United has announced “enhancements” to its United MileagePlus program starting this fall and as usual, the enhancements are anything but enhancements. Here’s what I do not understand — why can’t United just call a devaluation a devaluation? Claiming stopovers are “too confusing” United is replacing them with an “Excursionist Rule” (wait, what?), a far more confusing made-up term with arbitrary rules. United also is “reducing fees” on award tickets…unless you have Platinum status or Gold status or Silver status or need to make a change to your reservation two months or less before travel…
United MileagePlus Stopovers Re-branded “Excursionist Perk”
An excursionist is “a person who goes on excursions”. An excursion is “a short trip or outing to some place, usually for a special purpose and with the intention of a prompt return.” Meanwhile, United says, “The Excursionist Perk is not defined by time, while the stopover policy is.”
Here’s how United describes it:
The Excursionist Perk is a free one-way award within select multi-city itineraries. Members who book an itinerary with three or more one-way awards will be eligible to receive one of those one-way awards for free, if it meets all of these conditions:
- 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.
If you’re confused, United cites two examples to try to explain it — a trip to Europe and a more convoluted trip to Mexico:
For the Europe trip, nothing changes. A stopover within Europe on a North American – Europe redemption will still be complimentary, which is more than Delta and American offer their members.
For the Mexico trip, United hypothesizes a MEX-EWR-LAS-SAN-MEX trip with three stopovers, stating that Newark to Las Vegas will be free and this “complex” itinerary can now be booked online. True, this itinerary cannot be booked online or over the phone right now — United’s system is currently unable to price something this complex on a single PNR. But pity the fool who wastes 12,500 miles to fly from San Diego to Las Vegas (hint: Southwest offers reasonable non-stop flights).
Here are the takeaways I see from this updated policy–
- United wants to end the practice of “free one-ways” many savvy passengers have been tacking on to award tickets in order to take advantage of the current stopover perk — by requiring that a trip 1.) start and end in the same region and 2.) the the excursionist perk not being the region of origin
- This likely means and end to stopovers in Europe enroute to Asia, Asia enroute to Australia, Europe enroute to Africa, or even Japan enroute to the rest of Asia
- United is also eliminating 10,000 stopovers on domestic awards
Star Alliance Bookings Within 24 Hours?
We see the following in the FAQs–
When flying with one of our Star Alliance partners, changes must be made at least 24 hours before departure.
Changes to tickets for flights within Japan (with no international connections) operated by ANA (All Nippon Airways) must be made at least four days prior to departure.
This is not exactly new language (instead a resurrection from the pre-merger United MileagePlus rules) but the good thing…perhaps…is that the rule was never really enforced. I believe the rule is in place become in some instances Star Alliance partners are given up to 24 hours to confirm or deny award space.
United currently allows award ticket changes up until departure and you do not even have to cancel an award prior to departure — no-shows are still eligible for a full refund. Delta, on the other hand, has a 72-hour rule that prohibits any changes or cancellations for even its top-tier Diamond Members on award tickets (though agents do have some discretion to override it).
We will have to see if this rule is actually enforced, but if so this rule would mark the biggest change and biggest devaluation. After all, prime award space (like in Lufthansa First Class) does not often open until less than 24 hours or so before departure when a safer assumption can be made that the seat will not be sold to a walk-up customer.
So let’s file this as “wait and see” if this restriction is hard-coded in the new booking system.
New Award Ticket Changes Fees for United MileagePlus
United says it is “streamlining” award change fees to keep the MileagePlus program “simple and consistent”. This is again doublespeak. Here is the current fee structure:
And here is the fee structure effective on 06 October 2016:
Premier Platinums currently pay no change or cancellation fee. Effective October 6, 2016, they will now pay $50 for any change or cancellation made within 60 days of departure.
Premier Golds currently pay nothing to change routing on award as long as origin and destination remain the same. Effective October 6, 2016, Golds will pay $25 for changes/cancellations more than 61 days prior to departure and $75 for changes/cancellations 60 days prior to departure or less. Currently, routing changes or date changes are $25 for Golds within 21 days, so the fee will be tripled. The redeposit fee drops from $100 to $75, but I see this as a much bigger loss than gain.
Same story for silvers, who will now have to pay $50-100 for changes that used to be free.
General members are the only ones who see a slight benefit, with the change fee $75 for changes made 61 or more days prior to departure (currently $75-$100) and $125 to re-deposit (currently $200). Yep, United can get away with saying this change likely helps more than hurts, but it does not help most elites.
Why the change from 21 to 61 days? United says, “When a customer changes or cancels a ticket closer to departure date, it reduces the chance for that seat to be used by another customer.”
No Reduction/Elimination of United MileagePlus Close-in Booking Fees
With all the fee changes there was no mention of the annoying close-in processing fee that charges members up to $75 for booking within 21 days of travel.
I reached out to United and was told that close-in booking fees would remain in their current form. A shame United could not copy Delta in that regard, which does not charge close-in booking fees.
Conclusion: Wait and See
The concept of booking awards more easily online is appealing, but United has turned a commonly understood industry concept of “stopovers” into something that is very confusing and will only be better understood once the new system is in place starting on October 6, 2016.
Part of me is gratified this news will likely drive more business to my award consulting service, Award Expert, both from clients trying to book in anticipation of the change and from clients confused over how to navigate the new program rules, but make no mistake — I would have loved to maintain the status quo.
If you want stopovers in Europe on the way to Asia or some other multi-region stopover, you have about 60 days to lock in before the new rules take effective. I do not recommend gambling that these changes will somehow be more benevolent than they seem.
I wish United would just call a stopover a stopover and a devaluation a devaluation.