Amol broke the news (as best I can tell) about United Airline’s significant award chart devaluation early on Friday morning. I was actually awake all night working on an assignment for my day job, but that also meant I was unavailable. He deserves credit for keeping us informed.
That said, I’m usually the guy who talks about United on this blog, and a few have asked for my input on how this and other changes will affect my loyalty strategy going forward.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. United is not the friendly skies. Not by a long shot. I fly United despite their relatively poor customer service because (1) they get me where I want to go, (2) they offer relatively good elite benefits for my situation, and (3) they had a valuable award chart.
The first two items are still relevant, particularly United’s route map. A significant fraction of my travel is on the West Coast. Even if the merger between American Airlines and US Airways proceeds, their West Coast network is almost non-existent – and complimentary domestic upgrades are not one of the reciprocal elite benefits offered by American’s partner, Alaska Airlines.
Only Delta and Alaska make sense right now if I were to switch my loyalty, but Delta’s award chart is even worse than United’s new one, while Alaska is primarily a domestic carrier. One thing that keeps me flying United is that even when I take international trips in economy class, I can get a nice seat in Economy Plus.
In deciding whether to stick with United or go elsewhere, it’s important to consider the consequences of lower or no status. United has made cuts there, as well, making it harder for general members to access last-seat availability, prevent their miles from expiring, and change their award bookings with minimal fees. But having rarely taken advantage of the first two benefits as a Premier 1K, I don’t think I’ll miss much. Losing access to free changes will be a bummer, but that can be budgeted for and is offset by saving money on United mileage runs.
No, where I really see the change in value is in my ability to use United’s miles for award flights. My strategy has been simple. See friends and family in the domestic U.S. (and maybe the occasional international trip) by booking cheap flights and taking advantage of my flexible schedule. My elite status gets me free upgrades that makes so much domestic travel bearable. The miles I earn essentially double my money by redeeming for expensive domestic awards and international luxury vacations.
I avoid booking award flights on United for the same reason I mentioned at the beginning. They are not a particularly great airline except when you look at their route map. The United Club offers little more than bad booze and carrot sticks. Finding a good flight attendant is like playing roulette. Agents on the phone regularly display their ignorance of their own policies while arguing with customers. When offered a choice last year between business class on Singapore Airlines and Global First on United, it was an easy call. Singapore Airlines wins every time — maybe even in coach!
And I think this willingness to compromise is why I will continue to fly United.
I have been working for the last year to find alternative means of booking awards on Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, two of Star Alliance’s best carriers. These airlines heavily restrict the award space that they offer to their partners, so United’s decision to raise prices was just another nail in the coffin. Since I already planned on using their native currencies (or transferring from Membership Rewards and SPG), does the devaluation of a partner airline matter much? Not really.
For awards on United-operated flights, I wouldn’t have wasted the miles on Global First in the past, so I don’t particularly care about those changes. The increases to Business and BusinessFirst are roughly 5,000 miles each way on average, which is very reasonable.
One drawback is that if I need to fly intra-Europe, for example, I probably have to fly a Star Alliance partner to my final destination. I can only do that in economy class if I book United Business across the Atlantic. But these are generally short flights.
Again, these are my reactions to United’s changes based on my own circumstances. Whereas Amol lamented the greater cost of flying to visit family in a small city in India, served only by Lufthansa, I have to visit family in a small city in Texas. The rules for visiting Texas haven’t changed.
When United’s award chart does not make sense to visit certain destinations, I probably wouldn’t have used their miles anyway. Hawaii? It’s cheap enough to pay cash, and on the West Coast we can get there for 25,000 Avios round-trip. Middle East? I’ll use my Alaska miles to fly on Emirates. Africa? I might actually earn some Delta SkyPesos just to book the nonstop from Atlanta to Johannesburg.
I’ll tell you what has definitely changed. I was on the fence about whether I would requalify for Premier 1K once Premier Qualifying Dollars are implemented in 2014. I will reach 1K this year, but the combination of PQDs and partner devaluations has turned me against trying again. I could stomach one or the other — not both. This is probably a good thing as I have really enjoyed being MVP Gold on Alaska Airlines and have had trouble requalifying this year. Setting my sights lower on United will make it easier for me to divert more business toward Alaska.
United’s changes aren’t the beginning of the end. They are just one more example of how this game is evolving to require greater focus on diversification and optimization of every available loyalty currency. At the same time we see increases in award charts, we also see new ways to earn miles. Programs like Ultimate Rewards and products like Bluebird not only let you make up the difference but also facilitate this diversification. Try not to get too discouraged.