United Adds New Tax To Award Tickets, Even For Top Elite Members

United Airlines appears to have added a surcharge, payable in miles, for award tickets booked within 30 days of departure.  In the past, they charged a cash fee for a close-in award bookings, less than 21 days prior to departure.    However, top-tier elite 1K members were exempt from this fee.  Now, with changes to their award charts in place it appears that United has extended this tax to all award tickets, including those booked by top elite members.

I’m a 1K member with United Airlines.  My buddy Mommy Points knows this, so she reached out this morning to ask me if I could login and check to see what close-in award bookings looked like for me.  Sure enough, when I checked award inventory that’s exactly what I saw.

United Airlines Close-In Booking Fee

First, I searched award flights from my home airport of Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Orlando (MCO).  When I look 31 days out, I see lower prices for awards:

However, when I search for anything on that route within 30 days, the prices on all flights jump on, even when prices on cash flights remain low:

I found a similar pattern for flights between IAD and London-Heathrow (LHR).  Prices are lower 31 days out:

Meanwhile, one day earlier and the flights are all 1,500 points more on a one-way flight:

Most of the examples I’ve found are 2,000 miles extra to book within 30 days.  They range from 1,500 to 3,500 for the moment.  Since this is an unannounced change, those ranges may vary more or less in the future.

The Final Two Pennies

United made a big deal out of the announcement that they were no longer going to expire miles in customer’s accounts.  Similarly, they trumpeted the roll-out of a new upgrade system that offered marginal improvements for top customers.  One could argue they announced changes to elite qualification in similar fashion, even though that announcement was largely negative for frequent travelers.  And, they were very open about their direction when they made a number of announcements during their recent media day.

Airlines have a habit of making negative changes without notifying their customers, while trumpeting when they do something positive.  There’s two ways to look at such a change.  The view I think you’ll see more frequently today from other bloggers is that United made a deceptive change under the guise of doing something positive.

As a small business owner, I also think there’s another perspective to consider.  Chipotle or McDonald’s doesn’t notify us when they raise the price of a burrito or a hamburger.  They certainly have no obligation to notify us of a price increase.

My two pennies?  I regard this as a policy change.  United seems to be intent on increasing the price of close-in awards on a comprehensive basis.  When I go eat at Chipotle, I’m buying a burrito.  I have other lunch choices, but the value of Chipotle’s loyalty program doesn’t come into the equation when I decide what I want for lunch.  I don’t even think McDonald’s has a loyalty program, so theirs certainly doesn’t figure into the equation when I’m choosing whether to eat at Five Guys or McDonald’s.

The airlines have made plenty of negative changes to their loyalty programs over the past few years.  With a change like this, United is implicitly saying that your purchasing decision should be based more on the experience you receive when you fly and the price you pay for an individual ticket, not the loyalty benefits you receive.  In my view, that’s a short-sighted approach for a business that needs to take the long view to plan for success.

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