So long, stopovers: United announces MileagePlus changes


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.

Changing fees

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.

Comparing old and new change fees for United MileagePlus awards
Comparing old and new change fees for United MileagePlus awards

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.

Website Updates

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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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. Your excel sheet is wrong – gold is $25 change for “new” if more than 60 days.

  2. The world of miles is getting worse every month…
    Just one doubt: from what you wrote, I understand it will still be possible to do the following:
    A>B and then C>D(stopover)>E
    within the same region.
    Did I get that right?

    1. It will depend on where the cities are, but if all in the same region then this will not work as I read it based on the rule, “The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates.”

      If B, C & D are in the same region and that is different from both A and E (which also have to be in the same region as each other) then it should work. I think.

      1. Thanks for the clarification! And,yup, nothing about this is “streamlined” or “enhanced”….

  3. I think you might have something off in the comparison of old and new award change/redeposit fees. I’m looking at the chart on UA’s website, and was mostly looking at the Gold fees, since that’s my status, and what I see on UA’s site is cheaper than what you’ve listed in your chart. For example, your chart has a $75 fee for Golds no matter when the award is changed, but UA’s site says Golds pay $25 for changes/cancellations 61 or more days out, and $75 60 days or less to travel. I’m looking at the chart on UA’s site at http://mileageplusupdates.com/mileageplus/english/flight/.

      1. Yep. The only win is an outright cancellation gets cheaper for anyone Gold or lower.

        Also, despite my abuse of the UA award routing rules in the past, I had no idea they had separate fee schedules for change versus cancellation. I guess since I was 1K at the time I never paid that much attention.

  4. More bad news from United … but it’s not like we expect anything but bad news from airlines in a post-merger world

  5. Looks like I need to book our summer family trip for next summer now. This is a huge change for me. Stopovers are
    everything. ?

    1. United’s corporate speak makes the changes all the worse. I wish they would just state the changes and not try to act like this is good and something that customers have been clamoring for…

  6. Will LAX to Tokyo to Bangkok still work? Or will it not because Japan is it’s own region?

    1. Tokyo would not be a valid stopover between the US and Thailand because it is a different region. Neither would anywhere in mainland China. But Hong Kong would be as both it and Thailand are “South Asia” on the UA award charts.

  7. Just thankful I was on the winning side of the loyalty equation for lots of years…the drought has arrived and the yield in my frequent flier field has withered.

  8. Does it mean no more ‘close-in’ ticketing fee within 21 days for non-elite members?

    1. It is unclear if that fee goes away or not. That was not a “change/cancel” fee in the old context so I’m betting it is unaffected by these new rules. But maybe that’s just the cynic in me.

  9. Seth — another kick in the head to loyal flyers. The elimination of stopovers in the originating region also makes it very hard to get a feeder flight into a UA hub — e.g. it’s almost impossible to find reward space from MSY-IAH to begin an Asian or African trip — I guess that means we will have to drive to IAH from now on.

    Two points UA didn’t address (yet)
    1. Any change to the fee or time period for original bookings?
    2. Will they start to show reward availability for all StarAlliance partners — especially SQ? (I think I know the answer to that)

    1. Not sure I understand question 1 here but all bookings made before 6 Oct get the current rules.

      As for #2, this might actually be enough of a shift in the way they’re generating revenue from awards to justify paying the increased price SQ wants to charge to UA for those redemptions. That price increase was the cause of removing the inventory from the site due to fare auto-pricing and the way that award “fares” are filed. But I’m not holding my breath.

  10. – Thanks for diving in and explaining this, Seth. I assume this means something like my O/W SEA-NRT-PEK-ICN-SYD trip is now gone?

  11. I know you said the website won’t do this anymore, but could you still call in and piece together a routing segment by segment with 23 hour layovers?

    1. My expectation is no. The phrasing in the release/FAQ suggests to me that passengers and res agents will have a very similar interface to make queries. And there’s no way the system will return ARN-TXL//TXL-MUC-LJU//LJU-SKP//SKP-IST over 4 days when I enter ARN-IST in the search.

      That was a great trip.

  12. Combine miles that are easy to get and hard to use and suddenly you get angry customers who may notice all the cool kids are flying Delta.

    1. People flying Delta are doing it because the operational reliability is solid, not for the SkyMiles program.

      1. Yep. This change does level the playing field with regards to loyalty programs just a bit, but there are still a lot of things about MileagePlus that are better than SkyMiles. Still, my reasons for choosing a primary airline have very little to do with earning free trips, and a lot to do with reliability.

  13. ‘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. ‘

    Sigh. #unhancement

    1. Tell me about it. I keep looking at the changes and thinking about all the trips I’ve taken that would no longer be possible under the new rules. I’ve got a stack of them. 🙁

  14. What a lovely $#!+ sandwich UA is serving us. Surprised they didn’t slide in some award chart devaluations too!

    At least they didn’t make this effective immediately.

  15. I love free one-ways, which I mourn now, but even more so 24-hour layovers. What confuses me here, is how we’re suppose to get places without them. I guess I’ll need to read up, but I have always viewed 24-hour layovers as a necessary evil for airlines just so that I could find availability to my destination. Without them, it kills the award model for me. At least, on United. I’ll flee to other programs for now, but if they were gone completely everywhere, I think I’d basically have to give up travel. It’s expensive awards, and too annoying without any good hacks. For sure, I’ll do my part to starve the offenders from the revenue I do give.

    1. The theory seems to be that the site will give you the overnight layovers where they are natural/required for A to B. But you won’t be able to force multiple of them into a single award. Remains to be seen how well that works in practice.

    1. I dunno…I buy cheap fares and go where they take me. I know that’s not for everyone, but it helps keep my costs down.

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