United’s MileagePlus Program: Hidden Restrictions-Friendly

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.

The award Luke was trying to book; valid in the past it no longer is.

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.

Two awards which are quite similar. One is no longer permitted. Sucks.

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:

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. This kind of thing infuriates me. If they want (need?) to make changes to the program, just be upfront about it and PUBLISH THE RULES. Double-secret probation was a joke in Animal House for a reason – it doesn’t work any better playing blind in real life either.

  2. How about HUCA? This flexibility is one last thing keeping me with UA after PQD. If it goes, it will be bye bye UA and hello AS!

  3. Rules changes happen. They’re more tolerable when they are PUBLISHED and everyone knows what they are.

  4. does this mean that all award routings have a three connect max or only Oceania and asia via europe?

  5. This is devastating. I’ve used this trick many, many times. Honestly, I
    abused it, and only a few days before the memo I booked an absurd 8 segment
    extravaganza. XXX-EWR-DCA-DEN-SEA-SFO-LAS-LAX. On a one-way. In Business.
    With 24-hour-ish layovers. Look, I really don’t think I’m responsible, not
    directly – but I do feel bad. And I definitely would’ve stopped if they made it clear. I
    mean, I’ve run up against the 4/4 US Air rule many times, and it really is
    impossible to get to places like ZQN when they pull shit like this. Yes it’s
    bad when people exploit too heavily, but this is absurd. I’m very disappointed
    by how much UA just devalued their program. My only consolation is I got some
    (really really) good times in.

  6. that will be a nightmare…. I booked DTW-PHX-SEA-NRT-SIN-BKK-KHI one-way trip last year because i was flying 5 days before christmas so could not find any better options…but now it is not an option 🙁

  7. I innocently booked a trip to Asia via Europe and returning over the Pacific. No questions asked. But when I needed to make a change, I was told my ticket was “illegal”. If it was illegal, how was it issued?

    The rule makes no sense for those living in non hub or coastal cities legitimately trying to get to their destinations. Why not amend reduce the time allowed in a city to say 12 hours if they want to eliminate multi 23 hr stopovers?

  8. I ran into this issue in early August… Here is a link to the blog posting http://www.federalpoints.com/?p=102 But in fact this is a new rule of United and it makes my life (living in a 3-connection area of Asia) a royal pain. UA ended up booking a ticket for me, that is because I couldn’t get from DCA to DPS in under 3-connections no matter the routing.

  9. What’s frightening is only a very small number of people should have the free time Luke does to want an award like that. And apparently there are enough of those people who have the miles on their hands to book enough of these to cause this change.

    I think Luke’s situation pushed the boundaries vs what’s reasonable – too many long haul premium cabins taken up. And in the process legit situations like trying to get to cities within New Zealand that don’t take up extra expensive long haul premium cabins are nixed.

  10. Back in April, I booked in F, one way, HKG-BKK-NRT-FRA-ORD-MCI-PHX-OAK. 70k. Wish it was still avail.

  11. The sooner folks understand that the airlines (and not only the $mi$ek carrier) are out to screw passengers as much as possible, the easier it will be to negotiate the air waves

  12. What about someone originating with a connection to a domestic hub like DEN, they are all but screwed.

  13. Do open jaws and layovers count as connections? In other words, if not, are all the rules for United bookings that you discussed at FTU out the window, Seth?

  14. Seth, do you think the 3 connection rule only applies if you are transiting through a different zone? In this post, you said you were trying to book a US to Oceania via Asia and you were told this broke their 3 segment rule. But you didn’t try to book a direct US to Oceania, you only assumed that it would be illegal. If, as you surmise, that a direct US to Oceania is limited to 3 connections then that is truly a terrible thing for United to do. If, however, they are only limiting routings through a third zone to 3 total connections then that is unfortunate but really they’re just closing a loophole.

  15. I tried booking a SYD-GUM-MEL ticket last month. Was told I could only have 4 flights each way, i.e. 8 flights in total. I tried putting in a 9th segment (4 outbound, 5 inbound, inbound GUM-KIX-HKG-BKK-SIN-MEL), and the computer ended up pricing GUM-SIN and SIN-MEL separately. Perhaps their computers have been rigged :O

  16. I recently encountered this problem too.

    I originally had 2 (all) biz class ticket from Christchurch to Seattle via:
    CHC->AKL->PVG->KIX->ICN->SEA (25 hour layover in kix =)
    This booking was done early this year.

    Last month I tried to change it (I wanted to try Hello Kitty flights).
    My changed itin was:
    CHC->AKL->PVG->TPE->ICN->NRT->SEA (20+ layover in TPE)

    The agent was a noob, she put me on hold for more than 30min then comes back and says that she couldn’t do this routing because the system wouldn’t let her and that they only allow a max of 3 connections now. However she went ahead and changed my original routing! I complained hard — she went through several supervisors.. they could not get my original routing back so they said they’ll make an exception this time and book the above trip.

    I guess I sort of got lucky that the agent did make the mistake of changing my original itin which allowed me to still change the ticket to my intended route.

    Anyway, this limitation really makes United miles worse. I’m flying more AA now and utilizing US airways.

    AA miles is also not very good… I guess all good things comes to an end.

  17. It was probably too good to last. I’ll remember several great multi-stop trips that I took thanks to Seth and others. I expect we’ll see research before long on exactly what the new rules mean for the various regions.

    Apart from losing the wonderful itineraries, it would mean much more difficulty in getting award tickets, period, since there have often been possibilities for multitudes of routings between many city pairs, using a variety of partners. If no seats are available from A to B, maybe I can route through C on a different partner. However, many of those previously legal routings do involve an extra connection or two, and would no longer be possible. Thus more people chasing the limited seats on the most direct possible combinations.

    Being in a non-hub city, I know of many places I could simply not get to with 3 connections. It’s one thing to tighten up rules to prevent what must have been expensive redemptions for United to fulfill with many stops on many partners; it would be another entirely to make it impossible for program members to even book at all some of their heavily advertised wide array of award destinations because there is no way to reach them within the number of connections allowed. The former would be sad, but understandable; the latter, somewhat fraudulent to advertise that the program has X destinations, if considerably less than X can actually be booked.

  18. I agree with commenters that say, ‘just publish the rules’. I get a different response to multi-segment trips to Asia/Australia all the time. If the rules are not published, it makes me think the phone agents are just making up the rules as they go. HUCA (hang up, call again).

  19. does this mean Oceana includes Fiji, does this rule fall into Fiji as well if I try to route through Asia and Autralia and final to Fiji ?

  20. Now is this just for UA metal redeemed with UA miles, or also for *A partner flights redeemed with UA miles?

  21. I think this rule (4 segments one way/8 segments return) has been invoked for all destinations. I had a 10 segment return trip to Europe from NA that I booked in July without incident (including double open jaw and stopover). I changed it in September to 9 segments, but three days later, it dropped the last segment to make it only 8. When I called in to fix it, the agent could not fix it while I was on the phone and it had to go to somebody higher up to manually force it through.

    1. I looked over my upcoming bookings and all but one would be within the “new rules” if they are as discussed. I do have one five-segment one-way that I ticketed earlier in the summer and it still is shown intact at united.com. I would hope they would at least honor seats booked under the “old rules”. I expect we’ll be hearing more from Seth as he continues to investigate this. Obviously his Twitter inquiries didn’t generate any sort of rational response – to the point that I wonder whether that method of getting information is of any use for anything new or complicated.

  22. I would imagine the change probably creates a legal issue for UA in terms of how they promote the MP program. If you now cannot actually book award tickets as per their redemption chart and advertising- they have a problem. Obviously most people do not live in a gateway city. And, if you live in a smaller city, you often have no option but to connect thru a different hub before reaching the gateway city. So then you’ve used 2 connections before even leaving the US! Seems that will leave a lot of cities in the forbidden category. hmmm…

  23. This. is. bad. news.
    Why didn’t you email me!? Just kidding…

    So I haven’t had time to look at this online (in the seconds between reading and commenting) but it kind of lines up with what I’ve been seeing.
    Also a reader called and said they couldn’t book a US-Europe-SE Asia – US trip. Said the agents said it’s an RTW trip.
    I basically said that they are dumb. This person called back and said hours later, still no ticket booked. I wonder if it was just a connection issue. That’s the first thing that has come to mind, is that strange things have been happening. However, I seriously doubt this was in the computer August 1st. I’ve done some tricky things on United.com that I’m pretty sure violate this… or maybe the tickets were under three connections.

    Anyways… Have you tried playing around on United.com with this since then?

  24. Devaluation or not, Southwest miles get more valuable every day for those of us in no man’s (hub) land. And honestly I prefer this type of devaluation to one that adds surcharges. Positioning, anyone?

  25. Thanks for clarifying a question I’ve had the last few weeks (trying to book Japan-Oceania, with max amt of layovers). I guess all Pacific routings are subject to the 4/13 memo then. I think you can still squeeze another connection out if it’s round-trip. I booked a ticket like this recently, 5 connections one way, 3 the other. I hit 4 continents in the process. 65k. Still really sucky overall. Not sure what I’m going to do once my premier status expires end of 2014. I like it primarily to boost mileage earning.

  26. Hi Seth:
    You posed an interesting discussion in this post.

    I live in SF and want to book a ticket to Southeast asia. can I route through middle east?

    Departing: SFO stopover in AUH or DXB to Singapore (destination)

    Return: PNH (23 hour layover in HKG) to SFO

    Alternatively, if that does not work, can I route through Europe to Asia if I am coming from the West Coast. I know there are total mile restrictions for the routes. Thanks for any insight!!!

    1. There are no mileage distance limits on awards. There are limits to the number of segments in each direction (4 or 5, I believe) but no MPM or such.

      I do not think that US-S. Asia via the Middle East is valid. Via Europe definitely is.

  27. Another change from February 1 on routing rules??

    Tonight, I tried to use the last of my miles on a nice Partner booking. Requested routing on a roundtrip ticket was:

    SYD-PEK-SFO (stopover for 3 weeks), SFO-JFK
    open-jaw return

    However, I got told I couldn’t do that booking, even though the United Star Alliance rules page (http://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/mileageplus/awards/travel/starairawards.aspx) explicitly says double open-jaws are OK.

    Here are what the rules now say:

    * Two open jaws are permitted per roundtrip award. For example, you can fly from Newark to London and return from Paris to Washington Dulles.
    * A stopover is permitted on roundtrip award travel only. One stopover is permitted, unless otherwise noted. Additional mileage may be required for Saver Awards within the continental U.S., Alaska and Canada. For travel booked on or after February 1, 2014, a stopover is permitted only on certain roundtrip itineraries. Additional mileage may be required.

    Does anyone have any idea of what the “a stopover is permitted only on certain roundtrip itineraries”?

    1. That restriction is supposed to only apply to US48/AK/Canada itineraries from what I was previously told, ET. Whether that actually is where it ends up or not remains to be seen. But that’s been “published” like that since the announcement of changes back in November.

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