United Is Shutting Down Searches For Paid Tickets On Their Own Website

a close up of a phone number

United gets a lot of credit for having a better online and app experience than the other major airlines.  There’s no doubt they have their strengths.  But, they also have issues, like when they were deleting Known Traveler numbers from passenger’s records.  Their “Expert Mode” wasn’t functioning for a while last year as well. Both of those problems seem to have resolved themselves.  Now, there’s a new issue.  And, it’s one of the most frustrating ones I can recall.

United’s Website Thinks We Are Bots, Shutting Us Down

As a regular United flier, there aren’t many days that go by where I’m not searching United’s website for a paid or award ticket.  Last week, I noticed a new behavior whenever I was searching for award flights.  This wasn’t a situation where I was searching dozens of destinations, just garden variety flights here and there over the course of a few days.  Each time I searched, I’d get this screen.

a screenshot of a computer

This 30-second timer was present for most of my searches.  Annoying, but not the end of the world.  I talked to some smart folks who noted that United had started doing this to slow down some of the bots and scraping sites that try to pull award inventory from United and other airlines’ websites so they can fold it into their products.  This makes sense to me, even if it is unnecessary friction.  My preference would be that United uses account authentication or 2-factor authentication (or any combination) to verify I’m really the one checking for award flights and not some bot.  They could allow a reasonable number of searches (10? 20? 30?) before more authentication or stopping me altogether.  But, a delay on the first search just makes me not want to use their website.  Still, this annoyance would seem like a blessing after what I encountered yesterday.

United Is Shutting Down Searches For Paid Tickets

Yesterday I was trying to buy two different tickets, one for work and one for a family vacation.  Neither were award flights.  These were paid tickets, and fairly “garden variety” ones at that.  I was searching flights from Hawaii to Washington, DC as well as LAX and San Francisco.  I also searched a bit for some flights to Las Vegas.  After a few searches, I started receiving this error message:

a screenshot of a computer

I thought maybe it was a bug or some sort of weekend website update gone wrong.  I left it alone and tried again later in the day.  The same thing happened.  Ditto for later in the evening.  I woke up this morning to try again.  Lo and behold, the same behavior.  Each time I would search more than a few different flights or just different dates for the same route, the website would start returning that message on all searches.  I reached out to some other savvy United travelers and asked if they were having issues.  All reported the same issues.  They also reported that the app seemed to be performing better.  But, we all agreed the website was basically unusable.  I’ve been too busy with other priorities this weekend to check exactly how long the “cool down” period is after United stops showing search results.  And, I’m now two days behind booking a handful of flights I need.

The Final Two Pennies

I’m not sure when United rolled out this update.  I’m guessing it will get fixed to some degree once Monday rolls around.  Still, it’s inexcusable for a company of United to have an issue like this.  This specific issue seems to be further exacerbated by the fact that nobody is around over the weekend to fix it.  I have to think the company cares that this is broken.  If it was just award flights, you could argue the airline isn’t necessarily losing money (though they would be losing the opportunity to clear off their balance sheet with some mileage redemptions).  They did already annoy many frequent travelers by jacking up the price of many award flights without notice last week.

In this situation, selling fewer paid tickets pretty much slows many of the airline’s revenue streams in tandem.  Customers aren’t buying insurance, rental cars, hotels, etc when they can’t book an airline ticket in the first place.  I have no idea how many ticket sales United lost out on this weekend.  Maybe it’s not significant in the grand scheme of things.  But, it’s a huge inconvenience for their loyal customers.

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  1. I have found that some websites treat me with suspicion when I am using a VPN to access the site. Some sites flatly won’t allow access at all if they detect (or suspect) VPN usage. Sometimes merely changing my virtual location will fix the problem, but not always. Very irritating to have a company dictate that I am not allowed to practice safe computing (by using a VPN) when accessing their website.

    1. Earl, I have a handful of websites I frequent with that issue. Definitely annoying. That doesn’t seem to be a factor here, but can’t say with 100% certainty.

  2. This has been a problem for a few weeks, not just this weekend. I gave up and spent my money for J to Europe for family of 5 on AA instead of UA bc couldn’t get the website to work. Pathetic that a company as large as UA can’t seem to get their act together.

    1. Beck, that’s disappointing to hear this issue may stretch out a bit. That would seem to indicate this isn’t an easy fix or United prefers their website function this way. Either is disturbing.

  3. I tried to book award flight and was unable to. I currently am having issues even logging into my Mileage Plus Account.

  4. Same here – weeks like this. Also when searching by fare class like W it’s been returning basic economy fares in the ‘requested fare class’ field but not disclosing that during the purchase. I don’t want UA to deprecate that feature so was disappointed to see that kind of error.

  5. I was recently experiencing this issue on the website but not the app. I thought it might’ve been an Internet connectivity issue on my laptop. Thanks for the clarification.

  6. I had the same issue/error in February when looking at flights from DC to Vegas and DC to Los Angeles. I didn’t actually time it but seemed to ‘reset’ if I waited until the next evening to search again. I haven’t attempted any searches recently.

  7. It’s May 20 and these problems continue. It’s enough to make me move my significant travel (out of Newark) to another airline.

    1. Mike, aside from the meltdown happening right now, I’ve seen things improve on this front. They are still far from perfect.

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