After United Airlines announced it’s massive devaluation that took effect 2/14/14, there was widespread panic among those in the frequent flyer crowd that used Star Alliance partners to fly premium cabin awards since they increased significantly in price. After all, the price from the US to South Asia increased from 70K miles to 130K miles one way. That was a massive increase.
The strategy around this was to book a flight on the old chart (before the devaluation) and then modify it as it got closer to the date of departure or as availability opened up for flights that you really wanted. I made use of this strategy as well, and was able to just make a change that improved my flights significantly.
It can be useful to read about how someone thinks about, searches for, and books an award so I’ll explain how I went about making this change for my flights.
What I Had Already Booked and What I Wanted
My original booking was from Bangkok-Frankfurt-Chicago, with the first leg on Thai’s A380 in First Class and the second in United Airlines’ Global First Class cabin. It was booked on the old chart for 70K miles one way plus some minor taxes/fees. Obviously it was not ideal given I live in Southern California and would be flying UA (not an “aspirational” flight), but when you book about 10 months in advance it’s essentially impossible to book Lufthansa First Class (Lufthansa’s hub is in Frankfurt). Fast forward those 10 months, and I’m about a week away from from departure for that flight.
Lufthansa First Class award availability generally starts to open about 15 days in advance, but there’s no guarantee of it even then. They do release more as it gets even closer to the departure but that becomes difficult and stressful for some, including myself. Instead I had a look at what my other options were. Here were my constraints:
- I was already on Thai A380 First Class, and that was a flight that I wanted to keep.
- I wanted to fly Lufthansa First Class from Frankfurt to basically anywhere in North America.
- I wanted at least a few hours in Frankfurt to enjoy the famed Lufthansa First Class terminal.
- I wanted to change my final destination from Chicago to Las Vegas.
How I Searched Award Availability
My initial search using the UA booking engine was from Frankfurt to Las Vegas, hoping a perfect route would appear. It didn’t. After my home run searches didn’t work out, I started looking for individual routes departing Frankfurt for North America. I kept looking and after spending considerable time on the UA website and ANA search tool (which is very accurate but less user friendly), I found the only Lufthansa flights that would work were to Toronto and Vancouver. Both flights would give me enough time in Frankfurt, so there was no issue there.
My next search was to figure out how to get from either Toronto or Vancouver to Las Vegas. Again using the UA search engine I was able to find nonstop flights from Vancouver to Las Vegas in Air Canada Business Class. It gave me a 23 hours layover in Vancouver so I could visit a friend as well.
This works out better than Toronto would have since I get a slightly longer flight (I like flying, so no issue for me there) plus the nonstop to Vegas the next day.
Changing the Award
With the flight information written down (dates of departure, flight numbers, etc) I called United Airlines and asked them to change my award. They pulled up my existing reservation and asked what I wanted to change. I said “I want to change my final destination from Frankfurt to Las Vegas and I have a couple of flights written down that should allow us to do that.”
The phone agent asked for which flight I wanted from Frankfurt, then I gave the date and the flight number and said it was in First Class. She confirmed the availability, then asked for the next flight. Given that it was a 23 hour layover, I wanted to ensure the phone agent didn’t consider it a stopover so I said “I’ll have a 23 hour layover in Vancouver and fly out on 10/XX on ACXXXX in Business Class.” The phone agent confirmed the availability in Business Class.
After she repeated the itinerary, she put me on hold to see if I owed any additional miles or fees for this change. I was expecting at least a small increase in taxes since I added an airport/segment to my trip, but to my surprise she came back and said there were no further charges aside from the $100 change fee.
So for just $100, I was able to move from United’s much maligned Global First cabin to Lufthansa First Class, while getting plenty of time at the LH First Class Terminal, AND getting to my new final destination.
The new award chart is terrible, but for those of you that were able to book flights in advance hoping to change them later, this process works like a charm. The hardest part, as always, will be finding the award availability for your route. Although I didn’t find exactly what I wanted (a flight on the A380 or 747-8i would have been great) I still met all my needs and was more than happy to pay $100 for it. It’s never a bad idea to search award availability on a route that you already booked, in case something better happens to pop up!