with Singapore that the same seat goes for 30,000 miles in business and SIN$3.20 for a last minute departure or 17,500 miles in coach and also SIN$3.20. The more people realize that UA’s program isn’t our only option, the more inclined we’ll be to align our loyalty to other programs and the sooner we’d be probably be able to oust top management at UA, given their recent financial performance.

  18. @Travis – From IAD, I can get to BKK in 20hrs by connecting in Europe. Flying over the Pacific saves no time, essentially.

  19. @Gary

    I’m not trying to insult you. But this post was incredibly longwinded. As a daily subscriber of your blog I read every word, and to be absolutely frank, a bulk of this post was a waste of my time. Don’t get me wrong I respect your analysis, but this post really needn’t have been more than 3 paragraphs.

  20. There is plenty of good news here for those of us who aren’t gaming the system and who are willing to fly nonstops or connections on UA. But bad news for people taking circular routes on partners. I think there are actually very few in the latter category anyway beyond Milepoint and a few blog readers.

  21. There are two main issues commented in this post: i) whether Gary is biased in favor of AA and against UA, and the consequences of this possible bias on the validity of his current post and ii) whether Gary is too much verbiose and should be more concise in general.

    On the bias issue, I think that Gary cut more more slack to AA than to UA, as demonstrated by his (timid?) reaction when AA changed its rules recently on distance based awards with no advance notice whatsoever. I think even he realized it, belatedly. Now, the UA changes discussed above, if confirmed, amount to a real and significant loss of values for MP members. As such he is right to label that a real devaluation. So, Patricia, even though we may both agree on the bias, I think you may have missed the point with your comment.

    On the length of his explanations, and his subsequent blog on his first blog, I agree that Gary should try to be more concise, and not only on these 2 posts. However I recognize that due to the technicality of these issues, it is sometimes difficult to be short, and there is a risk to be not explicit enough. I think Gary likes to write as he talks and is loath to take the needed time to make his comments more concise. Between the 2 risks of being too long or being too vague and not explicit enough, I prefer him being too long. But the best would be for Gary not rushing to write his posts (and his titles…hehehe), and taking a bit more time to write better and more concisely.

    Having said that, I think his blog is one of the best and bringing a lot to the FF community. So I am willing to cut him some slack, even though I am 1K at UA and nothing at AA…hehehe.

  22. Re AA vs UA, it’s sort of odd to say I’m too easy on American — I have written more and more often about the changes/devaluations at American than anyone else. If that’s going too easy on American I suppose I’m cool with that 🙂

    There are a lot of changes to come there, versus an airline that’s already made those changes. And I’ve been willing to reserve judgment a bit on what those will look like, though I’ve also posted my predictions which are to say that nobody is going to like what the combined AA/US program looks like.

  23. @Ryan

    Absolutely true. My last 3 trips to SE Asia, all ex-IAD, were far more convenient through Europe outbound, and through Asia on return.

    Schedules and prevailing winds make this possible. From the west coast, maybe not so much.

    UA has definitely taken an arrow out of my quiver.

  24. I fly often between northeast US/Canada and Southeast Asia. The connections and flight times are much better going via Europe! I’ve gone a few times via Asia but invariably it’s been a better experience through Europe. If united is taking away this possibility I’d rather start flying other airlines.

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