United recently accounted that it is changing the rules for booking award flights to “streamline” the process. Given that United already has a fairly good website for booking award flights, it is not clear if the changes will improve booking award flights for the average flier. For the advanced flier, the new rules will eliminate some pretty cool quirks of the program. Let me explain (IAD=Washington DC, CDG=Paris, FRA=Frankfurt, Germany, BKK=Bangkok, Thailand, ATH=Athens, Greece, SJU=Puerto Rico).
Current State of Affairs
Unlike American and Delta, United offers one stopover (extended layover) and two open jaws on a round-trip award flight. An open jaw allows you to return to a destination that you did not originate from or to split up your trip with two destination cities. For example, a beginner flier may book a round-trip flight from Washington DC to Paris: IAD-CDG-IAD. You could add in a stopover in Frankfurt for no extra cost: IAD-FRA-CDG-IAD. If you want a Caribbean vacation following your Europe trip, you could return to Puerto Rico for a slight increase in miles: IAD-FRA-CDG-SJU. You would then pay for a one way ticket or redeem miles for the SJU-IAD flight. You can add a second open jaw if you wanted to visit another European City: IAD-FRA-CDG ATH-SJU. You would have to pay for a CDG-ATH and SJU-IAD flight or separately redeem miles for these flights. Here’s a summary (assuming that these trips would not be prohibited by other rules):
- IAD-CDG-IAD is 60,000 miles on a United Star Alliance partner
- IAD-FRA-CDG-IAD is 60,000 miles on a United Star Alliance partner
- IAD-FRA-CDG-SJU is 65,000 miles on a United Star Alliance partner (SJU-IAD is 17,500 miles or $130ish)
- IAD-FRA-CDG ATH-SJU is 65,000 miles on a United Star Alliance partner (SJU-IAD is 17,500 miles or $130ish) (CDG-ATH is 15,000 miles or $80ish)
- New rules: the last two routes are prohibited
As you can see, these rules are very generous and allow you to create a pretty cool custom trip that is not available on other airlines.
What is Changing?
United is fairly vague about exactly what is changing, but here is what I know so far:
Starting in the fall, we are enhancing the way you book MileagePlus award travel on united.com, giving you more flexibility and ability to build customized travel. So book two one-way awards for a roundtrip, or book multiple one-way awards for a multi-city trip or around-the-world trip. (This replaces the previous Round-the-World awards.) All of these options are a mouse-click away and are brand new to the online MileagePlus award experience.
Plus, introducing the Excursionist Perk, a free one-way award within select multi-city trips. All you have to do is book a multi-city award itinerary with three or more one-way awards and one of those awards will be free, if the qualifying conditions are met. (This benefit replaces the previous stopover policy.)
- The Excursionist Perk cannot be in the MileagePlus defined region where your travel originates. (For example, if your journey begins in North America, you will only receive the Excursionist Perk if travel is within a region outside of North America.)
- Travel must end in the same MileagePlus defined region where travel originates.
- The origin and destination of the Excursionist Perk is within a single MileagePlus defined region.
- The cabin of service and award type of the free one-way award is the same or lower than the one-way award preceding it.
- If two or more one-way awards qualify for this benefit, only the first occurrence will be free.
Why is this Bad?
Some of the examples that I provided above would not be affected because the stopover (FRA) was in the same region (Europe) as the destination city (CDG). You can come up with pretty cool combinations when this is not the case. Assume you want to layover in CDG (Paris) on your way to BKK (Thailand). IAD-BKK-IAD is the beginner round-trip award flight. Add in a stop over: IAD-CDG-BKK-IAD. You could also add in an open jaw: IAD-FRA-CDG BKK-IAD and you would need to fly yourself from CDG-BKK. Let’s see how it would price (assume it would not be prohibited by other rules):
- IAD-BKK-IAD is 80,000 miles on a United Star Alliance partner
- IAD-CDG-BKK-IAD is 80,000 miles on a United Star Alliance partner
- IAD-FRA-CDG BKK-IAD is 70,000 miles on a United Star Alliance partner (CDG-BKK is 55,000 miles or $400)
- IAD-FRA-CDG BKK-SJU is 75,000 miles on a United Star Alliance partner (CDG-BKK is 55,000 miles or $400) (SJU-IAD is 17,500 miles or $130ish)
- New rules: the IAD-CDG-BKK-IAD and IAD-FRA-CDG BKK-SJU routings would be prohibited
As Travel is Free does an excellent job of illustrating, you can tweak the rules to lower the rates that you pay on each route. For example, you may notice that North America-Oceania and North America-North Asia price at 35,000 miles one way, which is cheaper than BKK-IAD, which prices at 40,000 miles one way. Also, Hawaii is its own award zone with reduced redemption rates to Oceania and Asia. You can pay around with these quirks to find lower redemption rates. Unfortunately, under the new rules you would not be able to stopover in Hawaii on the way from IAD to BKK because Hawaii is not in the same region as BKK. The rules would also prohibit you from tacking a Caribbean trip on to the end of a world advanture, assuming of course that you did not orginate in that region.
I could not find any silver lining for United’s new routing rules–stopovers must be in the same region as your destination and that your trip must end in the same region that your originates. You can add on more one way award flights but you could have booked them separately under the old policy, so this is not really a benefit.