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United Mileage Plus awards usage changing

Noticed a posting on The Points Guy that United is moving away from a transparent awards usage chart (60,000 miles RT U.S. to Europe) to one based on dynamic pricing. So I jumped to finish my Christmas trip bookings (thus almost zeroing out my Mileage Plus account)

Posted by
1155 posts

Good for you, Lauri!
I hope to hear more about this at our travel meeting next weekend (unless, of course, you are traveling again!)

Posted by
5741 posts

Yeah, for anyone who has any United miles (or was planning to collect any in the future), this is very, very bad. This makes United's program much like Delta's, which is extremely consumer-hostile. Delta miles are sneeringly referred to as "SkyPesos" because they have so little value. United is now going down the same road. What a shame - with this change just announced, United's program has gone from (arguably) the best to the worst.

Posted by
6876 posts

I love Southwest's program - it's easy to use and not deceptive, and their rules are very generous (no change fees and no luggage fees for up to 2 bags). I really got tired of playing the other airline point "games" and I avoid credit cards that entice me to play those games. They have a right to do so, of course, but they're always changing the rules and making it harder, so I'll take my ball over to Southwest. Although frankly, cash back type credit cards (as opposed to the airlines branded ones like AA) are the easiest way to save for future flights (or anything else) and they're more transparent.

Posted by
5697 posts

Good idea, Agnes -- Southwest is great!
DH had been complaining about United anyway.

Posted by
34 posts

Delta has also started denying upgrades to any purchases outside the Delta website- in no uncertain terms! When I went in to upgrade our flight to comfort+ a pop up appeared stating that NO upgrades for these seats, not purchased or awarded by miles either before the flight or at the gate, up to and including Sky Medallion and Sky Elite Members! On top of being expensive now they limit how and when you can use those miles..:(

Posted by
1845 posts

Does anyone have an idea what this will mean? I have United points I was hoping to hold onto for a couple years, and suggestions? I wonder if I should try to book now and use them? Or keep adding more hoping they will be worth something in the future?
UGH!!

Posted by
5741 posts

It means that United is now free to raise "prices" (the number of miles needed for a given ticket) with no limits, because for all intents and purposes, there is no "price" anymore - or, as they will say, "the price is whatever we say it is" when you go to book it. Delta did this a few years back. The result is that prices which used to be entirely predictable are now entirely fluid, with the costs to redeem points for a flight often having doubled, tripled, or more. Their prices seem to have spiked and stayed high.

De-valuations in airline Frequent Flyer programs are a fact of life, unfortunately. So accumulating miles and sitting on them for a long time has never been a smart strategy. This devaluation is particularly nasty because it permanently hides what any flight will cost - so that makes it all but impossible to "save up your miles" for a special trip (because you can't predict what that flight will cost).

United's mass devaluation takes effect for flights starting in November. Until then, it's business as usual. However, everyone who has a sack of United miles is going to try hard to unload them for flights before November, so the sooner you use them, the better your chances will be to use them at pre-devaluation levels. If you wait a long time, the ticket that may cost you 40,000 miles right now could cost many times that amount. As people learn about what's coming, there's going to be a "run" on available award seats.

Personally, I've already booked all my flights for the next 11 months (two long trips). If I could afford to get away more often than that, I'd be booking flights using my United miles now.

Posted by
3493 posts

I received an email from United detailing the changes. After plowing past all of the "You mean a lot to us as a customer" and " This will allow us to provide more affordable flights ..." bull, here are the key changes:

  1. No more fixed redemption rates for any flights. This means they can raise or lower the number of miles required to get a flight as they want. Looking at a New York to Paris flight might be 75,000 miles right now but when you go check again tomorrow it could be 90,000 or 45,000 or 120,000, and change another 100 times between now and when your flight is.

  2. The lowest mile redemption has gone down on flights requiring 12500 miles or fewer. Austin to Midland. Houston to College Station. In other words, places you could probably drive to faster.

  3. All flights after November 15th have already been impacted by the change. So if you have not booked your Holiday flights, too bad.

EDIT: The bullet points here are straight from the email, with my opinion added. I have not researched any flights or what their current mileage redemptions are or if they actually changed.

Posted by
5741 posts

Just one point there I'd take issue with:

All flights after November 15th have already been impacted by the change. So if you have not booked your Holiday flights, too bad.

There's no rhyme or reason evident for flights beyond Nov 15. Some routes still show the "old price" (or, what we used to call it, "the price"). Others are priced whacked-out high. So, at this point, it's a crap-shoot. Flights beyond Nov 15 may or may not be priced ridiculously already. You might still catch things at the old price, but the future does not look happy for United frequent flyer miles. Stockholders, maybe, but people who have been saving up a bunch of their miles for a special trip ahead, not so much.

Posted by
8852 posts

My hubby and I each have enough miles for 2 RT tix to Europe on United. We both have Mileage Plus cards. Due to our current situation with an almost 18 year old dog, we are unable to travel now. I just booked tickets using my hubby's miles into London and out of Paris for late January to mid-February 2020. Most likely our situation will be different by then. I got the tickets for 60,000 miles RT each. We are planning a 7-8 week trip for Fall of 2020 and my plan was to use miles to help defray the cost of such a long trip. Fingers crossed it won't take too many miles. I think I'll look for a card that gives me money back from now on.

Posted by
8852 posts

If you're referring to the number of miles I have accumulated, it's not because I've been hoarding. We have been unable to travel together due to work and family situations. If I could book far enough out I would book our Fall 2020 trip right now. I did go to Europe by myself last June. That took care of some miles anyway.

Posted by
919 posts

I am kinda in the same boat as Andrea with her miles. I never hoarder my miles, just saved enough to use them overseas. We can only save enough to use them every other year. We use 60,000 each for our London out of paris next month. We can only afford to go to Europe once a year. Well guess I am stuck now with 79,000 miles and husband has more. Not sure what to do now. Guess i will find a cash back card like Andrea. If you have a wonderful cash back card you like, pm me. I would like to switch.

Unfortunately, Tulsa ok is small and we only have American, United, and delta to choose for international travel. Guess I will see who is the cheapest on our next flights.

Posted by
3493 posts

Not every flight is impacted. You can still most likely get some flights to the less known international airports for the same miles as before. United may even have some at lower requirements than before if demand is lower on those routes and they have more empty seats than they want. Greater flexibility by us passengers in choosing which airport to fly into may be key in getting affordable flights going forward. We will just have to see.

I fly often enough that the other benefits of an airline card still outweigh a cash back card at least for my travel. No charge for luggage, earlier boarding group, no charge for premium seating, and others would all cost me additional cash if I didn't have the card. I calculated it out and the best cash back card I can get will not pay what buying all of these options would per flight if I were to switch my travel expenses to that cash back card. When I add in the "free" flights I get from the miles, the cash back card is even less beneficial.

I unfortunately haven't been traveling as much the past year as I had in previous years for recreation. Because of this, I do have way too many miles built up not only with United but Southwest and a couple others as well (fly a lot for work and they allow my to keep the miles). I learned long ago to not accumulate airline miles for that dream trip when I had finally scraped together enough miles on Continental to fly 1st class to Australia on their code share with Qantas only to have the code share end before I could book. I just hope the United plan changes don't leave me with excessive miles I can't use because they are now too few to go where I want.

Posted by
6876 posts

Since some folks asked or mentioned it, here are three excellent cash back cards (all require excellent credit for approval):

Capital One Quicksilver (1.5% on every purchase, very straightforward and easy to track, no category "buckets", plus they will give you a $150 bonus for spending $500 in first three months, which is really easy; and no annual fee or foreign exchange fee and 15 months at 0% interest.)
https://www.capitalone.com/credit-cards/cash-back/quicksilver/
https://www.nerdwallet.com/reviews/credit-cards/capital-one-quicksilver

AMEX Blue Cash Preferred (insane cash back on groceries (6%) but read small print because wholesale "big box" places like Costco are not covered, gas and department stores (3%) and 1% for everything else; with the bonus, the annual fee pays for itself for 2 years) - I love using this card.
https://www.nerdwallet.com/reviews/credit-cards/american-express-blue-cash-preferred
https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-cards/american-express-blue-cash-everyday-vs-blue-cash-preferred-comparison/

Citi Double Cash card - 2% back (1% when you charge and 1% when you pay)

By the way, www.bankrate.com, www.nerdwallet.com, and plain old Google is excellent for finding the best cards depending on what your criteria is. And cards do customize their offers based on your credit score and other factors, so it is the case that a person can get terms that another person can't.

I don't think airline branded cards are a good deal at all, they demand "loyalty" without giving proportionate value, and get you hooked on these games where they're switching the rules and you're desperately trying to unload your points (every airline has done it, I'm surprised it took United this long to catch up). The only airline I would get a card for is Southwest because they're quite transparent about their points and you can actually reliably use their points. I'm very biased toward Southwest, there's a reason why they're so successful. They treat people right.

Posted by
919 posts

Thanks Agnes for the info, I will check into it.

Posted by
2212 posts

Well this does make me wonder if some of the other airlines will do this as well. I hope not. We use our miles and fly a lot on Alaska airlines. I feel they are very transparent with their mileage program as well. I have always been of the mind that if I have miles, I use them (not a hoarder). Over the 18 years I have lived in AK, I have had countless free flights using miles to go to Seattle ( my former home) and PDX. The only change they have made in the 18 years that I can recall is, they went from 20,000 miles minimum for a flight to 25,000. Also, baggage fees for others not living in AK.
They remain my favorite airline.

Posted by
6876 posts

Mark from CO makes a good point. If you fit the business flyer profile, the airline or travel-type cards make more sense and could give you more benefit of value to you than a cash back card (and some of those benefits like access to an airport lounge can really take the bite out of frequent travel and shouldn't be underestimated). There is a card for every kind of person based on their buying patterns, but no card has it all (it's either good for A and B but not C) so you have to select what's the most important to you and what you can wring the most savings out of. I used to be against all annual fee cards as a matter of principle but, if you do that math, those could work too (but for a limited time - when costs outweigh savings, you have to just cut it off).

I agree that Alaska Air is great (and so is Jet Blue too) and gets very high marks - their program is also transparent and they provide good service. Although I fly them to LAX at least once or twice a year (they actually fly direct from my home airport), their branded card still doesn't give me what a cash back card does because I don't check bags and don't need any airline-related amenities or their nice companion fares. But I could see how it's a valuable card for others, makes perfect sense.

Posted by
1217 posts

The sweet spot for leisure travelers and the co-branded cards is if you fly a specific 3-5 times a year and like to check bags. I'm an unabashed bag-checker who does most of my flying on Delta these days because they run the smoothest operation for my home airport and needs, and the Skymiles Amex card pays for itself many times over in a year. I even upgraded to the Skymiles Platinum card last year because I'll likely get far more than $195 worth of value from the BOGO domestic flight coupon in years going forward.

Am currently sitting on low six figures of United miles from market research surveys and shopping portals, not because I was particularly saving up for anything but because it was nearly impossible to find saver award inventory when your home region is served by only a handful of daily United Express flights, and that first non-saver hop to Houston would make the entire route price out stupidly expensive.

Posted by
1845 posts

I don't use credit cards, just get the bonus points and then close the card. So, we have almost enough points for three round trip tickets to Europe under the old 60K points RT to Europe. So, if I don't get to use them, no big deal. I'm in a situation like Andrea where my dad is going on 94 years old and I help care for him, so I really can't book anything now. But, I'm sure I can find ways to use them domestically or to Europe on more points. I'm thrilled we've been able to take two trips on points (thank you Laurie :-))

Question: I see that I can still book on the 60K, does anyone know when it will actually change? I understand it takes place in November so it you must purchase before November? I just wonder if my situation were different if I could purchase flights using points for next summer prior to November?

Posted by
3493 posts

The new policy is already in effect for any and all flights after November 15th according to what United has posted. This does not mean the mileage's been actually changed yet, or ever will, just that it could at any time.

If you are seeing flights available you know you are going to want to take and they are still at reasonable cost and you have the miles, book them now.

Posted by
919 posts

Susan - I would like to use mine up too, if I don't continue with United. Our trip for 2020, we are wanting to do RS Scandinavian tour in August , 2020. Can't book airlines until the trip info comes out and confirmed. So I don't look for any good solutions for me. Arrggh

Posted by
8852 posts

@ Kim,
I found that the furthest out I could book on United using miles is March 9th, but you would have to wait to book your return flight. I have another commitment for next March, so had to choose late January to mid-February. I'm hoping that I'll avoid some crowds traveling that time of year.

@Susan,
You can transfer your miles to me if you can't use them. Thanks friend. ;-)

Posted by
5741 posts

I've been doing some dummy bookings on United today for routes I might fly next year (just checking prices, routing, availability, not finalizing the booking). For most routes, I'm seeing two things: prices have roughly doubled from what I'm used to seeing (which is not a surprise, given the news) but also something even more annoying: no more nonstops, at any price. That is, where I used to be able to find a long flight from the US west coast (or at lest from someplace in the western half of the US) to someplace on the European continent (this is my preferred way to get there). Now, all the options presented require a stop (sometimes a painfully long stop, sometimes two stops!) in Chicago, Newark, or DC. The previous long flights are not available even at double or triple the old price. I have not searched exhaustively but so far, the forced stopovers look even worse than the price doubling. Discouraging.

Posted by
3493 posts

David,

Do you have status with United? Platinum or higher? They seem to have restricted the non stops to their higher level frequent flyers. I can find plenty of non stop flights from SFO next year to various European cities. They are around 30K miles for lowest economy to 155K for business/first.

Posted by
5697 posts

The flight I booked on hearing this news was Berlin-Zurich-SFO for January 2020 at the "old" price -- you have to scroll down past the business class United flights to see the partner flights. And the partners tend to have their stops in Europe rather than the U.S., so the transAtlantic portion is direct. (Zurich has a great lounge if you have a Priority Pass from your credit card.) One nice thing about the mileage flights -- you can book outbound as soon as it becomes available (11 months ahead) and then wait until the return flight becomes available, no penalty for one-way booking.
And I have NO status on United other than having been a Mileage Plus member (EDIT and credit card holder) for many years.

Posted by
5741 posts

I have no status on United, but do have one of their credit cards that gets access to a few more award seats (now considering whether it's worth keeping that card).

All my travel through January 2020 is already booked and I don't anticipate any additional trips before then, so for me it's more of a worry about the future rather than anything imminent. I'm going to watch the prices out at the long end and see how it goes. But I know how things went with Delta when they hid their award charts from their frequent flyer members (prices generally skyrocketed). United likes to copy what Delta does, so we will have to see, but I'm concerned. If I was planning any trips in the next 11 months for which I didn't already have flights booked, I'd be working on that now.

Posted by
3326 posts

I have always hated United and this is yet one more reason. When they took over Continental which I loved (as you maybe can guess), I was so upset that I cashed all of my miles and moved to Delta.

Posted by
6876 posts

I have always hated United and this is yet one more reason.

United is simply emulating the exact thing Delta has done. Their rewards charts have been the least transparent in the industry for years. The one upside I noticed with Delta is the accrued points don't seem to expire as my measly 536 points have been on my account for years now despite no activity whatsoever for years. Like it or not, the airlines are free to manipulate their programs as they see fit (do you blame them for trying to match the competition?). There's no guarantee with any of these games that the customer will come out ahead.

For what it's worth, I've been able to use United points (accrued only through travel, not credit card usage) successfully. But I won't be getting their branded card.

Posted by
5741 posts

Delta miles (aka SkyPesos) don't expire - so yeah, at least they do offer that benefit, such as it is.
United's miles expire after 18 months of no account activity.

I've flown Delta and United, and I've flown award tickets on them both (including some great business class trips...I sure loved that upper deck of that 747 to Australia...), so I know what they're like. United miles have previously been quite valuable, and I've had great flights from those miles. Delta to a lesser extent. Delta hiding their award charts makes it much harder, though not completely impossible, to use their miles. But more than that, the whole "hidden award chart" thing just really stinks, it reveals a lot of contempt for their customers.

Unfortunately, with all the consolidation in the industry (eg United gobbling Continental), there's just no meaningful competition left among the major US airlines anymore. While not exactly a monopoly, the three remaining US legacy carriers (American, United and Delta) have become mirror-images of each other, each following nearly every anti-consumer step made by the others. The destruction of value in their frequent flyer programs is just one example.

Posted by
8852 posts

One thing I learned for United miles earned using their Mikeage Plus card is that if you cancel your card you lose your miles. That may not apply if you've opened a new Mileage Plus card before canceling the old one.

Posted by
5741 posts

One thing I learned for United miles earned using their Mikeage Plus card is that if you cancel your card you lose your miles.

No. Actually, that's not true.

Every airline's FF loyalty program has different rules, including rules for when your points expire. If you're going to play a game, you better know the basic rules if you want to have any success. United's rule is very simple: all your points expire after 18 months of "no activity" in your account. It has nothing to do with whether or not you have a United-branded credit card, or cancel one (it could be related - see below - but it's important to understand the rule and why a credit card might be part of the mix).

"Activity" in your account is defined as either adding or consuming miles. Take a flight (and correctly credit the miles to your account), that resets your expiration clock, you're good for another 18 months. Redeem miles for an award flight, that resets the clock, too. In fact, anything that adds or subtracts miles resets the clock - and there are a bunch of ways to do that.

One way is to use a United-branded credit card (you earn miles when you spend money using that card). Buy a cup of coffee with that credit card, that adds a few miles to your account and resets the clock. But it's the activity in your account that extends the life of your miles for another 18 months, not just having their credit card. You can have their card, and if you never use it, you miles will definitely expire 18 months from the last activity in your account.

Here's what United says about miles expiration: How you can keep your miles active

Airline miles and other loyalty points are valuable - even after a devaluation like the recent United news. Lots of people lose points unnecessarily due to expiration, which is a shame since you paid for them (indirectly) and it's usually pretty easy to preserve them - you just need to know the rules and (most important) be aware of the expiration clock and paying attention to that.

Posted by
67 posts

United miles expiration can be extended by taking surveys through Opinion miles club (opinionmilesclub.com). While signing up and taking a survey can take awhile (20-30 minutes) so it's not really worth the time to actually accumulate miles (about 50 miles per survey) it is worth it to take a survey once a year to keep your miles from expiring. The first time you sign up and complete a survey you receive 300 miles. The surveys topics vary. I just took one that was for JD Power evaluations of banks. The surveys are about consumer products and advertising.

Alaska and American airlines have similar programs.

Posted by
8852 posts

David, I was talking about miles earned using the card, and the necessity to keep the card open. Maybe I didn't state it clearly. For example, my husband has a Mileage Plus card in his name, and I have one in my name. He has approximately 125,000 miles in his account. Once he had enough miles for 2 RT tix to Europe we stopped using his card and now just use mine. I know about buying something small occasionally to prevent the miles from expiring. I looked into canceling his card before March, when he has to pay his annual fee. The information I got was that if he cancelled his card he would forfeit his miles, all of which were earned on the card. I've now booked flights using his miles. As soon as our travel is completed in February I will cancel that card.

Posted by
5741 posts

The information I got was that if he cancelled his card he would forfeit his miles, all of which were earned on the card.

Nope. If anyone tells you that, either they don't know what they're talking about, they are trying to deceive you, or one of you is misunderstanding part of the conversation.

The miles earned through spend on a United credit card are yours, assuming you pay your credit card statement. The miles earned from money spent typically hits your United MileagePlus account within about one business day after you monthly statement closes. After that, you're free to use them as you see fit, or sit on them if you like, and they're yours (unless you let them expire after 18 months). Short of proving that you got them fraudulently, Chase (that's who issued the credit card, and who sends the miles to United) has no way to take them back.

(The only exceptions might be if you got the card, received a large bunch of miles as a "signup bonus" (typically for making a specific amount of spending within the first few months), then quickly canceled it. But those "signup bonus" miles are not awarded until you complete that required spending. If you've had the card for a while (like, a year) this would not apply. Also, if you got some special extra deal they gave you (sometimes you can sweet-talk an extra pile of miles if you agree to do something specific, like spend X in Y months, or if you keep the card for a specified amount of time), if you violate the agreement you made, then they can take things back. But those are not standard practices. If you simply had the card for a while, used it, spent on it, then one day you decide you want to close it, they can't/won't take any action against you like clawing back miles.)

It's unfortunate, but front-line customer service agents for airlines and credit cards sometimes just make stuff up. If anyone tells you you're going to lose all the miles you've earned from regular spending on that credit card if you cancel it, thank them politely, hang up, and call back to speak with someone who knows what they're talking about. Because that is not true.

Posted by
4735 posts

The information I got was that if he cancelled his card he would forfeit his miles, all of which were earned on the card.

It is possible that the agent meant the miles earned on the card that had not yet been transferred to his United account (e.g., spend since last bill date).

I just looked at the fine print on my Mileage Plus card and that is what it seems to state.

Posted by
3326 posts

United is simply emulating the exact thing Delta has done.

Delta's miles don't expire. That is a HUGE difference. I also hated flying United especially with their computer foul-ups post-merger. Not saying there weren't any bumps when Delta's merger with Northwestern came through but they weren't as bad and now the benefits of having Northwest's routes are great.

Posted by
1845 posts

Is it just me, but I don't see any difference in booking a flight using miles. I can still use jut 30K per flight. Am I missing something?