Any change to a frequent flier program is usually bad for the consumer; all those points and miles you've accrued become harder and harder to use. United Airlines just announced a significant shift in its frequent flier program—though experts say it could be worse. Personally I have found United to be one of the most difficult programs to use miles. How can they make it worse? Read on.
The U.S.'s fourth-largest airline is adding a "dynamic pricing model" to some of its award tickets. That means the number of miles you'll need for an award flight won't always be a set number for the same route. The new "Every Day Awards" will replace the "Standard Awards" in the airline's Mileage-Plus program. It won’t affect the lowest "Saver" awards. The change will go into effect for flights happening after November 1.
Experts say that using miles for flights like United's Every Day Awards is poor value compared to premium-class redemptions and Saver-style awards. United's change also brings minor increases on certain routes and partner redemptions, such as a round-trip business class ticket to Europe increasing to 120,000 miles from 115,000 miles, and a one-way from Boston to San Francisco increasing from 25,000 miles to 35,000 miles.
"Come November 1, your United miles will be worth less than today and the dynamic nature of these new Every Day Awards means a step in the direction of redemptions becoming more tied to the cash price of a ticket—or what is called 'revenue based redemption,'" says Dave Grossman, a frequent flier expert. "That's what you have with Southwest and JetBlue where the price is literally tied to the ticket price rather than the award charts we are used to with the legacy airlines."
United’s vice president of digital products and analytics, Praveen Sharma, emphasized that the airline was sticking to a published award chart, despite the change in Every Day Awards. “Unlike some of our competitors, we will have a published award chart and we’ll stick to the ranges in that award chart,” Sharma told USA Today. “We will not have exceptions.”
The clarification was a shot at Delta Air Lines, which does not publish an award redemption chart; a problem for frequent fliers looking to make the best use of their miles.
"There's now going to be much more room for United to charge more miles when flights are more expensive meaning the miles are worth less," says Grossman.
Despite the changes, Tiffany Funk of One Mile at a Time says the Mileage-Plus update could be worse.
"Saver awards continue to provide the best value for your miles, and rule-buster awards (like Every Day) should be used very sparingly, and ideally only in emergency situations or by folks with no flexibility who have planned on more expensive awards as part of their mileage strategy," says Funk.
United also announced a new fee. If a customer books an award flight and cancels after the flight's departure, the airline will now charge $125 to have the miles redeposited in the customer's account. Most passengers won't have to deal with that, if they cancel the award flight in advance.
Overall, the changes fit in line with the industry's shift in frequent flier redemptions; domestic programs have become less lucrative over time. But according to Funk, while the latest change complicates United's program, they won't have a massive impact for most travelers. "These particular updates don't significantly detract from the Mileage-Plus program as such," says Funk. "I suppose one could argue that there really isn't much left to take away there."
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