United Is Dramatically Changing MileagePlus: What To Do With Your Miles

by John Harper

United Airlines announced in emails to members Friday that it is making a major change to how MileagePlus members can use award miles on United flights. Many avid points-and-milers rushed to proclaim heartbreak, and while the changes follow those at other airlines that have turned out bad, we don’t yet have a full understanding of what will happen at United.

So you have a trove of United MileagePlus miles you’ve been saving up (or transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards that you were hoping you could use on United).  What should you do with your United miles, given the changes?

First, What We Know About What’s Happening At United MileagePlus

We don’t know that United is devaluing awards, i.e., making it more expensive to use miles. There are a few things, from United’s announcement Friday, that are clear.

  • United is doing away with late booking fees on awards (yay)
  • United will eliminate fixed award charts used to calculate awards on United flights on Nov. 15 (more below)
  • United is making some awards available for less than they have been previously, typically shorter flights
United Announces MileagePlus changes

United sent this email bulletin to MileagePlus members throughout the day Friday.

Fixed Award Charts Are Ending Nov. 15: So What

Until now, we knew that United flights between specific regions had specific prices. There was the saver price, say 60,000 miles between the U.S. and Europe in business, and the Everday Price, which would have been 155,000 points. That model will no longer apply to flights after Nov. 15.

In some cases, Unites says that award remption rates could be much higher than they are now. In others, we already know that some flights will be available for fewer miles than were previously possible.

We have already seen Delta, and Air France-KLM make a similar change to their pricing model. In general, Air France KLM made more affordable redemptions available during off-peak times, while Delta has made fewer cheaper flights available and ridiculously pricy award flights much more common.

We don’t know, specifically, how United will implement this change and how it may or may not compare to others.

What changes is how United miles are best used after Nov. 15.

It is highly unlikely that United miles will continue to be valuable for last minute flights.

Under the preeminent pricing scheme, it was possible to find fixed-rate United MileagePlus awards on flights at the last minute that might otherwise have cost a fortune.

When airlines have employed variable pricing models for awards, they almost always use them to more closely match demand. When demand is high, and seats are few, expect United to ratchet up prices on MileagePlus awards just like they do cash fares.

Scratch last-minute bargains off your Mileage-Plus toolbox list.

United may release more attractive business class rates than we’ve previously seen.

While last-minute flights will become a thing of the past, Air France-KLM Flying Blue members have enjoyed better access to business class seats during off-peak times after that program implemented a flexible award pricing system last summer. Similarly, Delta has used award fare sales to push lower rates than had been seen in over a decade before it eliminated award charts. For those who follow points and miles news, these sales can present an opportunity to get outsized value from miles by booking pricy Polaris business class seats as lower-than-previously available rates.

Short flights that didn’t previously make sense for mileage redemption now do.

United’s email notice mentioned that many shorter U.S. and Canada flights, previously priced at 12,500 miles and sometimes 10,000 miles one-way in economy, are now available for far fewer miles.

Boarding Area has already documented fares as low as 5,000 miles for domestic economy flights. Those prices make United miles a good value proposition for short-hop flights, even those otherwise costing $200 or less round-trip.

This is a new way United MileagePlus members can consider using their miles, and this change has already gone into effect.

Partner Award Rates are Unchanged, For Now

Last year, United raised the rates it charges to redeem on its partner airlines slightly above the fixed rates for United flights. United will not change access to partners on Nov. 15.

Moreover, the elimination of close-in booking fees may make United a more attractive option for last-minute Star Alliance partner awards, and last minute tickets on partner airlines should remain a great bargain, as they’ve always been.

Upshot – What To Do With My United Miles

Should you drain your MileagePlus account in advance of the coming mile-apocalypse? I’d recommend holding off. Some United die-hards may be dreading this change, but many feared the worst when Air France-KLM announced changes last year, and ended up anticlimactically surprised by low business class redemption rates.

If there are specific United flights that you’d like to book between now and calendar end, book sooner rather than later, but don’t do anything irrational. Like a George W Bush presidency, I suspect we will all look back on Nov. 15 with a much more benign sensibility than what is now forecast.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

16 comments
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16 comments

Christian April 5, 2019 - 8:03 pm

There is zero chance that this is ultimately beneficial to the customer. We’re not just getting hosed, we’re getting Bonvoyed. United will follow Delta’s insane pricing examples, particularly for premium cabins. Get ready for 300k for a transoceanic one way in business class.

Reply
John Harper April 6, 2019 - 12:19 pm

I don’t see anything that would suggest that United will follow Delta’s pricing model. I book around 100 awards per year, and I book far more via Flying Blue than I did before they made a similar change last year.

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Christian April 6, 2019 - 1:44 pm

The only reason they’re doing this is to emulate Delta. If United ever had a truly original idea it would die of loneliness. Delta has gigantically devalued Skymiles since they started hiding the award charts, particularly in aspirational cabins. United will do as it has done for years and follow Delta’s lead. The reason that you book more Flying Blue is because Delta has such horrible pricing. You seem to be basing your premise on United doing something inherently terrible but doing it to be nice. I find that unlikely.

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John Harper April 6, 2019 - 2:16 pm

I attend in-person events with United executives every year, and I listen in on most of their shareholder calls, and I have never once heard a United employee or executive mention “emulating Delta” as a strategy, or even an idea.
Like any public corporation, United makes decisions to balance interests of many stakeholders. One thing that I do know is that most major airlines are facing a lot of pressure to recalibrate their mileage inventories because the existing models are resultling in inventory shortages that frustrate their most frequent flyers. This has been an active topic of discussion, and so United, like other companies that operate in the same industry, are attempting adjustments in hope of better balancing different stakeholder interests.

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Christian April 6, 2019 - 2:47 pm

So you’re saying that they haven’t been emulating Delta?

John Harper April 6, 2019 - 5:33 pm

Many of their programs look like Deltas programs, but these are two companies that operate in a highly competetive industry. If United was emulating Delta, they would be selling economy plus seats in a separate fare class, would serve three course meals in economy on Japan flights, and would be putting 19-inch wide seats in new economy cabins. They have done none of the above.

United does many things that Delta does not do. United offers premium economy seating on domestic flights. They configure aircraft specifically to fly to Hawaii. They plate meals individually in business class. They process upgrades in an entirely different order. Their credit card cobranding isn’t even comparable.

There will be ways in which MileagePlus’ new pricing system resembles Delta, but there will be far more ways in which it does not.

Dr. John April 5, 2019 - 8:54 pm

Is this post for real? You don’t know if this will be a devaluation? Haha!!! You can’t be that ignorant!

A last minute flight for 25k miles and $12 in taxes will now be based on the value of the going rate for that last minute flight.
*It will be more expensive than 25k miles
* This is known as a devaluation

Reply
Christian April 6, 2019 - 11:48 am

This post does seem naive.

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John Harper April 6, 2019 - 12:17 pm

Dr. John
In order to call this change a devaluation, one must establish that the net changes to the program make the mileage currency less valuable for the average traveler.
We have no information on what the decreased prices will amount to, nor where United will move it’s upper end.
Unless you know something I don’t, there is absolutely not enough information to call this a devaluation.
-John

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John Harper April 6, 2019 - 12:24 pm

“A last minute flight for 25k miles and $12 in taxes will now be based on the value of the going rate for that last minute flight.”

Based on what I’ve gotten from United, this is not accurate. It is also not how Delta or Air France computes mileage rates for last minute flights in their dynamic pricing schemes. We have not yet seen any of the major airlines move to a fixed value pricing model, which is what you are describing.

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bigbird April 5, 2019 - 11:41 pm

“Like a George W Bush presidency, I suspect we will all look back on Nov. 15 with a much more benign sensibility than what is now forecast.” wtf? we are doomed.

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John Harper April 6, 2019 - 12:15 pm

Are we?

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John April 6, 2019 - 1:36 pm

“Increasing award travel prices for the most in-demand flights lets us offer lower prices on other flights.”

I would like to point out that this statement is a logical fallacy. They could offer lower prices on less in-demand flights right now if they wanted to, regardless of the pricing of the most in-demand flights.

“If your award travel is flexible…”

i.e. If you travel at a time of year that you really don’t want to, or that is extremely inconvenient.

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John Harper April 6, 2019 - 2:20 pm

I don’t think they are claiming that increased prices allow them to offer lower prices. I haven’t seen that statement made anywhere, at least. What I do see coming from United is that the pre-existing pricing model restricted their ability to adjust fares and offer a wider range of prices, and that this new model will allow them to do so.

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John Harper April 6, 2019 - 5:28 pm

I’ve seen this now, and I think it’s incomplete logic at worst. The new system, which includes higher redemption rates, allows the airline to offer more flexible pricing which in many cases will mean lower award prices.

Reply
Christian April 6, 2019 - 6:49 pm Reply

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