Many US-based airlines charge a “close-in booking fee”, whereby they charge an extra fee for booking an award ticket within 21 days of your scheduled departure. Generally this is in the vicinity of $75, as it is with United Airlines. However, there is an easy hack that allows you to avoid paying United’s $75 close-in booking fee. This has been chronicled a few times before, originally by Mile Value in October 2014, and again by Well Traveled Mile in March.
As tested this morning, I can confirm that this trick does still work, and that you do not need to call-in to United customer service. Rather, it works like a charm doing it online, and the entire process took less than 5 minutes from start to finish.
I am looking to take a one-way flight from Santa Barbara to San Francisco this Friday, September 4th. Limited airlines fly out of Santa Barbara, and United is the only one who flies non-stop to SFO, so using British Airways Avios for one of their 4,500 mile one-way awards will unfortunately not be a viable option. Given the absurd cash prices for flying from SBA to SFO ($435 nonstop, $325 with a connection, or $200 using a throwaway ticket), spending 10,000 miles seems like a bargain, but I am not interested in paying the $75 close-in booking fee.
United allows free changes to award flights within 24 hours, so I decided to take a shot at this tactic. I booked this route for a random date in October, and paid 10,000 miles plus $5.60 in taxes to complete the reservation. A minute later, I went back in to my United account to view my itinerary. I then clicked “Change Flights”, and conducted a search for the same route on September 4th, and this is what I saw:
With just a few clicks of the mouse, I was able to change my ticket from October to this coming Friday, for no fee at all, ultimately making a reservation three days in advance for no booking fee!
This may be a glitch where the computer fails to assess the fee upon a ticket change, but the comments to Well Traveled Mile’s post indicate that you have been able to do this for months, so maybe it is just a back-door trick.
Either way, it is still available for now. So if you have to make a last-minute award redemption on United, don’t simply accept that you need to pay a $75 booking fee – try booking a flight with the same routing for a day more than three weeks in the future, and then change it to your desired date. You’ve got nothing to lose, and possibly $75 per person to save!
Michael Prodanovich is a contributor to Point Me to the Plane, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel