United Airlines announced new changes to its MileagePlus award rules this morning, with lower change/cancellation fees for many members as well as a twist to how it lets people book open jaws and stopovers. The ability to fly in and out of different cities, or to visit one of your connecting cities for several days en route to the final destination, has been a great perk of MileagePlus and one reason I still consider their miles to be so valuable.
New rules will essentially price all award tickets as a combination of one-way flights. Free stopovers will still be possible but won’t be as easily arranged. Changes will affect all travel booked on or after October 6, 2016. United claims this is all about making it easier to book “the trip you want.”
But, guest what? This was always possible. When marketing folks tell you an existing feature is something new and shiny, it’s time to start digging for the bad news they’re trying to cover up.
New Rules for Stopovers
Under current rules, you need only book a round-trip itinerary to get a stopover, and it can be just about anywhere on either the outbound or return portion. Now stopovers will be called “Excursionist Perks” and are essentially just waiving the cost of a one-way segment when you book three or more.
Here’s United’s explanation of the new Excursionist Perk:
- The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)
- Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.
- The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.
- The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
- If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.
So, United is saying that this is simpler than the current rules? I’m not saying it’s a bad change, but my head is spinning. The airline provides two examples of how this will work in practice, suggesting that it won’t normally result in higher costs.
In the first example, we have a typical round-trip award between Chicago and Paris, along with a stopover in London. Normally this would get priced as two one-way awards between Chicago and Paris — the stopover is just sort of “ignored” and rolled into the return journey without raising the cost. Under the new rules, there are actually three separate awards. The cabin of service and cost of the intra-Europe award is lower or equal to the two transatlantic awards, so it is waived.
In the second example, I think United is reaching for excuses. It suggests a hypothetical award from Mexico City to Las Vegas, traveling via New York and San Diego. United shows that under the new rules there are two flights eligible for the Excursionist Perk, from EWR-LAS and from LAS-SAN. Remember that if two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first one is free.
United claims this would not be eligible under current rules, justifying the new policy as an improvement. However, it seems like a bit of a stretch for a unique situation that applies to few people. They’re taking a well-understood industry term — the stopover — and rebranding it as a unique perk that applies only to their loyalty program with its own set of rules. All so that someone can visit New York on the way to Las Vegas?
Right now I’m rolling my eyes, but as long as people can figure out the new rules I don’t see too much reason to worry about United miles losing value. The stopover is still there in spirit. What’s really getting lost are a few unique stopover opportunities, like booking a stopover in the U.S. on your return from Europe. That was appealing to some people but was never something I found reason to take advantage of. Another is stopping in Europe on the way to Asia, which many people also used.
No Change to Open Jaws
As far as I can tell, open jaws will still be allowed. This is where you depart (or arrive) in one city and return to another. Taking United’s first example above, imagine you flew into Paris but returned from Frankfurt.
Remember that all tickets will be booked as a series of one-way awards, so there’s no reason why you can’t do this. Furthermore, the rules that United posted for Excursionist Perks only state that the origin and destination must be in the same “MileagePlus defined region.” London, Paris, and Frankfurt are all within Europe.
Other Changes to Award Rules
Finally, round-trip awards will now be booked as just two one-way awards, and round-the-world awards will be completely eliminated. I don’t consider these two changes to be very significant. One-way awards were already half the price of a round-trip award. Given that a true “stopover” is no longer permitted, the ability to book a technical round-trip itinerary is no longer relevant.
Changes to Award Change and Cancellation Fees
United currently has the most complicated fee structure of any airline loyalty program, with fees ranging from $75 to $200 depending on whether you want to make a change more than 21 days before departure, less than 21 days before departure, or just cancel the ticket and redeposit the miles. It could be a good thing for some people who were able to make plans far in advance, but it was difficult to understand.
Now United is simplifying the process to a single fee for all changes and cancellations. That fee will still be discounted — $50 less — if you make your change/cancellation well in advance, but it will have to be 61 days before departure instead of 21 days. I think this is good news overall. It’s great news for general, Premier Silver, and Premier Gold members who will see lower costs to cancel tickets.
The bad news is that it is imposing change/cancellation fees on Premier Platinum members for the first time. Some of the best award availability appears just days before departure, so this is a big negative change for me personally.