United’s best fare: Only if you ask VERY nicely


United has, over the past couple years, made many changes to the way they price fares. They’ve enacted rules on their website to artificially limit the options displayed in many cases, skipping double connect options even if single connect trips are much more expensive. And they’ve enacted married segment logic to price more efficient routings higher than those with longer layovers. And then there is the part where they change the price being charged for the EXACT SAME FLIGHTS depending on how you ask about them. It seems that United simply doesn’t know how to price its own tickets and, not surprisingly, it works against the customer, sometimes with a massive penalty.

The following example was shared with me by a friend looking to head west from Pittsburgh to Phoenix for a long weekend at the end of April, leaving in the evening and returning on a redeye. The flights he wanted were pretty straightforward but pricing them is anything but. Like most consumers he started with a simple search (I’ve replicated the searches here) – PIT-PHX round trip.

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And, upon choosing the flights which worked in his schedule, he was presented with a fare north of $640.

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Note that the fare is actually being calculated as a multi-stop trip, with a split at EWR. This is how the GDS platform did the pricing all on its own; there was no effort to manipulate or force anything, other than selecting the outbound and return flights as pairs (PIT-IAH-PHX was a single selection in the search interface).

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Change the search just a tiny bit and the fare can drop significantly for the exact same flights. This time around I told the system that I was definitely going to route via Houston, making it a “stop” in the search process.

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Selecting the EXACT SAME FLIGHTS in the results presented gave a rather lower price, a savings of more than $100.

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Looking at the fare construction it is still a multi-stop itinerary with the breaks in the same places. For no apparent reason United has simply decided to sell a K fare on the outbound PIT-IAH-PHX rather than the W fare it previously was showing.

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But wait…there’s more!

Split the return trip as well and things get even more confusing. Now, specifying each leg individually returns an even lower price.

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Yes, there are a couple more clicks in the selection process, but the SAME EXACT FLIGHTS are now pricing at only $370, a savings of more than 40% off the original asking price.

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The fare construction in this case is, interestingly, the most simple of the three options. It is a straight round-trip fare PHX-PIT + PIT-PHX. And it is $270 cheaper than the wacky construction the system started with.

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As part of their Customer Commitment United promises:

On our website, at our ticket counters and city ticket offices, or when customers call United Reservations to inquire about a fare or reservation, we will tell customers that the lowest fare we offer may be available through one of our other sales channels, if that is the case.

Technically they aren’t breaking this rule as they are offering the lower fare for sale online even while only showing me the higher fare initially. And I’ve had calls in the past with their “Low Fare Guarantee” group who have told me that the difference between searching multi-city and regular routings is enough for them to weasel out of providing that guarantee, though it is not clear that’s a reasonable exception. Still, in both cases it is clear that they are operating in violation of the spirit of the rule and, unfortunately, in a manner which lines their pockets at the expense of the customer.

When I was chasing down the story about the double connections being hidden on the UA site while showing on other OTAs a UA rep responsible for handling my complaint gave a response which essentially said it was OK to only show certain results because customers value their time:

Customers have expressed interest in reaching their intended destinations as quickly as possible with minimal connecting flights. I see the fare results submitted were obtained through a search on a query done on Orbitz.com which provides an additional search option of two or more stops. While not all itineraries have options for two or more stops, we provide fares for customers to reach their destinations as quickly as possible.

In this case, however, it is not that different flights or routings provide better fares; United is pricing tickets differently based on how you search. If that is not misleading and deceiving then I don’t know what is. An itinerary should have a single price for a passenger, not a variable number depending on which specific clicks one makes to get to the final page. Consumers are getting screwed and many likely don’t even know it.

Even worse, in this case even the other OTAs are showing the “bad” fares to begin with.

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Also worth noting that it is not just this route where there are issues.  PIT-BWI suffers the same fate:

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BWI-FLL has a similar, though not quite as dramatic issue:

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The customer can’t win.

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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, LinkedIn and .

41 Comments

    1. Well, the funny thing is, the added searches Seth has gone through is actually a benefit to the consumer. Allow me to explain. As others have mentioned, this all has to do with married segment logic. The more specific searches enables the ITA fare matrix to search for two local fares (PIT-IAH and IAH-PHX) where as the initial search stopped when it found the W fare that is priced for the PIT-PHX market. This pricing is standard across the industry. But why did ITA stop at the W fare? Because technically the initial search only asked for the lowest filed fare available in that market.

      The reason I am calling this a consumer benefit is because of the ability to add broken segment logic to the search. Other airlines have solved this issue by adding fare rules or limiting the ability to search for the two local fares. If Seth had gone to delta.com for example, he would not have been able to find the two local fares to begin with (and yes, I understand DL wouldn’t have connected over IAH to begin with and that the fare environment another market – say ATL – adds additional complexities, but I digress..). Instead if the inventory availability was the same on DL, the only fare that would ever be show, regardless of how the search is performed would have been the W fare.

      I do agree with Seth that the fare rules for the the PIT-IAH and IAH-PHX K fares are misleading, but I believe that boils down to the way ITA’s decided to present the two KA7FN fares. Essentially what we have here is UA’s inability to stop fairly basic searches from finding potentially cheaper routing options, albeit on the same flights.

    1. Different fare classes. Economy class probably has 10-15 different classes each identified by a letter. Pricing, upgrade ability, flexibility varies among them.

      1. I don’t suppose United (or any other airline) has a fare class chart that lists the differences?

        Do fare class codes cross airlines?

        1. Fare classes do not exactly line up across airlines or even within alliances. Its a bit of a minefield when trying to navigate them to know exactly what you are getting with your fare!

          AFAIK, there is no clear/concise chart for what each fare class provides as a benefit, etc. There are some obvious ones like C, Z, P, J which are biz class, A, F usually represent 1st class. Most other letters are Economy class. Also, different fare classes sometimes will represent different amounts of miles earned. For example, a full fare economy ticket on United is usually a Y fare, and you’d earn 150% miles. There are way too many options, etc to get through in one reply! 🙂

        2. @Mike this chart explains United’s fare classes in pretty good detail: http://cwsi.net/united.htm

          @Seth Thanks for this post, man. I had no idea United was pulling shit like this, and while I’m discontinuing my elite status / no longer flying with them I will take it a step further and tell friends/family about this.

      2. Yes, Dennis, they are different fare buckets. My point is that choosing the same exact segments gets me different fare buckets depending on how I perform the search. That’s quite deceptive. If UA is willing to sell the fare then they should offer it to me without playing games like this.

        For the EXACT SAME FLIGHTS the fare should not vary based on how I feed the query into the GDS.

        1. I was just answering Mike’s question regarding fare class letters and giving him a 15 second primer on fare class characteristics. He wasn’t sure what the letters represented. Not sure what you were replying to.

          1. I was replying to your initial note that the different fare buckets is the problem. It is, but my point is that UA shouldn’t be pricing it differently for the same exact segments.

          2. You misunderstood me, I wasn’t replying your comments with fare buckets. Just explaining to mike the lettering in general. Sorry for the confusion! 🙂

        2. I totally agree. For a given set of flights, however they were searched, the pricing engine should give the customer the cheapest available fare. If inventory is available in the K bucket, it should give a K fare, and not a W fare.

          I feel that what it’s doing violates the lowest fare promise. I’ve experienced the same thing, where searching on the endpoints returns a higher fare than doing a multi-city search that includes the connecting points – so it does seem tied to married segment logic somehow.

          Given that this also feeds the OTAs, it seems like UA is giving away business to its competitors – the UA flights will display as more expensive.

    1. Break up is the right phrase. United under Continental’s “leadership” has gone from decent to awful. I’m done and there won’t be any backsliding!

  1. The fare that UA intends to offer for sale is the one you get when you do not do a multi-city search. It does not intend to sell the other fares, be they higher or lower – it’s only by virtue of a bug that these fares are offered. Other airlines have no problem preventing sales of the unmarried segments, and their customers are worse off as a result. Pretending like this is an anti-consumer thing is wildly off-base.

    1. Uh? I would agree with you if the fare was broken down as PIT-IAH/IAH-PHX/PHX-EWR/EWR-PIT with four fare components.

      Not the case here, the fare is filed as PIT-PHX and PHX-PIT. If you look in Expertflyer fare information for PIT-PHX there is actually a legit K fare filed for $284 R/T (excluding tax). T is $370.

      So UA.com is having problems displaying the fares accordingly.

  2. maybe / maybe not on a related note, but I was booking our Z tickets to JNB and was unpleasantly surprised when Z fares from ORD to JNB via FRA on LH ran $5027, but when I tossed in GRR the fare went to $7200 for the same exact itinerary, except for the addition of the 120 mile flight from GRR. Welcome to the Friendly skies…….

    1. Completely different and you should know that. You’re changing the markets and not actually booking the exact same itinerary; you’re adding different flights. My example here does not include any variation in the flights or markets searched.

  3. All of these searches you show were done using ITA, which doesn’t book tickets, except one case where you search on an OTA. Were you able to replicate the results when searching on United.com?

    1. Yes, only if you use multi-city feature. If you do a simple straightforward r/t search you won’t see the lower fare.

    2. Yes, Scottrick, all easily to replicate on the UA site. It doesn’t screen-shot as well and doesn’t show the fare breakdowns as easily so I used ITA to get the images.

      1. Why do I have to search all these fares myself? If he’s presenting evidence that it’s a problem when he searches elsewhere, it could be a problem with a third party. All Seth had to say is that he tested it on United.com and found the same result. He just said so and I believe him.

        1. I don’t think it’s a website issue. I believe it originates within UA’s revenue and inventory management and is presented to all channels.

  4. PLS send this to the DOT, they are supposed to list the lowest fare, not most convenient time.

  5. Very interesting. So, what’s the bottom line on how to minimize the fare? Price out the simple round trip fare request first, then experiment with the different permutations of connecting cities and see which prices better?

    For a more fundamental question, how do we know the round trip we’ve selected is actually the cheapest (assuming our goal is to minimize cost) set of commections in the first place?

  6. You’ve discovered married segment availability. Something UA (and other airlines) have done for years.

    You can often find the same type of result on ITA when searching for Delta flights, but Delta’s site is smart enough to not allow use of the multi-city function to break up married segments.

    As mgcsinc mentions, UA is not intending to offer the lower fares in this market – it’s only the fact that their site isn’t coded to prevent breaking the married segment logic that allows you to price these cheaper fares. Enjoy it while it lasts.

  7. It looks like UA has caught the same enthusiasm for married segment pricing that LH has. Maybe they’re using the same pricing algorithms?

    I’m sure someone at UA is being praised for raising yield by exploiting apparent passenger tolerance for paying more for more demanded trips, even if the individual legs they’re composed of are between low yield city pairs.

  8. I don’t think this behavior is unique to United. Over the last decade I was booking business class revenue tickets to Europe and Asia for work. I was always under pressure to meet budgetary parameters and was frustrated by the inability of the corporate travel agency or their search engine to find the absolute lowest fares when our (jaw-dropping) corporate rates were sold out. When ITA Matrix was released, it became my new best friend, using the exact same multi-city process that you described and then feeding the info to the travel agent. I live in the middle of the country, so another trick I used for international travel is booking 2 separate tickets linked together in the PNR: 1 domestic and 1 international from a large gateway city (JFK, EWR, ORD, LAX, etc.) For example, a domestic non-stop roundtrip to JFK, then a separate international roundtrip ticket for JFK-LHR. If you priced that same trip on AA.com or DL.com as one ticket, it was typically at least $1000 more expensive. I saved so much money using these strategies.

  9. Seth, this has existed for a while. It is easy to blame UA for being sneaky, or stupid, etc. Another, more favorable explanation is that the price could be $640 (the higher) no matter how to do the search, but if you do it in the more complicated way (spend more time, effort, learning, etc), you get a discount. This is akin to using a coupon, and it is a clever way to extract more sales, without lowering the price for everyone. It’s called 3rd degree price discrimination. Of course, i might be giving United too much credit, but it is something else to consider before bashing them too much.

    1. Not really, Bill. In this case you’re buying flights to the cities you actually plan on flying to, not throwing away extra segments at the end.

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