United MileagePlus Increases All Award Costs Close To Departure

Filed Under: Awards, MileagePlus

This spring United announced some major changes to the MileagePlus program, as they’d abolish award charts and would instead switch to dynamic award pricing. That means that MileagePlus redemption rates no longer have a minimum or maximum price.

These changes were supposed to kick in for travel as of November 15, which was yesterday. In many ways, April’s change was a no notice devaluation, since travel booked even at that point for travel on United on November 15 or later was subjected to the new rules.

United’s Inconsistency With Partner Awards

When the April announcement happened, United also eliminated partner airline award charts, though they made it sound like this was being done for consistency’s sake, to get people to stop expecting award charts.

However, they said that they had no immediate plans to increase partner award costs. It quickly became apparent that this is not what they meant, though. They later updated the FAQs about the changes to add the following:

The partner award chart will remain in effect for travel through November 14, 2019. For travel on or after November 15, 2019, there may be flights that require a higher number of miles than the amounts indicated on the award chart. When you search for awards while booking, you’ll see the applicable award level.

At the time they hadn’t yet increased any partner award costs, though that has finally changed.

United’s Increased Partner Award Rates

As of November 15 — the date on which these changes kicked in — United has increased partner award costs. Specifically, United is charging 3,500 extra miles one-way for partner award tickets booked within 30 days of departure.

At least that’s what my searches suggest. This seems to apply to all partner awards, whether short haul or long haul, and whether economy or first class.

It’s pretty funny to me that United talked about how they were eliminating close-in ticketing fees, but they’ve just replaced this with charging more miles closer to departure. Now, in fairness:

  • I’d rather pay 3,500 miles than $75, so I’d say that’s a net positive for many
  • This is bad news for those elite members who previously got the close-in ticketing fees waived

United Also Charging A Premium For Close-In Awards On Their Own Flights

It’s not just that partner award tickets are more expensive close to departure, but the same is true of United flights. None of this is published, but based on doing some searches, it looks like the following applies for United metal flights:

  • The mileage requirement increases by 2,500 miles within seven days
  • The mileage requirement increases by 2,000 miles between seven and 26-27 days of departure
  • The mileage requirement increases by 1,500 miles between 26-27 and 30 days of departure

United even has a blurb about this on their award travel updates page:

“Why do I see higher award prices close to the trip departure date?
Award pricing is based on a variety of factors, including demand, route, airline, and how far in advance the award ticket is purchased. Generally, booking your award flight further in advance will help you find the lowest price, and booking closer to departure may result in a higher price.”

This Is Sneaky & Illogical

I find this change to be both sneaky and illogical. United touted that they were eliminating close-in ticketing fees, but they conveniently left out that they’re just going to increase all award costs close to departure. But I guess that’s the joy of dynamic pricing — they can do that without repercussions.

This is actually a positive on balance for non-elite members, since I’d rather pay 1,500-3,500 miles than $75. Ironically it’s top tier elite members who are most hurt by this, since they pay extra miles but wouldn’t have had to pay the fee.

On top of that, this move is just illogical, but this is increasingly the trend with frequent flyer programs, as we see the programs run with a revenue management mindset, rather than a marketing/loyalty mindset:

  • Unless something recently changed, United isn’t paying partner airlines more for award tickets close to departure, so why are they charging customers more?
  • For flights on their own metal, if they’re going to introduce dynamic award pricing, then shouldn’t that also reflect lower award costs close to departure when paid fares would be low? They want their cake and to eat it too — they want award pricing to reflect paid pricing, but they also want to penalize you for booking close to departure (which they might not do if paying cash).

Lastly, the optics of this are all bad. They talked for so long about how they had no immediate plans to increase partner award costs, and then they choose to increase them the date that the changes kick in.

Bottom Line

Expect to pay more for all MileagePlus awards booked within 30 days of departure. On partner airlines you’ll pay an extra 3,500 miles, while on United you’ll pay an extra 1,500-2,500 miles.

At least that anecdotally seems to be the case, but without any published rules, who really knows…

What do you make of these new close-in mileage premiums?

  1. Crooked airline… like all big US airlines. Hopefully David Neeleman’s new airline will introduce some real competition.

  2. …and all of these negative changes just conveniently kick in after they sold their miles at 100% bonus. How clever.

  3. United went from a leading option for chase hoarders to almost dead last within 9 months. I’m actually not seeing any availability at all for any destination in Asia, Europe and S.Africa at saver level. They are just a DL with more (unbookable) interesting partners

  4. Do you know if this increase close to departure also applies to elites who traditionally don’t pay the full close-in ticket fee?

    United has the technology to vary promotions based on elite and cardholder status…

  5. They seem to be TRYING to follow DL on so many fronts (except for the loyalty plan change). However DL has better operations, and employee and customer satisfaction than they do.

    They have to give travelers who like award perks something to compensate for this award devaluation. But seriously I cannot think of anything – smiling and courteous FAs? Actual PDBs that get served? Planes that don’t get cancelled? Hmmmm….

  6. The 3500 mile increase sticks out like a sore thumb on those 8000-mile intra-Europe coach awards, which increase by nearly 50 percent once you get 30 days before your flight.

    I wouldn’t be happy if I were a regular UA customer, especially when they and most airlines aren’t raising their cash fares at the 30-day mark in most instances.

  7. This is definitely sneaky. But it’s not illogical: They simply use dynamic pricing to cream off the maximum any single passenger is willing to pay for a reward, whether that is cash (revenue management) or now in miles.

    You are correct in stating that UA doesn’t pay its partner airlines more if an award is booked close to departure. But so what – if they get away with charging members more, they have effectively reduced their true cost per redeemed mile, and increased FFP profit. And that is their #1 objective.

    Of course, we “loyal” members are the losers here. But that’s the beauty of a heavily consolidated airline market, and the lock-in effects of FFPs. Members will just suck it up. They always do.

    I write this all as a 1K, but I have no illusions as to the nature of my “business” relationship with UA.

  8. Having both dynamic pricing and close in surcharges makes total sense for United, whose goal is to wring every last dollar or mile out of the consumer. Keep in mind when buying with dollars you are flexible to go anywhere whereas with miles you are trapped with them. When booking close in you are typically in more of a bind. They are attempting to capitalize on it.

    I’ve been paying attention to frequent flyer stuff since 2011 or so, the amount of changes in such a short time has completely deflated any interest in their programs. United literally doesn’t care except for their bottom line.

  9. “For flights on their own metal, if they’re going to introduce dynamic award pricing, then shouldn’t that also reflect lower award costs close to departure when paid fares would be low?”

    Not true. Paid fares are not lower closer to departure. When was the last time you saw a walk up fare, or close in advance purchase fare lower than a fare that requires a greater advance purchase?

  10. @ JDH — I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m saying. With dynamic award pricing the cost of awards already reflects the paid rate of a flight. This additional penalty is on top of the already higher pricing you’ll see when flights would cost more in cash.

    And I actually *do* frequently see last minute flights that are cheaper than in advance. Just last week I booked Miami to Toronto for $120 a week in advance (it wasn’t even a basic economy fare), when a couple of weeks out it would have been $300+.

  11. Another benefit for those appreciated 1K customers. Pah.
    (Halfway through my one world status challenge. Actually enjoyed the BA experience much more that I expected. Thanks United!)

  12. Thanks for clarifying what you meant with award pricing. So, it’s more like an additional surcharge for booking award travel close in?

    As for the fare you saw MIA-YYZ more than likely that was the result of inventory adjustments as a result of demand not coming, than actual pricing. As a general rule, the closer in you book a paid ticket, the higher the fare.

  13. 1K with United for over 10 years, 1.5MM with them (Gold for life) and here is what I have to say:

    Luc at United MileagePlus probably made the biggest mistake in his career. Changing the way of elite qualification from distance flown to dollar spent, changing to “dynamic” awards, changing the way to earn miles (few years ago). This is the last thing for me. Yes, probably United does not care to lose one 1K, MM, but will see how many switch alliance or do business with Star partners. Everytime, they come up with some changes and advertise “more for customers”, I would ask that we all are smart flyers, who are they trying to fool?

  14. JDH – whether due to a inventory adjustment or some other reason, flights can remain cheap close in. You see this a lot in the NYC market when many major carriers compete on the same route.

    Honestly SkyMiles is looking better on a relative basis. Is there a cheap flight available close in? It will be available for the corresponding amount of miles. I also just booked four one-way business class tickets to and from Europe for 49,000 each during the flash sale. Many dates and cities were available. It’s impossible to find that kind of inventory available on AA or United nowadays.

  15. United doesn’t understand the value of loyalty and continues to abuse it with every change. I have no loyalty to United any longer and always seek any alternatives available.

  16. It’s time to ban airlines from making too much revenue. Legislation should stipulate that, over a certain amount of profit earned, airlines should invest all that into making their experience better (offsetting some of their otherwise losses from a good experience).

  17. Checked a random date in March for YYZ-YVR on partner AC. Price is still 12.5k one way in Economy, which means that some partner awards have seen no increase.

  18. @torontojay that’s a great datapoint.
    @Lucky I’m concerned we’re jumping to conclusions. All the rants above (except the one with no name) assume that all United members will see the same “prices”. Can we be sure of that?

    Is it impossible for United to display truly “dynamic” award pricing, varying the “price” according to their own criteria? Elite status? Recent purchases? Buying/flying patterns?

    You talk about mindsets. We’re in an “award chart” mindset if we assume that the searches you did, Lucky, deliver the same results that a high-status high-value United VIP will see on his screen.

    United says they’re going dynamic. Maybe it’s even worse than we fear: truly dynamic, for each customer, each transaction, region, day, airport, season…

  19. @Anthony, I hear you, and I like to leave my options open and sometimes that will mean Delta, but their policy about no changes or cancellations to award tickets within 72 hours of flight is an absolute deal killer for me in terms of actually switching to them as my primary. United’s same day change policy, extending into a full 24 hours before or after the flight, is also superior.

  20. I qualified for Platinum in May 2019 but won’t be going for 1K as most of my flights will be with partner airlines in 2020 to meet the PQP requirements. And even Gold gets *A. United is going to lose passengers like me who are going to try to requalify the “easy” way.

  21. Sneaky-smart of United to covertly push these small mileage increases in lieu of their HEAVILY announced removal of the $75 fee months ago.

    If I were in charge of United FFP, I’d quietly do it over a weekend and soften the blow by TRUMPETING the $75 close-in fee removal months in advance just like United.

    United loyalists def arent happy with the increased 1500-3500 mileage requirements.

    I suppose it’s a bit of “middle ground” since the extra miles translate to an extra $20-$50. But that’s based on historical redemption values. Going forward, WHO KNOWS?

    Perhaps we will see more of these award flash sales? Sadly, aspirational travel continues to get more difficult, and likely will never be included in these flash sales.

    Thanks for the update Ben!

    Well played United (slow clap).


  22. Yeah seemingly “good” news gets out on Monday headline, but it’s a trajon horse, the real bad killer gets out on the weekend, hopefully to get away when people are more relaxed.

  23. To hell with United. They never tire of screwing their customers, giving a stroopwafel with one hand and repeatedly slashing MileagePlus with the other until there is virtually nothing left.

  24. Also, this change blows for Members/Silvers/Golds who drop $450/year on the Club card, which also used to waive close-in booking fees.

    @Andre Say what you want about United’s destruction of MileagePlus, but those stroopwafel’s are fucking delicious.

  25. Haha yeah they lied but what are we gonna do? Fly someone else? Who? Nearly every city pair in the US is a monopoly or duopoly. What are we gonna do, retroactively unapprove their merger?

    They don’t have to care, they’re the phone company.

    Makes me feel worse about stretching for 1MM this year but honestly shame on me lol.

  26. Lucky is right, I was recently looking at flights from NY to Toronto for Canadian Thanksgiving (in October) all the airlines wanted $550 which was absurd. Then about ten days before, I booked and paid about $340 RT. Back in the day it may have been cheaper to book “early/in advance”. Now, who knows what the rules are?

    Separately, I just flew a few segments on Alaska and literally every single employee I dealt with on the phone, at the airport and on the plane was delightful and such a pleasure. I also noticed the passengers were chilled, it wasn’t like UA or AA where people were camped out forming a line well before boarding. Far less stress when flying Alaska or so it seemed. I just wish Alaska flew to more destinations. People, screw AA & UA and fly Alaska when you can.

  27. If the increase was 1995 miles, I would view it as fair as this is about 75 dollars at the rate that United is selling miles for to the public. However, based upon this rate, if one is to need to purchase the additional miles, it is closer to paying 131 dollars which an increase. In either way, it is unfair that United no longer waived the extra fee for elites and United Club cardholders.

    United used to often have more 12500 awards (or even ones cheaper than 12500) for credit card holders than what is regularly available, often including for last minute bookings, Do they still have those or were they gutted as well?

  28. Everyone always says they will leave United (or whichever of the big three just made a negative change). But here’s the thing, it’s a TINA market (There Is No Alternative). You WILL keep coming back because you have no choice.

  29. That’s why they “no longer expire”… time to cash out & cxl UA Explorer cards… welcome to the new SkyPesos!

  30. Was the $75 close-in booking fee per direction? If not, that’s 3-7k extra per round trip if both flights are within 30 days.

    I’m seeing 3k (Business)/2.5k (Economy) rather than 3.5k for UA+certain partners. Here’s my comment on MilesTalk:

    Cardholder w/o status here, looked up EWR-FRA. Additional miles required for that route seem to be:

    2000 on UA
    2500 on UA+LH (except Cityline), UA+AC
    3500 on everything else I found
    Note I couldn’t find any Economy availability on TP

    2500 on UA
    3000 on UA+LH (except Cityline), UA+TP
    3500 on everything else I found (incl. UA+AC)

    3500 on UA+LH
    can’t find any others

    A bunch of UA+LH and UA+TP flight are pricing out at a base rate of 60k in Business (+ the extra miles above), which I guess is good?

  31. Water under the bridge. By May 2020 I would’ve flown enough in premium economy or biz to make Krisflyer Gold, kissing the now ridiculously expensive UA 1K goodbye after more than a decade.

    However, as a UA 1MM/Lifetime *G, with most of my redeemable miles/points are now ‘parked’ in Chase UR points, I have insulated myself from these changes because (a) I seldom redeem miles to fly on UA metal and (b) almost never redeem miles less than 30 days before departure.

    GOI g forward, when flying with UA, I will be a Krisflyer/*A Gold, while I credit all my flight miles to Krisflyer. At the same time, I will have the option to fly as a UA/*A Gold domestically after I have already (re)qualified for Krisflyer Gold, enabling me to cover all the bases and never fall below *G regardless of which *A carrier I fly with.

    Goodbye UA MileagePlus!

  32. What about organizing all the loyal UA MP folks into a collective voice, creating a petition, making a ton of noise? Can’t hurt to try?

  33. BTW, the need to make Krisflyer as soon as possible is due to the fact that although I am a lifetime *G, I will temporarily lose that status, which I have through UA, to be able to credit miles to Krisflyer (the PNR will have not my UA but my Krisflyer FF number and show that I have no status). But by flying only in premium economy or biz, I will not only quickly get the 50K Krisflyer miles I’ll need to make Gold, but the cabin of service will also obviate the need for me to have status when crediting miles to Krisflyer while flying with UA or another *A carrier.

  34. I used up all my United miles pre the change planning a trip to the far east next year all biz class with Turkish out and back and called the Mileageplus program quits (did the same for Bonvoy and cancelled the Marriott card)…I agree with those who say these loyalty programs are now a one way street…United and Marriott used to be two of the best and now they are like all the rest.

  35. @Tom- Many flyers and I might come back in the past because of few reasons: million miler chaser, hub, loyalty.. But United (I did not see this at Delta, American yet, at least not yet) lately has made several terrible changes that screw customers. We all have limits, at least it reached my boiling point.

    Back to your comment “You WILL keep coming back because you have no choice”, it is not necessary true especially in my case who does transpacific often. United is not the only carrier that flies to Asia. I fly with them because of above reasons, but Singapore, EVA, Asiana.. all offer top-notch service. Passengers who fly transatlantic have many choices also. So how about in the US? The choice might be less, there is still choice. As I commented before, let’s wait and see if this is a successful strategy for United. Remember load factor is also important, not only a few pax who pay the most expense tickets. Empty plane will not generate profit, then layoff, then terminate unprofit routes,… We will see.

  36. I usually book with miles to attend funerals. I’ll just have to tell my older friends and relatives to give me more notice before they pass on.

  37. I’m seeing the change too (as a 1k). Short flights ticketed within 30 days are now 12.5k instead of 10k. The same flights are 6.5k on Lifemiles. Wow, Lifemiles now more valuable than United miles, never would’ve imagined.

  38. I am seeing a MASSIVE DEVALUATION, combined with a MASSIVE ELIMINATION of international Business Saver seats. As to the massive devaluation, I am seeing Europe Business Saver (in the pitifully few cases where it is actually available) go from 70K to 83.5K. I am seeing Asian First Class Saver (also in the pitifully few cases where it is available) go from 110K to 143.5K. So we are talking a 20 – 30% devaluation on UAL *AND* PARTNER flights, when we were specifically told that nothing would change with respect to Partner awards. Worse, international Saver Business inventory appears to have completely dried up. One day after another, I have scrolled through 75+ award flight options for a particular city pair on a particular day and not seen ONE Business Saver seat. Rather, all I see is Business Standard seats at 175K miles, ONE WAY. Delta completely destroyed SkyMiles with dynamic pricing that turned SkyMiles into SkyPesos, and now United is doing the exact same thing. For all practical purposes, it will soon routinely cost 350,000+ miles for business to Europe, and 400,000+ miles for business to Asia; 500,000+ miles for First Class to Asia (where Saver awards were previously attainable for 220,000 miles round trip and actually available, which they no longer are). People can try to put a positive spin on this, but they are wrong. The United program is now officially destroyed, and we now have Mileage Plus Pesos. The MP Pesos have been deliberately, consciously, systematically and ruinously devalued to prop up United’s bottom line, and much more important, United executives’ annual bonuses and multi-million dollar stock option values. That’s what this is all about: United executives’ annual bonuses and multi-million dollar stock option values. Which are coming out of our hides. A United customer will now burn up his life and spend hundreds of hours sitting on United planes and waiting at United gates during a year to maybe get, if any award seats are even available, a coach class ticket to Europe. While United executives fly there on private jets, spending a fraction of their executive bonuses. Bail out, folks. Mileage Plus is done. Finished. Over. This is one of the biggest bait-and-switch screw jobs in corporate history. After Delta deliberately and consciously screwed its customers by going to Sky Pesos, I refused to patronize their airline any longer. (And I am a 3+ MM with them, with Lifetime Gold.) That was several years ago, and I have not stepped foot on their aircraft ever since. Now I will flatly refuse to be a revenue customer on United. They think MP Pesos are really clever. How stupid do they think we are?

  39. I think United has gone too far. The changes are both arrogant and petty, and it feels like the decision is made by a group of people who has been in a cave and out of touch from reality and society. The new program is over engineered and over complicated!

    RDM, awards and GS benefits are important to me now and I have the benefits of flying on OPM and a lifetime GS status, but I will not recommend anyone to stay loyal to United.

    Loyalty goes both ways, and I think out of touch United Management has forgotten about the meaning of loyalty!

  40. I stopped being 1K a couple of years ago when United switched from mileage to revenue base for elite qualification. I’m feel free to spend my money elsewhere without the obligation to feed this enterprise in order to salvage whatever benefits I received that were eroding. It was so hard to redeem those global or regional upgrades anyway… so no love lost. From this, I discovered Avianca flies a better product to South America. Qatar and Finnair fly better products from the U.S. to Asia than United. So thank you, United, for opening my eyes and forcing me to experience your competitors. I’ll have to say it’ll be hard to go back to UA flights unless there is no other option.

  41. It makes complete sense to get rid of $$ fees and have people use miles. I mean now any fee paid to UA goes to premier qualification, right? (Which they said was one of the best parts of their new premier qualification…) So why would they want you to get closer to premier for using an award? They want to penalize people for using miles for flying.
    -Pissed off 1K (who can’t clear upgrades and now can’t use miles…)

  42. I have to laugh at those who are shocked and outraged. Haven’t you noticed a trend with all of these loyality programs? These are businesses, not your best friend. Long gone are the days when it made sense for most of us to stay loyal to a particular brand.

  43. As usual blame the bloggers for this change. Since we have folks like Lucky making money off of CCs with points, there are now more points in the system and thus the value of the currency declines. As Lucky gets rich the loyal actual flyers get poor. The simple solution is to stop people from jumping CC to CC when they accumulate zero debt,(how the CC makes money). Sadly Lucky and his fellow bloggers are more interested in a buck then protecting the constant flyers who HAVE to travel for business. Sad to see so many people spend their time finding ways to abuse systems and make life worse for the masses.

  44. Why are we focusing on the “cost” of award seats and not the (un)availability thereof? United miles have been rendered virtually worthless, not just because they have been vastly devalued, but also because one can’t find award seats to use them.

  45. Agree with many especially 1K’s above that for many years it was a no-brainer to stick with United despite inferior service and seats compared to international airlines. I requalified for 1K next year but already booked several international business flights on other airlines.

  46. I’ve drained both my United miles balance and my Chase points balance. When my United and Chase credit cards come up for renewal next summer, I’m thinking of downgrading both of them to the no-fee versions and switching all my spending to 2% cash back cards.

  47. These constant devaluations are like death of the program by a million cuts and this Lifetime 1K has had enough. If UA quits the shinagins, I’ll become active again (and very active). In the meantime, there are many alternatives. For example, there is a wonderful China airline, Hainan Airlines, which will take you from the US to China and beyond in J class “R\T” for under $2,000.00 (sometimes well under). Domestically, if you buy a “Big Front Seat”, bring a Ceaser salad/Diet Pepsi and ship your bag (or buy a bundle), Spirit is a cheap and workable alternative. FYI, Ice cubes are free on Spirit but not much else. Just forget UA miles as a currency in favor of Amex or Chase or go the DCS route of Krisflyer for *A or others. UA will get the message. The problem for UA: Many high value customers won’t come back…..ever,

  48. I just tried to book an intra-European award on SAS using UA miles. Departure was within 30 days, return beyond. This used to be 8k each way. Now the RT prices out at 11.5k x 2. A 40% increase! However, if I book it as two OWs, outbound is 11.5k, but the inbound is 8k. Obnoxious and absurd.

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