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Trying to understand "fully refundable" and making flight changes on United

As best I can tell, some of the United Airlines information hasn't been updated on its website, as it says international travel booked before 01/31/22 is fully refundable. I'm trying to figure out whether to book flights for fall 2022 now or whether to wait much closer to avoid the challenges of cancellations we faced when we planned to travel in 2020. Specifically I'm trying to figure out 1) what happens if we need to cancel due to another round of Covid restrictions as well as 2) what happens if we decide/need to change our dates or our route. I'd pay more for more flexibility, but am not seeing an option to do so.

Currently I am seeing fares for travel from our tiny local airport to Newark, and then Newark nonstop to Rome (and the reverse coming home) priced slightly less than for travel originating from Newark. I haven't seen this since 2011 -- on our most recent trips it's been significantly less expensive to drive a few hours and then take a nonstop flight to Europe. On the one hand this is super tempting, as it would save the cost of driving 4 hours to/fr Newark, long term parking, and one night in a Newark hotel to allow us to drive home without being exhausted from flying. On the other hand, I'm always nervous flying from our local airport because there are few flights and more frequent cancellations. If I had the flexibility to change my itinerary down the road, I'd strongly consider booking now. Especially if at some point I could just pay the difference if we decide we'd be better off driving to Newark and flying from there.

I'm also really hesitating about booking flights so far in advance. I'm definitely worried about flights/routes being cancelled if I book far in advance. FWIW, what I'm looking at is the regional jet to Newark, then Business Polaris class Newark to Rome, then Economy Rome to Newark and regional jet Newark to home for under $3000 OR the same but premium economy for the trip home for under $3500. Good deal I think? I've never flown business class so I don't really know.
Thanks for your input on this!

Posted by
849 posts

I must confess that I have not read your entire comment. However, in general, you must read the detailed fare rules and save a copy of them for future reference.

Also, I don't recommend United for any class of travel. They are a horrible airline. I suggest you fly a more reliable one such as Swiss.

Posted by
5573 posts

Ruth, I've booked-and-cancelled more than a few flights on United in the past 12 months, and they have all been handled smoothly, refunded quickly. Those have all been award flights (paid mostly with miles, plus minor $ fees). In every case, miles and money were credited back within minutes, so I have to give kudos to United for that. These consumer-friendly, no-change-fees policies should be the norm, and I hope they remain in place going forward (but I won't be shocked if airline policies revert to more consumer-hostile as soon as they feel they can get away with it...).

It's true that according to one part of United's website, they reference a no-fee refund policy being in effect for tickets purchased through 01/31/22, but there are other United web pages that contradict that (that is, there's no mention of the policy changing on 02/01/22). This ambiguity is kind of confusing, unfair, and puts the burden of uncertainty on customers. It may well turn out to be the case that the liberal no-change-fees policy is extended going forward (and that may happen without any formal announcement or update to their web page) - that's what I'm hoping happens. I suspect that in the next few days, what the actual practice turns out to be will become evident, as customers report their experiences. This stuff is discussed extensively (ad nauseum) on FlyerTalk, which I follow pretty closely. From what I've seen so far, nobody has reported a change in the policy after 1/31/22 -- that doesn't mean it hasn't changed, but usually people there are pretty quick to howl at the moon about any negative changes (and I've seen none of that yet), so I remain hopeful. In the next few days it should become (a bit) more clear.

The counter-intuitive pricing you are seeing is just one artifact of United's bizarre, and recently-adjusted pricing algorithm (hint: most prices have gone up, some have gone up a LOT, occasionally you can find surprisingly decent deals, but it's wildly inconsistent). Don't expect it to make any sense.

Personally, I actually love to book flights 11 months out, and welcome schedule changes -- seeing them as an opportunity to improve my original routing at no additional cost. It does require paying attention, and if a change negatively impacts your flights, you need to be pro-active about finding something better, and then asking United to do that for you, but that DOES work, (within reason).

Only you can decide if your flight booking is a "good deal." But United's "Polaris" business class is quite good (on most planes -- you need to check the seat layout carefully). Careful, though, you may become spoiled: me, I've crossed my last ocean sitting in the back. YMMV.

Edited to add: Despite all the contempt heaped on United, IME they are perfectly fine (generally about as good or bad as any major US airline) and their updated Polaris business class seats are surprisingly good -- I sleep very well in those (just make sure your plane has the updated cabin). My spouse calls me a business class snob, but I'm perfectly happy flying on United's updated business class to/from Europe. Sure, it's not like the lovely airlines of Asia, but it sure beats sitting in a cramped, basic economy seat on any airline.

Posted by
29 posts

Based on what you note above, I decided to book an economy "fully refundable' ticket right before the end of January. I had planned on basic economy, but it was noted that it was not refundable. Going forward, as we are clearly past the deadline of 1/31/22 I am not clear on what is refundable.

Posted by
515 posts

David, thanks for all the detailed info. How do you determine whether the cabin is updated? Is it solely by the diagram of the seating pods or is there something more to figuring it out? Thanks!

Posted by
5573 posts

How do you determine whether the cabin is updated?

Best way is to cross reference multiple sites.

Note that there are (often) multiple configurations for specific aircraft types -- eg United has four different 787 layouts: one 787-800, two different 787-900s, and a 787-1000 - they're all different). You need to look at which model it is (788, 789, 781), then look at variants. Start with what shows on United's own website: log in, look at your specific flight, your flight date, note the exact aircraft type and look at the seating configuration in detail. Note how many rows there are, and row numbers (eg business class shows N rows total, there are M rows in coach, etc.) note that row number may skip some numbers, note the places where the doors/galleys are, etc. -- this will be handy when cross-checking against other sources. You can often confirm the aircraft type with these details.

Check the flight on seatguru.com. The info there often (but not always) matches other sources.

Check the specific aircraft type (eg 787-800) on the excellent aeroLOPA.com

The layout on the updated Polaris cabins are pretty easy to spot, on most of them, the business class layouts looks slightly weird, like a puzzle put together seats that kind of rotate and twist (the layout of the seats, not the seats themselves) - it's a creative way of arranging them so that each seat gets direct aisle access, but also allows them to maximize the number of biz class seats). If you see a layout that's just 2-2-2 across, that's not the best kind (they're not awful, but one key indicator is: does every seat in biz class have direct aisle access or not? The updated "true" Polaris seats do). The good news is that, at least on their 787s, I believe United has finally ditched the old previous (8-across?) biz class seats.

Also take a look at the user comments left on seatguru (but take them with a grain of salt).

Hope that helps.

Posted by
218 posts

@David et. al: Re: United's 787-9s (789s): United has now upgraded all but 10 of their 38 789s to Polaris. Three are currently in China being upgraded, due out by early March. The other seven are currently in rotation, flying various routes. United claims they will have all 789s upgraded by summer, so presumably three of those seven will head to China when the three currently being upgraded come out. I've been following this closely b/c they're showing up on some of the possible routes for my trip planned in September.

Posted by
5157 posts

This issue becomes far clearer when you search for a specific flight. It lists two different economy fares. One just titled “economy”, and the other titled , “economy (fully refundable).” I priced out RT Chicago to London and the price difference between economy and economy (fully refundable) worked out to $125 more for the refundable ticket.

The website states that there are no change fees for International flights originating in the US, but that is not the same as refundable.

Posted by
1071 posts

As far as I can tell United is no better or worse than your average airline, and as they have a hub at O'Hare they are our go to for international flights. They gave us our money back no issues in 2020, and we are booked with them for our June flights 2022. I booked them awhile back and the itinerary has not changed and the flights have only gone up in price, so I'm glad I did.