United’s Award Flight Changes: Worse Than Expected for 4 Reasons

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Sunrise in Iceland

I previously wrote about changes that United planned to make to its award flight booking policy, but the actual changes are even worse than anticipated.  Just to summarize, United planned to eliminate its free stopover on one-way flights–replacing it with a stopover on round-trip flights in either the origin or destination zone–but United ended up eliminating so much more.  These additional devaluations may not be readily apparent, but they’re nonetheless significant:

1. Hard to Book the Excursionist Perk

There is no easy way to book the Excursionist Perk, you must book a multi-city award ticket that meets all of the nuanced requirements in order to see a qualifying segment available for zero miles.  Most importantly, you need to make sure your desired excursion is in the same award zone as either your origin or destination.  That brings us to the second issue.

2. Narrowly Defined Award Zones

To utilize the new “Excursionist Perk,” you can book a free stopover in either your origin or destination award zone but not in any other award zones (even if you transit other zones).  United defines its award zones as follows:

 
Region Countries
Mainland U.S., Alaska & Canada Mainland U.S., Alaska & Canada
Hawaii Hawaii
Mexico Mexico
Caribbean Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Barbuda, Bermuda, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, Cayman Islands (Grand Cayman), Curacao, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands (British and U.S.)
Central America Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama
Northern South America Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela
Southern South America Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay
Europe Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom
Middle East Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Yemen
Northern Africa Algeria, Canary Islands, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia
Central & Southern Africa Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Cote D’lvoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion Island, Rwanda, South Africa, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
North Asia China (Mainland), South Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan
Central Asia Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
South Asia Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam
Japan Japan
Oceania American Samoa, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa
Australia & New Zealand Australia, New Zealand, Norfolk Island

At first glance this limitation may not look problematic, but if you are traveling to Hawaii, Japan, or Mexico, you will be unable to book an “Excursionist Perk” in your destination zone outside of the destination country.  This occurs because the zones are defined narrowly, as either a single state or nation.  Theoretically, you should be able to book an intra-country flight for your Excursionist Perk, but I was unable to get any to price properly.

3. Website on the Fritz (STILL)

If you try to book any award flight online, you risk the website breaking down and not completing your search.  You see this message:

We are unable to process your request. Please see the message below for details.

-We’re sorry, but united.com was unable to complete your request. Please try later or contact united.com Support in the U.S. and Canada at 1-888-491-6573; the U.K., phone 0800 028 5003; elsewhere use the local phone number.

In addition, you may notice that the saver award calendar does not always show available saver space, so you need to check available flights for each day, individually.  I’ve seen these issues since the new award booking rules went into effect, but it is unclear if United is fixing the problem (there is little incentive for United to fix it).

4. Some Awards Not Available Online

This issue is perhaps the most frustrating because there is no reason for it.  United does not show some routes as available even though each individual segment is available on United website.  For example, you may want to route to India through Singapore, so you can fly Singapore Air.  You may see JFK-SIN and SIN-DEL award availability, but the JFK-DEL booking is unavailable.  Instead, the United award search tool may decide that you must fly non-stop on Air India.  Many savvy travelers would prefer to fly on Singapore Air, even though there is a layover, than fly Air India.

Conclusion

United greatly decreased the value of its miles by 1) eliminating free stopovers on one-way tickets, and 2) failing to offer an effective online booking tool.  I’m considering switching my primary airline from American to either United or Delta.  These changes make United a less attractive option.

2 Comments on "United’s Award Flight Changes: Worse Than Expected for 4 Reasons"

  1. I’m sorry but 1 & 2 is wrong. Excursionist perk does not have to be in origin or destination zone I’m not sure if the rules state that but in practice it is most certainly not true 😉

    • thetravelingmillennial | October 30, 2016 at 5:25 pm | Reply

      If true, that’s excellent news! Can you send me an example of an itinerary where you were able to book the excursionist perk outside of the origin or destination zone? I’ll update the article accordingly.

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