When the word “enhance” comes around you know that consumers are in trouble. United Airlines reminded us of that again today in announcing changes to the MileagePlus program. The new rules cover routing rules and change/cancel fees for all awards. They take effect for bookings made on or after 6 October 2016. I’ve been looking at the details for a little while now this afternoon and I’m not finding much in the way of up-side for anyone, though there are a couple tiny slivers of not awful among the details.
Starting in the fall, we are enhancing the way you book multi-city MileagePlus®award travel online, including the ability to build awards suited for your individual needs. Additionally, if you need to change or cancel your award flight, you’ll find a streamlined fee structure that is easier to understand.
No more stopovers
Most significant to me is the elimination of the stopover as part of award bookings. It is being replaced with what the company is calling the “Excursionist Perk” and to say that it is not quite the same would be an understatement.
The Excursionist Perk cannot be used in the same award region as the travel point of origin. This is likely in response to the “free one-way” bookings which United was relatively generous with previously. It also requires that travel start and finish in the same award zone, removing the stopover option on some open-jaw itineraries (e.g. US-Europe//Europe-Europe//Europe-Hawaii).
Additionally, the “EP” only applies for segments within a single region. Travelers who previously “double dipped” on a trip from the US to Asia by including a stop in Europe along the way will see the cost of that award increase significantly. A trip from New York to Paris and then Singapore, returning to New York would cost 80,000 points today in economy, 150,000-160,000 in business class or up to 260,000 in first class, depending on which flights include partner-operated segments. Under the new “EP” rules the award would price as 125,000 in economy, 212,500-235,000 in business class and 275,000-355,000 in first class. That’s going to sting.
The EP rules also generally prohibit “assembling” awards segment-by –segment rather than trusting the United website to find a natural connection. If you want multiple overnight layovers as you hop across Europe, for example, that’s essentially dead. The company spins this as removing a policy “based on fare rules with region and routing restrictions that some customers found confusing.” It is replaced by a policy that is much less flexible.
Even getting one overnight along the way may prove challenging. You can no longer search for NYC-Frankfurt and then Frankfurt-Hamburg and pick the individual segments to get the overnight in Frankfurt en route. The new rules require that you search New York-Hamburg and filter for Frankfurt for a connecting city, hoping that there is the overnight connection displayed in the results if that’s what you want.
I’m sure there are other examples similarly egregious in terms of increased costs but that one is easy for me as it was a relatively common type of trip to book.
At least they finally wrote down all the rules so both passengers and agents should be working from the same set of information. At least in theory.
No more RTW
United has followed American’s lead on this front, dropping its around the world product. The suggestion it offers instead is to piece together individual one-way awards. While the RTW award was not always a great value the new one-way award rules, particularly with respect to limited search options and assembly, make this an even worse option for most RTW travelers.
United describes the fee change as “streamlining” the structure which is a nice term to use, I suppose, when changing the rules about when fees apply and how much they will cost. The part where the increase for many travelers – including some higher tier elites – is particularly unfortunate.
Previously travelers faced a 21-day cutoff for making changes to see a high/low price point. Now that’s at 60 days, a move the company says is aimed to give other travelers better access to those seats if plans change, which I suppose would be more realistic if award inventory really was a one in, one out sort of arrangement, something it hasn’t been for years. Platinum Premier members are hurt by this the most, going from free changes any time to a $50 fee for either of those actions within 60 days. On the plus side, non-elites and lower tiers do see small benefits for cancels outside of 60 days. The new policy also indicates that for members who change status tier the lower fee always applies, a small but nice give-back to consumers.
In theory all of this is supposed to be offset by the new website better handling multi-city itinerary bookings and being able to price the complicated itineraries automatically. Of course, implementing those benefits by raising the prices on so many of the awards is hard to see as much of a win. And the company hasn’t been particularly successful in website updates since the merger.
But that’s apparently what qualifies for an “enhancement” at United this week.
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