United is completely revamping its United MileagePlus frequent flyer scheme to axe fixed-rate mileage booking costs on many United reward flights in favour of dynamic pricing, where the number of miles needed to book a flight varies from one journey to the next, even on the same route.
This means travellers won’t know how many miles they’ll need to book their trip until they try to make that booking – a change to the current approach of acquiring a set number of miles for a given flight – with dynamic pricing taking effect immediately for travel from November 15 2019.
Here’s what United’s changes mean for you and your stack of United MileagePlus miles.
United reward flights move to dynamic pricing
With the number of miles needed to book a United flight changing from day to day and flight to flight, United will no longer publish ‘award charts’ from November 15, which currently communicate today’s set pricing levels.
Instead, the number of miles needed to book any given flight will be presented only at the time of making a booking, with today’s fixed rates applying for travel until November 14, and the new dynamic rates applying for journeys departing from November 15, including those booked between now and that date.
United warns that for travel “after November 15, award prices may be higher, especially if you’re traveling at popular times,” and that “award pricing will fluctuate based on a variety of factors, including demand.”
On flights between Australia and the United States, there’s currently been no change to the number of United miles needed to book United flights, with a one-way Business Saver Award priced at 80,000 United miles plus taxes and fees on all non-stop flights from Sydney and Melbourne, both before and after November 15.
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However, with no published award charts, this could change at any time and without notice – so although it’s possible that United may reduce the miles needed to book reward flights during off-peak periods, it’s equally possible that the cost of these flights may increase, and without warning.
As such, members sitting on a balance of United miles may wish to lock-in any upcoming travel plans while the rates remain the same, to avoid the cost of those journeys going up unexpectedly.
On other United routes, dynamic pricing is already well in effect, such as between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where today’s published award chart sets a fixed rate of 25,000 miles for a one-way ‘first class’ (business class) flight, or 10,000 miles in economy.
But for travel beyond November 15, departure dates searched by Australian Business Traveller revealed the same one-way economy hop priced at either 6,500 miles, 7,000 miles, 12,500 miles, 15,000 miles, 18,000 miles or 20,000 miles, depending on the day and the departure time of the flight.
In most cases, all flights departing on the same day adopted the same reward cost, although on some days, choosing one flight over another could require almost three times as many miles, such as on December 21 2019 – a popular travel day just before Christmas:
Here, travellers taking the earliest or latest flights on the same day would pay the least miles, while those flying in the middle of the day would part with significantly more miles to still fly economy: almost as many as to fly up front.
As United releases relatively few reward seats in premium cabins – between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on just one flight per week in some cases – the true impact of dynamic pricing on travellers using their points to fly in comfort cannot yet be established, with few flights available today to compare.
Star Alliance flight bookings using United miles
With United unpublishing its award charts from November 15, it’ll be a little more difficult for travellers to calculate how many miles they’ll need to book a flight with United’s Star Alliance partners like Air Canada and Thai Airways, as the mileage cost will only be displayed during the flight booking process when a reward flight is found.
However, the cost of booking Star Alliance partner flights isn’t being altered as part of these changes, so for now, there’ll be no increase to the number of miles needed to secure these reservations, with United’s new dynamic pricing structure only applying to United flights.
That said, given the opaqueness of the revised MileagePlus scheme and the absence of published award charts even for partner airline flights, that could easily change in the future: and without notice.
Using United miles to book Singapore Airlines flights also remains unavailable across all routes and booking classes – as has been the case for many months now – with no update as to when that issue will be resolved other than that “our airline partner is diligently working with us to address this situation.”
Reward flight bookings with Thai Airways and TAP Air Portugal, which went offline at the same time as Singapore Airlines reward reservations via United, have since been restored and are again available via the United website and app in all classes.
Booking fees removed for short-notice reservations
In a spot of good news for business travellers booking last-minute reward flights, particularly leisure day trips or overnighters when away on company business, United will axe its ‘close-in’ booking surcharge on United and Star Alliance reward flights booked within 21 days of departure.
This currently appends an extra US$75 atop the usual taxes and fees of such reward bookings made by members without status – US$50 for Premier Silver and US$25 for Premier Gold, waived for Premier Platinum and above – but from November 15, the fee will be axed for all travellers.
However, unlike the dynamic pricing changes which are already in effect for travel from November 15, this fee will only be removed for new bookings made from November 15: so, if you make a short-notice reward booking before that date, expect that fee to still apply.
United confirms that “we will not refund fees paid prior to November 15, even if travel occurs on or after November 15.”
These changes at United follow loyalty revamps by other Star Alliance members this year such as Singapore Airlines – which has increased the number of miles needed to book Singapore Airlines and Star Alliance reward flights – and Thai Airways, which is making significant increases to the number of miles needed to book flights across the board.