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My Fears Realized: United Guts Their Award Chart

3 weeks ago I wrote this post saying that I was fearing we were reaching the end of the frequent flyer game because of a combination of devaluations and lack of availability. I noted that we were basically just left with United for reasonably priced international premium award availability.

That’s all over.

United is making very significant (and very terrible) changes to their award chart for reservations made after February 1st. The highlights (is highlight the right word here)?

– The only changes in North and South America are that coach awards to Hawaii now cost 5,000 miles more roundtrip and business class awards to South America increase by 10,000 miles roundtrip. Not a huge deal.Alaska flights increase 10k in coach and business class. That’s annoying.

– They now have different redemption rates for partner awards and, as you would guess, those rates are much, much higher. Biz awards to Europe increase 40k roundtrip. Yes, that “free” business class flight Germany on Lufthansa now costs 140,000 miles in business class. First class awards to Europe are an insane 220k roundtrip. On United metal biz goes up to 115k r/t. United metal business class to the middle east increases to 140k, and on partners to 160k. Africa goes to 160k in biz on partner airlines. Business class to Japan increases 10k on United and 30k on partners. Rest of Asia goes up 20k for everyone in business class. First class is insane, with tickets increasing from 160k to Australia to 260k on partners. Oh here’s the worst part: if ANY leg of your trip includes a partner (even if other legs are on United), you’ll be charged the higher partner rate. Awesome.

– Flights within Asia and to Northern South America are no longer eligible for free elite upgrades (what they call CPUs).

The full chart can be seen here.

Remember all those times I’ve (and others have) said not to hoard miles because they’ll be worth less in the future. This is why.

So what does this mean? It means that business class international travel is going to cost considerably more, and first class award travel is just ridiculous. We’re now beholden to United’s own availability, because we’re paying a significant premium to fly with partners.

But really – are you going to switch to Delta? It’s worse over there. American? Enjoy those surcharges on BA. I still think we’re stuck with United as the best (“best”) option.

Here’s one thing I’m doing, though: I’m moving my everyday spending to either the Barclays Arrival card (for the 2.2% cash back on travel purchases) or to the Starwood Amex, where I can transfer those points to a bunch of partners. I’m now much more interested in accruing miles that can be used across a number of programs (which is why if you fly Delta most of the time – unless you’re a high level Elite – I would put those miles toward Alaska Airlines, where you have some flexibility in where they’re redeemed). Membership Rewards, while not great, still offers some transfer options between Aeroplan, ANA and Singapore so you can redeem on some partners without additional miles required (though there will be fuel surcharges on some redemptions). Ultimate Rewards becomes a bit less valuable because I primarily use it for United transfers, though it’s still useful for Hyatt and British Airways (for short-haul flights).

It’s going to take a day or two to digest all of this – if you mostly use miles domestically there’s not much change for you. But if you use miles for international premium class travel, it may be time to focus day-to-day accrual on that Starwood card. More to come…

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  1. How would this work if you’re flying a leg via United and another via a partner airline? For example, United on EWR to FRA, then FRA to FCO on Lufthansa? Now, F is 67,500 miles on saver award.

    • Award that include a mix of United AND a Star partner are booked at the Star rate (ie, you’ll pay the higher rate if any of the legs are on a partner airline).

  2. Thanks for the analysis.

    I feel lucky that I burned nearly all my United miles a few months ago, and have shifted most spend to the Arrival card.

    But I’m pretty anxious about my American and US Airways balances…they are too high but I can’t fit in any trips until 2015. Just crossing fingers that the merger will slow both of them down in changing award charts.

  3. I don’t see this as being the huge disaster than some do, but then again, I tend to travel domestically and not burn my miles on business class. But with all the CC deals out there (I’ve picked up almost 200K miles this year), capacity could be an issue with all airlines.

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