Earlier this month United made some changes to its mileage program, adjusting (mostly higher) the number of miles needed for an award ticket. The good news is that the most used awards – trips within the continental USA – have not changed; for a one-way flight these trips are still 12,500 miles for coach and 25,000 for first. The bad news is that the awards I chase – trips to far flung destinations in partner airlines premium cabins – have been devalued, in some cases quite severely. That said, the United program remains my go-to program going forward but the devaluation should be a reminder that hoarding miles for the long term is a bad idea. Points hardly ever appreciate in value and are almost always worth less over time. Earn and burn.

What’s changed
Before February 3, United had one award chart for travel on it and its partner carriers. Going forward, United has two award charts – one for mileage redemptions on United flights and another for mileage redemptions on partner flights; an itinerary that contains both United and partner flights will in most cases be priced at the partner award rates. For coach redemptions, this isn’t a problem because the United award rates for coach are the same as the partner award rates in coach; those mixing and matching United and partner flights for an international coach redemption will not be penalized for doing so. For business and first tickets this is not the case — this is where it starts to get ugly.

The partner award chart is almost always more expensive than the United chart for redemptions in premium cabins. A one-way flight to Europe in business on United costs 57,500 miles, but the same flight on a partner airline costs 70,000 miles; a one-way flight to Europe in first on United costs 80,000 miles, but the same flight on a partner airline costs 110,000 miles. That’s a huge premium in miles for flying on a partner carrier.

How to get around the higher rates
As I mentioned before, when combining United and a partner carrier on an award ticket, the partner price will generally apply. But there are a few ways to get around this. As posted by a United Airlines representative on frequent-flyer resource site “Flyertalk”:

Originally Posted by UA Insider
Updated handling for mixed UA-Partner United/partner award itineraries: As we shared with the initial announcement, the Star Alliance/Partner partner award pricing will apply to Business or First awards for itineraries that include at least one flight segment operated by a MileagePlus partner carrier in Business or First.

However, as a customer benefit we have made an exception for most itineraries which require connecting onto a MileagePlus/Star partner in First or Business for a short distance. Specifically, if a United/Copa award itinerary contains a connecting segment on a MileagePlus/Star partner that is wholly within one MileagePlus award region, then the United award price will apply.
• For example: IAD-FRA in United BusinessFirst connecting to FRA-FCO in Lufthansa Business, will be priced at the United mileage award amount.
• Note that this exception will not apply to a few specific regions and routings, such as intra-Africa connecting segments and certain fifth-freedom routes (e.g. BKK-KUL operated by Lufthansa)

For award tickets to Europe, that means so long as the overwater segment is flown on United, flying the short intra-region connecting segment in a partner premium cabin will not cause the ticket to price at the higher partner level. A flight on United to Frankfurt in business that connects to a Lufthansa flight to London in business will be priced at the 57,500 mile United level rather than the 70,000 mile partner level. Flying Lufthansa the entire trip in business would price at the 70,000 level.

In general, frequent flyers with United points who want to fly internationally in premium cabins should look to fly on United operated flights when using their miles, only using partner carriers for short connecting, intra-region segments.

Why I’m sticking with United MileagePlus
Yes, the changes are mostly bad. But for my uses the United program is still extremely lucrative. MileagePlus is one of the few programs that allows for a stopover in Europe on an award ticket from North America to Asia. Even under the new award prices, a roundtrip award ticket in coach from New York to Bangkok – stopping over in Paris along the way – is just 80,000 miles. (Remember coach award tickets are the same mileage price even when combining United and partner airlines.) Should the same trip be taken in business class, the ticket would cost 160,000 miles roundtrip – the partner price would apply here because getting from Europe to Bangkok would require travel on a partner airline, and since Europe to Asia isn’t intra-region, there is no way to avoid paying the higher mileage price. That may seem like a lot of miles, but 160,000 miles to travel in flat-bed seats from the US to Europe to Asia and back to the US is still a pretty spectacular value – this award is essentially 2 trips in one and the paid ticket would be in the  thousands of dollars.

This is worth highlighting: if anyone out there with United miles — who lives in the US and is planning to redeem for a ticket to Asia – make sure that you take a stopover in Europe on either the outbound or the return; it’s a free add so why not! (For those that don’t know, a stopover is a connection longer than 24 hours, and the United program allows one stopover in addition to the destination.)

To see the new charts, click here.

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