United radically devalues its frequent flyer miles

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Yesterday I wrote about the double miles promotion offered by United Airlines this fall.  That was the carrot.  We have now been hit with the stick.

Effective February 1, the miles needed to book award tickets are going up.  This is standard if unpleasant practice every few years among frequent flyer programs, and it’s called “award inflation.”  Typically airlines raise award levels for international tickets 5,000 – 20,000 miles, elite frequent flyers grumble about it for a while, and everyone moves on.

But this time United dropped a surprise nuclear bomb on us.

How United devalued its frequent flyer program

There will now be a split award chart, with awards on partner airlines going up.  Way up.  In some cases by 130,000 miles for a single award.

Here are some examples of this drastic devaluation for sample roundtrips:

  • U.S. to Europe: +40,000 in business, +80,000 in first
  • U.S. to the Middle East: +40,000 in business, +130,000 in first
  • U.S. to South Asia: +40,000 in business, +120,000 in first

Adding 120,000 miles to a first class ticket to South Asia is like adding on the cost of a second (business class) ticket.

As you can see, they are not messing around.  Make no mistake: this is a radical devaluation of United’s frequent flyer program.

It’s clear that United wants us to spend our hard earned miles on United flights.  But what’s the point of being in the “world’s largest alliance” if the pricing to use miles on partners is confiscatory?  This is an attack that goes to the very heart of the rationale behind alliances. United sells us on the line that we can use our miles on any of its partners, but now that will cost two or three times what it did before. It’s a classic bait-and-switch.

There are even a few more slices of this shit cake for us; United announced other onerous changes that I’ll detail on a separate blog post.

What you need to do

There are a couple things you need to start thinking about right now:

1. As the Frugal Travel Guy says, “earn miles and burn them.”  Drain your United award balance before February 1.  You can book tickets nearly a year in advance, and simple date changes will not result in the higher award amounts (note that routing changes will result in the higher amounts, however, so book routes you think you can use.)

2. Consider alternatives.  United’s mileage program isn’t the only game in town.  While Delta’s program is awful when it comes to spending your miles, American’s is quite good.  But also realize that American could follow United’s lead at any time and impose nasty changes of its own.  So far AA has resisted an elite qualifying spending requirement that Delta and United introduced this year.  That alone wouldn’t be so bad, but let’s hope they don’t follow United with their own radical devaluation.

3. Fight, and be in it for the long haul.  In the coming weeks I plan to launch Save Mileage Plus, a campaign focused on getting these changes rolled back.  Follow that site, join the effort, and add your voice to our message to United’s executives that these changes are unacceptable.  Earn all the miles you can for now, but join our boycott of revenue tickets on United starting February 1.

Stay tuned – this is a developing story and there will be much more to come.

UA

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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