United just announced changes that will go into effect on October 6.

A week and a half ago I had heard about an early August announcement of October changes and now we know what those are. United is:

  • Introducing a new, better online award booking engine.
  • Imposing new restrictions on free stopovers on roundtrip awards
  • Eliminating round the world awards
  • Revamping award change fees (to be mostly higher and more restrictive)

United has had some of the most generous award routing rules in the industry for a program that prices awards based on the regions traveled (versus distance flown). And they’ve been generous in allowing stopovers on roundtrip awards. For elites their change fees have been on the low end for a US frequent flyer program.

I’ve long written about regression towards the mean in frequent flyer benefits, things that are significantly more value than what competitors offer don’t last and on October 6 United will get a little less generous while still maintaining some of what makes their award rules more generous than Delta’s and American’s.

Improved Online Award Booking, Especially for Multi-city Trips

The award booking engine will let you specify connection city for an itinerary, or cities in which to avoid connections, as well as only show your preferred class of service for a segment. They’ll also let you filter out results based on connecting times, avoiding redeyes, and inflight amenities.

A new booking engine sounds great but we’ll see how it works in practice. That’s just about convenience, not value.

Limiting Award Stopovers

United says they are eliminating free stopovers on roundtrip awards and replacing that with a new Excursionist Perk which really means limiting what kinds of stopovers you can have.

The reason they say they’re doing it is because any members found the stopover policy to be confusing. So they’re introducing something more confusing but also more limited.

In order to have a stopover now,

  • It cannot be in the award region where your travel originates. So if you start in San Francisco, you cannot have a stopover in New York enroute to Europe.This also limits you from booking a traditional free one-way award where you return to your home city but call that a stopover and tack on an additional flight in the region to a point beyond (e.g. fly back home to Newark and add on a free Newark Los Angeles flight to use later).
  • Your award has to end in the same award region where travel begins. So while you can still have a double open jaw, you cannot have a stopover if you depart North America to Europe and return to South America.
  • Your free one-way award (which is how they describe what they’re giving you) must be the same award type or lower (you can’t have a free standard or extra miles award) and must be the same cabin or lower (no business class free one-ways on an economy redemption).
  • The origin and destination of the free one-way segment on a roundtrip award must begin and end in the same region. So you can fly to London, stopover, fly from London to Istanbul and stop (since London and Istanbul are both considered Europe) and then fly back to the US from Istanbul. But you cannot have a stopover in Europe enroute to Asia on a US-Asia award.
  • Your first qualifying stopover is free in an itinerary that has more than one.

They’re eliminating stopovers on domestic awards (which used to be available for 10,000 extra miles).

Changes to existing awards with stopovers will be allowed without additional miles but any changes to the first flight will require a reissue of the ticket and new pricing may apply.

Revamped Award Change Fees

Here are United’s current award fees:

For all awards booked on or after October 6, 2016, new change fees will apply as follows:

The cut-off date for lower-cost changes moves to 60 days from 21-days (ouch). Platinums no longer get totally free changes (since there’s a fee within 60 days). Silvers and Golds get lower redeposit fees but higher change fees. And they appear to have dropped the distinction between whether or not a change involves a different origin or destination city all changes would appear to get the same fees even simple changes to date and time.

If your status changes between the time of ticketing and time of change and results in a different fee, we will apply whichever fee is lower.

New change rules are also explicit that you have to make changes to awards within 24 hours of departure, something that was the case at United prior to the Continental merger and a rule I’ve loved not having to follow since then. We’ll see if that gets hard-coded into the computer.

Source from here.