I run Award Expert, a boutique travel consulting agency that specializes in the effective use of miles and points. Consequently, my team and I are well-acquainted with the nuances of every loyalty program worth talking about. Not surprisingly, we deal with United Airlines very often. An award ticket we changed yesterday demonstrates a ridiculous policy that adds stress and hassle to redeeming miles with United.
Under United’s new MileagePlus routing/booking rules, all award searches must be from origin to destination. The system, designed to discourage customized routing, will charge cumulative pricing if you search segment by segment, even if all other routing rules are observed.
For example, say you want connect in Dublin and Frankfurt on the way to Istanbul. If you search LAX-DUB // DUB-FRA // FRA-IST, you will be charged for three awards instead of one. Thus, you need to search LAX-IST and hope that your preferred routing shows up. You can specify preferred connection cities (or connection cities to avoid) on united.com, but I find that feature does not work well.
This leaves you at the mercy of United’s IT system. Sometimes things work exactly as expected. But sometimes simple routings like, say, FRA-IST-LAX do not show up.
Changing One Segment of a Previously Booked United Award
Here’s the big problem, though. Let’s jump right into the example.
A client was booked home from Venice this week, traveling Venice to Frankfurt to San Francisco to Munich. Why the extra stop? Because Venice to Munich was not available using miles nor was Frankfurt to San Francisco.
But 48 hours before travel, Frankfurt to San Francisco opened. Great, right? Just one stop.
So we called United to make the change and were denied.
Because Venice to Frankfurt was no longer available.
But wait a moment, we already have that booked, right?
Nope, under the “rules” the agent must book Venice to Frankfurt to San Francisco as an origin to destination search.
So no change? Nope.
Thankfully, we found space on a later flight from Venice to Frankfurt and a later Frankfurt to San Francisco flight. It worked out in the end, though the client flew United instead of Lufthansa on the transatlantic flight.
Three Potential Workarounds
First, United allows a quasi-stopover called an “Excursionist Perk” on multi-segment awards that pass through more than one region. This is a free segment that replaced what used to be known as a stopover.
Had the clients not used their excursionist perk earlier in the trip, we could have left Venice to Frankfurt as the free excursionist perk and booked Frankfurt to San Francisco and the price would have come out the same as booking Venice to Frankfurt to San Francisco together. Did I lose you? Read this primer.
Second, we could have cancelled the space and hope that it returned to inventory. This does not always work and is not something to rely on, but often when you cancel award space it immediately returns to inventory.
In our case, the space did return to inventory after we secured the later VCE-FRA-SFO combination, though the clients by then had opted to sleep in and deal with the rush hour traffic upon arrival in SFO.
Third, you can ask United agents to use the old system. Using the old system is frowned upon and some agents will claim that is impossible, but it’s not. It’s still there. Using the old system prices awards the old way and would have easily re-priced the award and allowed for the customized routing without touching VCE-FRA.
United took a solid award booking system and made it much more confusing and time-consuming with its strict origin to destination booking requirement. While there is not an easy way around it, you may be able to use one of the three options above.