Six reasons you should (almost) always book awards through Continental instead of United

For about a year now it has been possible to transfer miles freely between Continental OnePass and United Mileage Plus accounts in the same name. While that’s nice in order to be able to combine miles, people tend to overlook the usefulness of transferring United Mileage Plus miles to Continental OnePass in order to book awards through Continental, even if you otherwise have no miles with them. Why, you may ask?

  1. Continental lets you book Star Alliance awards online, which saves you $25. United charges a phone ticketing fee of $25 for non-1Ks, which is unfortunate since most Star Alliance awards can’t be booked through United’s website. By transferring the miles to Continental you can book through them and save money.
  2. Continental partners with Virgin Atlantic, while United doesn’t. Virgin Atlantic has surprisingly good award space in Upper Class, and for the time being they’re still partners with Continental OnePass, while they aren’t partners with United Mileage Plus.
  3. Continental’s computers auto-price award tickets. Don’t underestimate the beauty of this. Try booking an award ticket through United from the US to Asia, one way via the Atlantic and one way via the Pacific. Most United agents will say that’s a round the world ticket, and needs to be priced as such. Continental’s computers correctly price this as a US to Asia award. All the time I’ll book ten segment itineraries that sound crazy to agents, and United agents almost always question me. Continental agents almost never do, since the computer will tell them if an award isn’t permissible.
  4. Continental lets you book mix cabin itineraries on the same records. Say you want to fly from Los Angeles to London in business class and London to Los Angeles in first class. That would cost you 117,500 miles (50,000 miles for the outbound, 67,500 miles for the return). United would make you book this as two one-way tickets, meaning you potentially have to pay two booking fees and two cancellation or change fees if you were to make a change or cancel. Continental, on the other hand, will allow you to have mixed cabin itineraries at different price levels on the same record. So that means that with United, if your outbound is in business class your return has to be as well. With Continental, on the other hand, if your outbound is in business your return can be in coach, business, or first class, either at the standard or saver level.
  5. Once ticketed, Continental will let you change the type of award you have. Say you book an award ticket in business class roundtrip from Los Angeles to London for 100,000 miles. Say, then, that a week before departure Continental opens up award space from Los Angeles to London in first class, and you wanted to switch the outbound to first class. United would require you to cancel your reservation and start over (meaning you would lose your award space on the return), while Continental would be able to reprice the itinerary and charge you the mileage difference, while not messing with the return portion of your itinerary.
  6. Continental has more liberal change rules. Up until 21 days before departure both airlines now allow free “simple” changes to itineraries. The difference is how the airlines define simple changes. For Mileage Plus, the origin, destination, carriers and routing would have to remain the same. For OnePass, on the other hand, the change would have to be made at least 21 days in advance and the origin and destination must remain the same. The routing and carrier, however, may change. That means that Continental lets you change the routing for free up until 21 days before departure, while United charges you for that.

So do the smart thing and always book through Continental when ticketing your awards.

Filed Under: Awards, Continental
  1. You forgot to mention that CO’s XN inventory seems to be more widely availability than UA’s NY these days…..

  2. So when will the website go away? Around mid 2012 or so? And we have no idea if United will incorporate Star Alliance Partner availability until then?

  3. Is it possible to mix Virgin Atlantic or Air Japan segments together with *A segments? I see it as options, but would it actually go through and book it? Thanks!

  4. At what point will we lose the option to book through Continental, though? I think I read that the systems will be joined in March. Do we have any word on what the new booking system will be like?

  5. @ Dale — Hopefully they just keep the Continental website!

    @ Vitaly — Absolutely, you can mix and match all you want on the same award.

  6. Let’s say I’m a 1K and booking a one way ATH-FRA-SFO ticket but then down the line might want to change to ATH-DUB-FRA-SFO am I better off using CO miles on UA miles? Thank you!

  7. @ Despina — Always better off through Continental, especially since the Continental account would be Platinum. Let’s say that the original ticket was business class, but only first class opens up from Frankfurt to San Francisco. With United you’d be out of luck (you’d need to totally redeposit and start again), while Continental would let you reprice the itinerary.

  8. @ Dan — There are a couple:

    — If you intend to change your dates within 21 days of departure, United will let you make that change for free though Continental won’t. That’s only if the routing stays the same, though.

    — You’re trying to get away with a crazy routing that Continental’s auto-pricing system would catch, though United’s outsourced call centers wouldn’t.

  9. Despite being 1K, I sort of stumbled across these perks of booking via Continental as opposed to just doing it via United. Booked three award tickets recently on CO, even with multiple changes over time to get the proper class of service, was generally pretty trouble-free. I really hope that the CO method is kept over legacy UA’s. To echo your sentiments, now if they added LX, the CO site would be perfect…

    @ lucky – Do you happen to know if the VA partnership will be retained going forward?

  10. This is good to know. I hate paying the close in booking fee on a last minute award on United. Can I avoid or lower this by using Continental?

  11. @ MKM — No formal announcement one way or the other, though I suspect the days of that relationship are numbered…

  12. Unfortunately Continental’s auto-pricing makes mistakes and getting those mistakes corrected takes efforts of hurculean proportions.

    It used to be the case that a business class award + United segment in Y on a 3-cabin plane would incorrectly price as first class. This was because the initial programming on United 3-cabin domestic aircraft was a ‘workaround’ that was sort of forgotten about it. I flagged this a few times and got the programming fixed.

    But other pricing issues remain. And have you ever tried to autoprice a mixed airline award with Blue1 included? More often than not it won’t, and agents therefore assume the itinerary is invalid.

    Bottom-line is Continental agents believe the computer, and very few of them can override a computer, they’ll jump through hoops to come up with justifications to explain what the computer is doing because it is always right and humans are always wrong.

    United agents often think they know what they’re doing, and even still 9 months later many don’t know about the routing rules which were changed in Feb (eg open jaw + stopover on roundtrip award).

    However, here’s a downside to booking over the phone with Continental: longer hold times, limited hours.

  13. Also a key difference — Continental will only put an award on hold when sufficient miles are not in an account. United will only put an award on hold when miles ARE in an account.

    If you have sufficient Continental miles for the award and want to hold it, move the miles over to United.

    If you have miles in a United account and want to use Continental, put the award on hold over the phone before you transfer your points over.

    I’m a big fan of holds, even at the cost of a telephone booking fee.

  14. Ok..since CO clearly is better than UA at this ; are we going to see these benefits disappear in the near future?

  15. @Gary I don’t believe so either. Just before the MR partnership ended, I booked online an NRT-RAR r/t award in business with the routing (NRT-BKK-SYD-RAR-AKL-HKG-NRT) for just 40K. I thought it was too good to be true and wouldn’t be ticketed, but the trip went off without a hitch.

  16. United have just tweeted that the CO site will be the surviving site and will become the “new” UA site late Q1 2012. I love the award functionality of the CO site – hopefully this will also stay, but looks promising.

    Fed up with being told that a routing is invalid. Best was when UA told me that SYD – BKK – LHR was two awards as it went through two regions. When I asked them to suggest a route that only went through one, I got cut off.


  17. For a Hawaii to Japan reward, can you route HNL-LAX-NRT or does it have to be a direct HNL-NRT flight? What would the MPM be?

  18. Here is 1 reason to book awards always (almost) using UA, not CO miles – if thereare IRROPS if you booked with CO you have to call CO.

  19. I’ve learned several of these recently, including holds; liberal routing change rules (I booked another award with different routing and called to cancel the other – agent said, “you could’ve just changed the routing and gotten the miles redeposited!”); mixed cabins; and auto-pricing.

    Another tip I picked up is that the status of the person redeeming the miles is in effect if you buy the award for someone else. For instance, my wife “inherited” my Platinum status on the award ticket I got for her.

    @ Mark – there are no close-in booking fees for Platinum and higher; Golds and Silvers have reduced close-in fees.

  20. Lucky, does the CO site now offer one way awards? If not, that’s another reason why it sometimes makes sense to use UA. (One ways are extremely powerful – for example, last summer I booked AA/BA SFO-Europe; United Europe-SFO due to availability.)

  21. Lucky, does the CO site now offer one way awards? If not, that’s another reason why it sometimes makes sense to use UA. (One ways are extremely powerful – for example, last summer I booked AA/BA SFO-Europe; United Europe-SFO due to availability.)

  22. am getting this right, if I have a C rt trip booked to europe and i top up my account when the F seats become available (the routing from JFK will change but the end destination will be the same)…i can call CO and just ask them to reprice the itn??…this will have to be done probably 7-10 days before the flight sine LH is not releasing any seats in advance anymore

  23. @lucky

    Great post, good information, thanks! I have a related question, maybe you can help…

    I see reward availability on for a transpac/oceania one-way multi-airline (*A) mixed-cabin award just inside the 330 day window. The longest, most important segment is 3-cabin F, a shorter seg is 2-cabin J/C, and the domestic positioning flight is 1-cabin Y. The thing is, I won’t know for a few weeks exactly when I need to travel. This itinerary is going to be close, if not exactly the date I need.

    Is the common wisdom to redeem for this itinerary now, and worry about date changes when my plans firm up, or is there a downside to this strategy?

  24. @ hiyo — The only downside is potentially having to pay a $150 cancellation fee if you end up changing your mind on the trip. Continental allows free date and routing changes, so I would by all means lock it in now if you know you’ll take the trip.

  25. @Lucky I am considering booking 2 F class ticket to Asia with Europe stopover using United miles within next 3 weeks. Should I transfer my miles to CO and book with them. My trip will be in Oct. If I do that will I get grandfather in when it comes to changing tickets with CO when the merge is completed?

  26. Continental just rescheduled my flight from SNN to SMF from the afternoon to the early a.m. which totally screws up my trip. Can I contact them and ask to be put on an Aer Lingus partner flight that still arrives in SMF the same day? I used 110,000 miles for the this flight and want to avoid the $150 change fee. Also want to do this before Continental vanishes in March. Thanks.

  27. @ Nancy Petrotta — Unfortunately Continental doesn’t partner with Aer Lingus, so there’s no way they would accommodate you on them. That being said, if the Continental flight has award space, there’s a chance they would be willing to rebook you on that.

  28. @lucky

    Thanks for the comments. Once Continental morphs into United next month, I should be able to change my itinerary to the Aer Lingus flight and would have to pay the change fee, correct?

  29. @ Nancy — Unfortunately United doesn’t let you mix Aer Lingus with any other airlines on an award ticket, and they also charge different rates for travel on Aer Lingus. So you wouldn’t be able to change a Star Alliance award to include Aer Lingus unfortunately, unless it was originally with Aer Lingus.

  30. @lucky

    i got saver award ticket in Feb. to Bos to Incheon (BOS->ORD->NRT->ICN) through United. I found something better but it’s different route BOS -> Frankfurt -> ICN (different carries but same saver award ticket) is it not possible to change it? i called them and they said they can’t do it. saying the it has to be exactly the routes that i have (BOS-ORD-NRT-ICN) is this true?

  31. @ fred — The agent was incorrect. You’ll want to hang up and call again, as you’re definitely allowed to change routings.

  32. thanks lucky! i knew it! he was so rude to me he said he worked like 18 years at united and i asked him why is it invalid to change? and united guy said “if someone tells you it’s invalid. then it’s invalid. no question to ask” in that exact phrase i was shocked.

  33. Hi lucky! They have really high call volumes these days so I couldn’t reach them but I tried to change award travel ticket online and you can def. change routings but somehow it only shows United airline carriers. It wouldn’t show any options of different carriers(their partners)
    It seems like if you get United award tickets you can only change it to other United Airline award tickets? can you not change it to award ticket issued by their partners?(partner tickets that are available on if this is true what happens if u get award ticket with partner carriers and try to change that ticket?

  34. @ fred — Unfortunately you can’t change Star Alliance tickets online. You’re stuck waiting on hold forever, unfortunately, or you could try calling their Australia call center, where hold times are much more reasonable (just see the website for the number).

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