On October 6, United made some pretty significant changes to its award booking process and associated fees. Essentially, they discontinued their previous generous stopover policy and removed the ability to redeem Round the World awards.
I won’t dwell too much on what used to be possible since it’s kind of moot at this point. However, the biggest routing rule change was the removal of the stopover policy. Previously, round-trip international bookings allowed for the inclusion of a free stopover. A stopover is a “stop” that involves over 24 hours on the ground.
For the sake of simplicity, a stopover was basically permitted in any region as long is it was more or less “on the way.” With a few exceptions, the furthest city was your “destination.” For example, you could previously book New York-London-Beijing-New York. The three cities are in three different continents, but the previous rule allowed you to stop for over 24 hours in all of these cities. This is no longer allowed.
Additionally, United also updated the fees associated with award travel. In a way, it’s simpler, the change fee and cancellation fee are now counted as the same. However, for most people, it now costs more to change your award ticket.
The Excursionist Perk
All new award bookings are priced as one-way tickets. This is sort of what American Airlines is already doing; no complicated routing rules, just add up all the one-ways. This makes searching for awards faster and easier, since the website can theoretically price out any routing. However, it also means you can no longer “trick” or “hack” the system to book crazy routings.
As a consolation to customers, United has added an Excursionist Perk which they tout as a replacement to the old stopover policy. The full rules are as follows:
- 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.
United publishes their definitions of regions and countries, and you can check those out here. Let’s try a few examples.
Examples: Economy Class
San Francisco (SFO) – Singapore (SIN) – Hong Kong (HKG) – San Francisco (SFO)
With the new routing rules, all awards are priced as one-ways. Let’s say I want to fly this (laughably-never-available) itinerary in Business Class, on United:
- SFO-SIN: 70,000 miles
25,000 milesFree with Excursionist Perk
- HKG-SFO: 70,000 miles
Since both Hong Kong and Singapore are (1) not within North America and (2) both within South Asia, the one-way between HKG and SIN is free with the Excursionist Perk. This is probably what United had in mind when they came up with the benefit.
San Francisco (SFO) – Singapore (SIN) / London (LHR) – Paris (CDG) / Hong Kong (HKG) – San Francisco (SFO)
This is a strange way to use the Excursionist Perk, but let’s entertain it for a little bit. Let’s say I want to fly this route in Economy, the cost would be:
- SFO-SIN: 40,000 miles
15,000 milesFree with Excursionist Perk
- HKG-SFO: 40,000 miles
You will notice that this route pushes the rules a little beyond what United probably intended. I included an open jaw, since I’m going to Singapore, but returning from Hong Kong. These two cities are both within “South Asia,” so I’m all set there.
I also included my “excursion,” a flight from London to Paris. This flight has absolutely nothing to do with the region of my origin or destination, but since they are both within the same region (Europe), it’s allowed! Just as proof, United priced it out correctly:
San Francisco (SFO) – Singapore (SIN) / Cairo (CAI) – Dubai (DXB) / Hong Kong (HKG) – Newark (EWR)
Hm…let’s push it a little further, but stick with the core destinations. With this routing, I am including three separate open jaws. With the Excursionist Perk, it should price as follows:
- SFO-SIN: 40,000 miles
20,000 milesFree with Excursionist Perk
- HKG-EWR: 40,000 miles
You will notice that none of the flights actually touch each other. These are the only associations that I included when planning the route, in order to fulfill the Excursionist Perk rules:
- Leaving from San Francisco, and returning to Newark. Both are within “North America”
- Going to Singapore, but returning from Hong Kong. Both are within “South Asia”
- My excursion is from Cairo, Egypt to Dubai, UAE. Both are within “Middle East”
Once again, United priced it out correctly:
What this itinerary shows you is that none of your flights actually have to connect with one another. As long as you fulfill the given rules of the Excursionist Perk, you can basically get any itinerary you want.
San Francisco (SFO) – Singapore (SIN) / Rio de Janeiro (GIG) – Buenos Aires (EZE) / Hong Kong (HKG) – Newark (EWR)
But just how far can we take this? Out of curiosity, I input this routing into United. Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are both part of the “Southern South America” region.
This is a challenging routing for United, because there are no Star Alliance flights I know of that can fly between Rio and Buenos Aires, and stay entirely within the same region. In other words, in order to fly this pairing, you would have to connect somewhere outside of Southern South America.
Not surprisingly, United returned with an error message noting that this award cannot be booked. Though I somewhat expected it, I am not entirely sure exactly why the booking failed. I am inclined to think it’s more complicated than just not being about find a route that stays within “Southern South America.” The next example gives some insight regarding that…
San Francisco (SFO) – Singapore (SIN) / Accra (ACC) – Johannesburg (JNB) / Hong Kong (HKG) – Newark (EWR)
This route, also three totally separate one-ways (or “triple open jaw”), also satisfies the Excursionist Perk rule. Accra, Ghana and Johannesburg, South Africa are all within “Central & Southern Africa.”
Normally, South African Airways, a Star Alliance member, flies non-stop between Accra and Johannesburg. But what if that flight isn’t available? I specifically searched for a day when the non-stop flight wasn’t available, and out came a route that goes through Egypt. Not surprisingly, instead of the 80,000 miles I (half) expected, it costs 97,500 miles.
United defines Egypt as part of the “Middle East” region, so that doesn’t fall within “Central & Southern Africa.” This means that the excursion now includes a connection that goes into a different region; the final route, accounting for availability, actually looks a little more like this:
Since the excursion is outside of the the “Central & Southern Africa” region, the “excursion” is not free. Instead, it prices out as usual, with United charging 17,500 miles for flying between “Central & South Africa” and “Middle East.”
- SFO-SIN: 40,000 miles
- ACC-JNB: 17,500 miles
- HKG-EWR: 40,000 miles
This shows you that with the Excursionist Perk, your excursion cannot have a connection in a second region. This is a rule that United actually didn’t officially include, since it only says the “origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.”
Side bar though…17,500 miles is a great deal to fly over 14 hours.
It Doesn’t Always Work…
When United Doesn’t Have the Right Regions, Agents Can’t Override
United touts their new rules and booking engine as a way to streamline the entire process. However, in some way, they have made it much more annoying when things don’t go right. For example, take a look at the following example: San Francisco (SFO) – Beijing (PEK) – Taipei (TPE) – San Francisco (SFO).
On paper, this is the simplest way to take advantage of the Excursionist Perk. Beijing and Taipei both belong in the “North Asia” region, and I didn’t include any open jaws. It fits the spirit and intention of what United wanted to offer perfectly. It should price out like this:
- SFO-PEK: 35,000 miles
15,000 milesFree with Excursionist Perk
- TPE-SFO: 35,000 miles
Instead, United fails to recognize that Beijing and Taipei belong in the same region. As a result, my “excursion” didn’t price out as free.
You might say, ah, that flight must be connecting in a different region. However, the flight from Beijing to Taipei actually goes through Seoul, South Korea. Incidentally, Seoul shares the same region as Beijing and Taipei!
I got on the phone with United in an attempt to book this award and was told by three separate agents that they can’t override what the computer tells them. One was very sympathetic, though not in the power to do anything. One other accused me of trying to “take advantage of the system,” even though this is precisely what United has intended with the Excursionist Perk.
In this sense, United has basically taken the worst of Delta and the worst of American and put them together in this new system. Delta no longer publishes an award chart, so the customers are charged whatever the booking engine tells them (or the agent). If something doesn’t “fit the chart,” customers have no recourse. American doesn’t allow stopovers and books everything as one-ways and that’s the new way with United as well.
If United’s system is completely faultless, not being able to override wouldn’t be a problem. However, in just the few hours I have been playing with this, I have already found an itinerary that the system got wrong.
You Cannot “Force” a Connection Anymore
United’s booking engine offers a variety of connections. Let’s say I want to fly Business Class from New York (JFK) to Bangkok (BKK). United proactively offers a routing via Taipei (TPE) charging the correct number of miles.
But for reasons I cannot explain, sometimes these connections don’t pop up automatically. Before the routing rule changes, you could simply use the multi-city tool to input the connections you wanted.
United power users might know what I’m talking about. Using the above example, I could enter JFK-TPE and TPE-BKK as separate legs of a multi-city booking. Before October 6, United would recognize that the connection is only 2 hours, and would bundle them into one ticket.
However, as an unintentional consequence of booking everything as one-way, when you enter these flights separately in the multi-city tool, United automatically thinks you want to book two separate trip. Consequently, they will charge them separately. Case scenario: here is the exact itinerary as above, only 40,000 miles more expensive.
This is potentially a huge drawback, since you have to take whatever connection United’s system gives you.
These are just a few examples of what is and isn’t possible with the new routing change. I illustrated that none of the flights have to actually connect, as long as you fulfill the “Region” rule. On the down side, it looks like you won’t be able to dictate a specific routing since United can only price out routes that the system generates. I am sure as time goes on, more ways to maximize the perk and (hopefully unintentional) errors will surface.
Ultimately, in a time where other carriers are strictly pricing things as one-ways, it’s nice for United to continue offering the “Excursionist Perk.” However, there are undoubtedly still many kinks to work out and I hope United has a plan to fix them.
Have you discovered any creative way to utilize the “Excursionist Perk?”