For several years now I’ve been touting the benefits of the United MileagePlus program. Not because of the customer service or the quality of United’s in-flight product or their operational reliability; I’d be nuts to love those things. But I do (did?!?!) love the program because the rewards options are (were!??!) flexible. And I mean incredibly flexible. Want to spend a week getting from A to B with 22 hour layovers along the way? United was the program to choose, especially with no fuel surcharges and no limits on miles flown as part of the award. The shine started to come off back in April when a new “memo” was circulated internally informing reservations agents (but not customers) that one way awards between the North America and South Asia award zones were limited to only three connections if travel was via Europe; return trips were allowed four connections. This put a damper on things, but it was only for one type of award and so not a complete deal-breaker to me, especially since I rarely need a connection in the USA to go east.
Fast forward to this week when I was chatting with a friend (Hi, Luke!) about helping him book a trip to the Australian Open for January. He managed to put together a kick-ass routing from Portland to Sydney including stops of 22+ hours in Tokyo, Bangkok and Beijing. It was a thing of beauty. I am very, very impressed.
Alas, he hit a brick wall when trying to book it online. Not all that uncommon lately to have such issues with multi-city awards online so I suggested he try calling it in; that’s always worked for me in the past. He tried a few agents and all balked, many citing strange rules like too many stopovers (there are zero) or backtracking (there isn’t really any). So I offered to call in on his behalf and try to book the trip.
The agent I got this morning was friendly and helpful. I fed her the segments one by one and she put them in the system, coming back with confirmed seats on everything. It all looked good. She then went to price it and said she’d be back in a moment with the taxes. I thought I was all set. Alas, it was not to be. She instead cited a rule of only three connections permitted, similar to the April rules change. I protested a bit, noting that this change was not made at that time and asking for further clarification. It took about 30 minutes on hold for her to come back with the answer that the new rule went into effect on 1 August 2013. Not so much as an announcement or any indication anywhere that the rules had changed. Just a bunch of customers who are used to playing by the rules suddenly – and silently – seeing the rules change.
And, while I understand that this rule may be in place to stop those who are most aggressive in gaming the system there are some unintended consequences, especially for people who don’t live in a gateway city. There are lots of United cities which don’t have non-stop service to San Francisco or Los Angeles, the two gateways the airline has to Sydney. If you’re trying to get to New Zealand the extra hop at either end this new rule makes things much, much harder. And if you’re trying to get to somewhere like Queenstown, where yet another connection is required at the far end, it becomes nearly impossible, before you even start to consider that award availability on UA’s non-stop flights to Sydney is limited and likely to shrink as they shrink the planes serving the market. And the fact that depending on partners has its own limitations, like virtually no premium cabin option trans-tasman. The itinerary in red below should still be valid; the one in blue apparently no longer is.
I reached out to the United Twitter team, in part because I’m often curious about what they’ll come up with as an answer in scenarios like this. Needless to say, my efforts were rewarded with another rather entertaining reply:
@WanderngAramean (1/2) When booking a mileage ticket, the routing has to follow the rules of the fare as if it were a purchased ticket.
— United Airlines (@united) October 14, 2013
@WanderngAramean (2/2) Most have always had a 3 connect max. This isn't a new rule. ^JJ
— United Airlines (@united) October 14, 2013
I don’t know where they get these answers but they’re definitely not based in any recent reality I’ve been a part of.
I’ve long been cautious in my points earning strategy, never accumulating too many in any one program as the airlines change the rules at their own whim. This sort of change is just the type of thing which I fear. Airlines altering the rules to the detriment of the customer with zero notification and zero warning. That’s hardly a friendly way to operate.
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