Are airlines moving the loyalty program goalposts?

Who moved my post? / Photo by rbrw - Flickr
Every week or so I get a complaint about the elusive nature of loyalty programs.

They follow a formula: Someone has given all of their business to a particular airline, but when they try to redeem their miles for a “free” ticket or an upgrade, they find it costs a lot more than they expected.

The airline, they say, is moving the goalposts – constantly upping the requirements for one of its hard-to-get perks. And it’s not fair.

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Lately, the object of their scorn is United Airlines, which just merged with Continental Airlines and tightened some of its redemption policies.

For example, Jeffrey Grynkewich, a college student who is making plans to attend a study abroad program in Europe this summer, thought the 65,000 miles he’d collected on United would be more than enough for a trans-Atlantic flight.

“Unfortunately, they had no seats because one of my flights uses a regional carrier,” he says. “I ended up coughing up the cash for the flights in hopes that I could at least use my miles for an upgrade. Unfortunately, in order to request an upgrade — without any confirmation of actual upgrade — it will cost 40,000 miles plus $1,100.”

Wow, that’s a lot of points, not to mention the money.

Lori Dynan booked a United flight from Washington to Maui on United, and wanted to use some of her miles to upgrade on the long flight. She’s a frequent flier, and had successfully cashed in her miles for a better seat on United in the past.

“I was told that the base price of the ticket was $1,250,” says Dynan, who works for National Geographic (which, by way of full disclosure, I also work for).

But that’s not all, a United representative told her. If she wanted an upgrade, she’d have to plunk down an extra 35,000 miles, pay a $500 “processing fee” for the flight to Hawaii and a $450 “processing fee” for the return flight. Then there was a $25 fee for calling United to make the reservation; a $10 mystery fee and $100 in baggage fees.

Her total fare? $2,200.

Mileage programs, she says, are guilty of false advertising.

“What are the perks of joining a frequent flier program when one is charged to use said miles?” she wonders. “This is in essence, paying three times. For the first ticket we purchase, which earns the miles, then the second time when we use the miles to ‘upgrade’ and then the processing fees.”

I asked United about its processing fees, which are not exactly new, but are new to a lot of its customers because of its recent merger.

Technically, the fees Dynan mentions are “co-pays” although its unclear how that is different from a fee. United launched these new fees – I mean, co-pays – in January 2010.

“They permits more fare types to be upgradable, enabling more customers to qualify for an upgrade,” says United spokesman Charles Hobart.

Co-pay amounts vary based on the regions of travel and type of fare, he says. For example, a full-fare United Economy or United Business tickets have no co-pay, regardless of region of travel. Others, like the tickets Dynan and Grynkewich tried to purchase, do.

And that’s how mileage programs go. Read the terms and you’ll see that your airline can change the rules any time it wants to, and you have no choice in the matter.

Well, you do have a choice. You can take your business elsewhere. But that assumes other airlines have more generous mileage redemption policies, and unfortunately, moving the goalposts like this seems to be an industry-wide problem.

85 thoughts on “Are airlines moving the loyalty program goalposts?

  1. Its not that the other airlines have more generous policies across the board.  But rather, its about whether a particular airline policies work for you and your travel requirements.

    For example, I never use miles to purchase free tickets. My miles are for upgrading to a premium class.  For example, on American Airlines, Lori Dylan’s itinerary would have cost her 30K miles instead of 35k and only $350 in cash, not $950.  Plus, as a business class flyer she would have been given 2 free checked bags.  That a substantial difference of 5000 miles and $700.  Of course American Airlines had traditionally been very generous with domestic upgrades which include Canada, Hawaii, and parts of the Caribbean.

    And of course, the airlines don’t ever punish the very best customers.  When I used to fly 100K plus miles on American, I received complimentary international upgrades which did not require co-pay.  I think I might have paid $5.00 in taxes

    1. I wonder if the airlines understand that they’re devaluing their own programs.  The more worthless they make the program, the less ‘loyalty’ fliers will have.  And then the airlines will complain that all we want is ‘price price price.’

      1. I believe the airlines are sorry they ever started these so-called loyalty programs so they are trying to make it impossible to use their “gifts”.

        1. Not at all.  These a profit centers.  They sell miles to credit card companies, hotels, car rental agencies etc.  Its just that they are being greedy and opportunistic by scaling back on the perks.  This can be done because of the lack of transparency.

  2. UA’s rules have been giving me head trips since the merger. 
    ORZ  <–me banging my head on the floor

    However, what some folks (like the college kid) may not realize are that not all fares are upgradable. So, if you want the chance to score a FC or BC seat on a popular international route, you're going to have to pay for a pricier ticket than the cheapie cheapie coach fare.

    1. They told all of us former United people that they had to change all of our rules to align them with Continental’s rules.  And all of the new rules are nuts!  Did they tell you they had to change all of Continental’s rules to align them with United’s rules?  I bet they are playing us both!

      1. LOL…we were sent an email about “aligning with Mileage Plus.” 
        So, yes, they played both of us.

        1. Did you also have a Video of Jeff Smizek saying there are going to be a lot of changes you will like, followed by an evil grin?

  3. One of my biggest irks with United is the Hawaii change.  I used to get a free space available upgrade to Hawaii from the mainland, or if I didn’t want to risk it, it only cost 15,000 miles each way.  For non-elite flyers they added a $50 co pay to the 15,000 miles in 2010.   This was even true for long-hauls like ORD-HNL.
    Now a Hawaii upgrade costs exactly what Dynan said, elite or not elite.  That’s just as much as upgrading a trans-ocean flight both mileage wise and co-pay wise.  For example, upgrading my ORD-NRT-BKK flights, which was about 18 hours of air-time, to International Business with lie-flat seats and video-on-demand now costs the same upgrading to domestic first with regular seats and an overhead TV on ORD-HNL and even quick DEN-HNL.
    When this change came early this year, they sent an e-mail announcing that this change was necessary to more closely airline the Mileage Program with Continentals program.  I have a suspicion they sent the same-mail to Continental flyers, raised their rates, and said it was to more closely align their program with United.  We were both duped.  I didn’t like that United added the $50 co-pay in 2010, but now raising it to $500 is ridiculous.
    What I would do in Grynkewich’s case is pay cash for the regional carrier and get a really long connection time just in case.  Than use the miles on the co-pay portion.  It’s much cheaper than booking through and you can actually use the miles and pay less than buying a ticket and trying to upgrade. It sounds like Grynkewich’s ticket is in the cheapest discount economy category as they are charging him the maximum xo-pay of $550 per way plus 20,000.  All in, heavy discount economy plus $1,100 is still way cheaper than paying for business class.  If he actually gets the upgrade.
    Another thing of the “New United” that irks me is the co-pay is due when you request the upgrade.  It used to not be charged until check-in, and only if you got the upgrade.  They also told us this was to align with Continental, and probably told Continental it was to align with United.
    My advice to those who use a frequent flyer program is to not go out of your way or pay extra to fly only that airline just to earn the miles.  If the airline has the best times and it’s worth paying more for better times than do it for the convenience, not the miles.  If you need a few extra miles to hit a milestone, find a cheap flight, not an expensive one. Also never expect too much from your miles, that always leads to disappointment, and I can tell you this merger has been quite disappointing.
    For now, I will stop venting about the New United.  Too see my other gripes, look at Chris’s merger column a few days ago and my response to Tony.

    1. Hmm… I’m an old CO elite and I got the same email. You’re right. We’re were told that everything was changing to align with Mileage Plus.The only exception that I know of in your example is that HI was always treated like Europe from what I can remember. Only US continental flights had the upgrades.

      About the only added benefit that I see after the merger is that elites that have their credit card and are on a domestic free ticket can get upgraded. Other than that … can we call a muligan on the whole merger? I hate having to call India to get anything done now plus the neverending upsell.

      I think they took the parts no one liked and merged them instead of taking the best from the two companies and merging those.

      1. “I think they took the parts no one liked and merged them instead of taking the best from the two companies and merging those.”
        I could not agree more!
        They are totally lying to both sides, I remember when they replaced the really nice blankets with gauze like blankets and they replaced the hot towels with hot also something like gauze, and then told us this was the Continental product.  Did they do the same on CO?  I have a feeling they did.
        The crazy up-sells started in Untied around the end of 2011 and are going even crazier now!  Also, pre-merger the elite line always went to a call center in Chicago or Hawaii depending on the time of day, now I seem to get India all the time too. 

        1. The only good thing so far from the UA merger is that all the UA airport clubs now offer free alcohol.  Before the merger, you had to pay for any kind of drink at the UA clubs while CO had an acceptable selection of free drinks.

          With CO, you also never could upgrade on the Hawaii flights. Now it is “available” but I have seen very few get the upgrade.  So I guess that is a good thing from the merger too.

        2. A trick for you: choose the Spanish option. Then just hit “0” a few times, and start speaking english when they answer in Spanish. You will stay in the Spanish “queues”‘ in the call center. All the agents are in the US and all speak fluent English. Just don’t tell them you did it on purpose.

    2. Hi Emanon, I need your help explaining a BC upgrade on UA.

      My question is in regards to the ORD-NRT-BKK upgrade. My biggest issue with CO (before) was that whenever I made some  S.E. Asian itineraries from EWR, CO had to use another carrier to finish the trip since CO only flew to NRT/HKG/PEK/PVG. So, that other segment required another upgrade policy – oftentimes making it cost prohibitive.

      For the ORD-NRT-BKK flight, I see that UA does this:

      1  #UA9678   ORDNRT-1050A 145P     777 0E
      2  #UA9711      BKK- 550P1030P#1   763 0E
      3  #UA9678   ORDNRT-1050A 145P     777 0E
      4  #UA 803      BKK- 630P1105P#1   777 0E

      Are both flight options (even codeshares from NH) upgrade-able as one complete segment US to South Asia on MileagePlus?
      In other words, you pay ONE copay and ONE point redemption only.

      Now how about this ORD-NRT-MNL?

      1  #UA 881   ORDNRT-1236P 330P     744 0E
      2  #NH 949      MNL- 520P 900P#1   763 0E

      Note that the NRT-MNL is not a UA codeshare. It is instead an interlined flight by NH. I suppose UA will treat this a separate segment. So the upgrade (x2) with be MileagePlus upgrade US to Japan plus Star Upgrade Japan to South Asia.
      In this example, my clients to MNL are being dinged twice. Worse, I have to get them an expensive booking class in NH since NH does not have co-pay upgrades for the same class of UA/CO.

      If my observation is correct, then this is one example where codeshares are wonderful. Am I making any sense?

      1. As far as the United MP upgrade rules go, only the United operated flights are upgradable; the other carrier flights are not.  So the NH code share flights would not be upgradable nor would the interlined flight with United Miles + Co-Pays.  So unfortunately the miles and co-pay would only apply to the UA operated ORD-NRT segment.  I actually try to avoid these as I cannot upgrade.
        Then there are the star alliance upgrades, which are part of the alliances terms.  You can use United Miles to upgrade a Star Alliance carrier flight, if it is ticket and operated by the other carrier.  Star Alliance upgrades are per segment only.   It sounds like this would work for the interline ticketing, however they would have to be on a higher fare for the star alliance upgrade, I believe they have to be Y or B fare, but this sometimes varies. This would also ding them twice, as they would pay for the ORD-NRT upgrade on United and for the NRT-MNL Upgrade separately.  I only used a star alliance upgrade once and it was on TG, where I bought a day of C class ticket which was surprisingly cheap and upgraded to F for 5,000 miles.  But this was only a 2 hour flight.
        The only exception to the Star Alliance upgrade and United Upgrade is the LH agreement; you can convert United miles or a United Upgrade Certificate to an LH Paper Upgrade Certificate and present it at the ticketing counter for an LH operated flight.  You can then get upgraded if there is space available, but only during the 24 hour period before the flight.  I had it work successfully once.  If it doesn’t you have to mail the paper certificate back to United to be re-deposited.
        When I flew ORD-NRT-BKK is was all on UA metal, so I was able to apply 1 upgrade to both segments.

        1. Thanks for your quick answer.
          So today it’s ORD-IAD-BKK on UA metal.  But starting 28AUG one can take ORD-NRT-BKK on UA metal. What a pity I can’t sell the UA codeshare on NH for ONE complete upgrade. Today, to take a complete CO/UA route to MNL, I have to route a pax via HNL-GUM-MNL. Not worth the hassle just to fly BC.
          I have given up selling those mixed MileagePlus and Star Upgrades. The amount of work and time doing it and explaining the cost to customers ain’t worth it.

          1. Ouch, ORD-HNL is typically on domestic F, if it’s the domestic 767 then some economy plus seats are actually better that F, I think F seats are only 1 inch wider, with the same leg room as E+.  The 777 at least has a little more room in F.  Not worth paying for in my opinion, with miles or money.
            I wonder why UA is not currently offering NRT-BKK.  That’s a pretty popular route I thought.  

          2.  Good thing you asked. Something is wrong. My GDS is not putting the 2 flights together. So I have to sell them separately. Another merger issue?

             1 UA 881Y 01JUN FR ORDNRT  1236P  330P#1/O $ E
             2 UA 803Y 02JUN SA NRTBKK  630P 1105P/O $ E

          3. Must be a merger issue, I have had the same problem all day trying to book YUL-DEN via ORD.  There are several ORD-DEN flights showing when I try to book ORD-DEN, but when I check YUL-DEN, or even YUL-ORD-DEN I get very few options for ORD-DEN, and some show as Direct with 1 Stop on regional jets, which don’t even get offered when I search for ORD-DEN. I am trying to get on the 6:00ish International 777 from ORD-DEN and can’t get it to ever appear with YUL in my segment.

  4. For what it’s worth, the ‘$10 mystery fee’ is probably the 9/11 security fee – either $2.50 (for nonstop flights) or $5.00 (connections) each way, and it’s on all tickets, either paid or mileage, departing in the US.
    And one more thing that isn’t clear in the article:
    If you request an upgrade and it doesn’t clear, all the miles and money for the co-pay are refunded. You’re not gambling for the upgrade since you don’t lose anything if you don’t get upgraded.

  5. I’m the opposite from most. I’d much rather fly coach and get a free* ticket to a new destination than use miles to upgrade. I can bear just about anything for the time it takes to make a long haul flight. I fly One World and have found them excellent — willing to spend an hour or more with me on a particularly complicated itinerary.

    It pays to know the rules, maximize your miles while not spending more than you normally would and book early. In the past three years, I’ve used miles to fly to Africa twice and most recently a complete RTW ticket. Taxes only came out to about $470 which I thought was reasonable, considering it was 14 segments. You should also check out how far your miles can take you on a partner. I had only enough for a domestic ticket on one of the legacy carriers but found out that I could fly Bangkok to Nepal (an $800 ticket) for the same mileage with a partner airline. So I guess I’m a fan of frequent flyer miles. (Don’t hate me!)

    1. I would like to add that several Asian airlines allow for easy pooling of mileage within a family making it easier to reach the redemption levels. I have also noticed that Cathay Pacific availability for awards is good, since my clients can easily redeem them and not buy tkts from me 🙁

  6. I can’t vote.  The answer is somewhere in between for me.

    I hate how companies say the changes help them remain “competitive” when what they really mean is it helps them be more “profitable.”  If they truly wanted to be “competitive” they would have fewer fees and better prices on their product, not try and match to the penny what everyone else in that line of business is charging.

    I have never thought the miles for upgrades option made sense.  In many cases, the miles required have been nearly as much as what a mileage only free flight in business class would be.  And then you have to pay all the processing charges.  Most often, a cash only upgrade charge would be a better deal.

    For me, I have usually been able to get a mileage only tickets where, when, and in which class of service I wanted with my preferred airlines (WN & CO).  My last major one was a round trip IAH/HNL on CO the week after Thanksgiving last year.  Total cash cost was the $5 security fee.  So I think the FF programs are a good deal, or at least were.  I have not tried yet on the new UA, so maybe my attitude will change when I try and get a “free” flight in the future..

    1. I completely agree with you!  Right now it costs me 20,000 miles per way to upgrade most of my domestic trips, so 40,000 miles + the $400-$500 I spent on the ticket.  Or 50,000 miles + $5 for a round trip first class ticket.  When I get a last minute $750 fare, it’s then 15,000 miles to upgrade, still not worth it.

  7. Let’s not act like this is new or news. The goalposts have been moving for some time now.

    The miles required are getting worse, the fees are increasing, and the out of pocket you’re still stuck paying is pretty much making it so these programs are no longer worth anything to many people.

    Buy first class, and then maybe they’ll care a little more about your loyalty. But even that is no guarantee.

    1. I agree. In fact what would be (real) news is if the loyalty programs got better. Don’t count on it.

  8. I only ever hear complaints about these airline programs.
    Why not stop these programs altogether.

    There are few ways to save enough miles before they become useless again due to their limited shelf-life.

    Just give travelers a decent price for the flights and good service and people will come back to you. 

    1. In fairness.  People tend not to write about the successes anywhere near as much as the failures.  My experiences with Virgin and American have been outstanding as a member of both respective loyalty programs.

      The only programs that fell short for me was Hhonors, even when I held Diamond Status and Radisson. As a result I rarely stay at either chain. Voted with my wallet.

  9. old legacy airlines with ff programmes (why can’t Americans spell ?) are all going broke fast & they have to push up cost of everything or goodbye.

    A big legacy carrier or 2 will go belly up this year & probably a US carrier amongst them.

    They can’t compete with low cost carriers, who are now flying long haul.

    Recently got a Scoot (Singapore Airline new LCC flying ex Singapore 777) for only AUD$88 (USD$92) inc all taxes, each way for an 8 hour flight Gold Coast, just south of Brisbane to Singapore.

    Sure it was promotional & a loss leader, but when most airlines fuel surcharges are 4 times that, let alone taxes & the fare, how on earth are any legacies going to survive in current world economies.

  10. I booked a trip from Dallas to Vegas in March on Southwest Airlines using my Reward Points.  Two days ago I looked at their site to check the flight numbers, etc., and found the points required are now less.  I called them and they walked me through the process to redeem the difference in points, some 1,200 points!  Needless to say, I love Southwest Airlines and will remain loyal to them.

  11. My father and Uncle, 2 of the first travel agents in the country, said that the day that frequent flier programs began, was the beginning of the end of airlines as we knew them. 4 first class tickets round trip to Japan at $15,000+ per ticket are not nearly as important as 40 roundtrrip tickets from pittsburg th Chiocago. With 1.2 -2% cash rebates being offered today with another 2-3% extra for special purchases, the only good thing about milage is as an extra perk. Upgrades are a thing of the past, unless the passenger purchases the full fare coach seat, more than 3 x’s the supersaver. And to pay for a credit card to get these useless points? Get real and forget those milage perks, they are good to Duluth on the 6th Friday of the 13th month of 2022.

    1. Hmmmm, I just got two tickets to OGG (~$750 currently) for $20 total.  Guess you’re right, that $1480 in savings is a myth.

  12. I was more than happy to pay 15K miles and $75 for an upgrade to first class on United from LAX to BWI.   That also meant I was able to find a spot for my bag in the cabin and skip waiting for it later.

  13. Oh, we gave up on the “free” ticket years ago.  When planning a trip to SF, my husband had approximately, a gazillion miles (or, looking at the conversion charts, about twice what was needed to buy two first class tickets with miles).  We thought this would be a great time to cash some of those miles in.

    So in October, we went to MSP-SFO tickets in the middle of February – not exactly peak tourist season, and not in the “blackout” period for NW.  Definitely not last minute.  And our intinerary was Wednesday to Wednesday, so no weekend flying. We also looked at the flight – tons of first class seats were available (not always the case).

    When we went to book with miles?  The only seats available were middle seats several rows separate from each other near the back of the plane.

    When we called NW to essentially ask “WTF?”, and they informed us that those were simply the only seats available on the flight.  When we pointed out we had looked at the available seats before we chose to book and the plane was still pretty empty, they held to their statement – those were the only seats available.  We read that as “the only seats available to buy with your miles.”  And then they went through the litany of fees associated with our “free” tickets.  We gave up and booked economy seats – probably cost us less.

    My husband just uses his miles for the occasional upgrade and to defray the cost of the Sky Club membership. It’s obvious they aren’t going to let someone who routinely flies over 50,000 miles annually redeem any of those miles for anything without pain.

    ETA – as someone noted below, when you’re Elite, you tend to get upgrades. My husband does, so he uses miles less and less. I’m sure he’s got a huge pile these days – I don’t think he even checks anymore.

    1. My husband has 2+ million miles flown with delta in the last 30 years “earned” at 500 miles a segment. His upgrades are hit or miss but worth it to him when they happen. What his company should appreciate is that he doesn’t have to pay a baggage fee because of his status. The infrequent times I get to join him on a trip means we pack light enough so that I don’t pay a checked bag fee because our bags are listed as being checked on his ticket. It does irk me that I can never book a flight using the minimum amount of miles supposedly required but I fly so infrequently that using the max amount of miles doesn’t stop me from going. It also means that we never get the opportunity to fly “free” on vacation because we can’t ever get two seats at reasonable mileage so we drive.

      1. Your husband and mine both, except not quite as many years (so not as many miles) and it’s usually 1,000 or 2,000 a pop, depending on whether or not he’s got an East or West Coast gig.

        And yeah, the rare times we check luggage, we’re always flying under his name.  I’d drive more, but he’s too used to flying these days 😉

  14. When American began the frequent flyer program it was designed to reward its customers who flew on a regular basis primarily the road warriors. The only way to earn miles was to fly. Over the years American and all the other airlines expanded their programs so that miles could be arned without ever going near an airport. For example my wife has earned over 200K miles by just using her AA Citibank card buying groceries. As the airlines found more partners to award miles for purchases the ease of using miles for flights have become more difficult along with the number of miles needed per flight segment. I have not used my accumulated miles for fares in several years simply because when traveling I have found affordable air fares and have opted instead to use the miles for upgrades.

    The bottom line is that airline rewards programs no longer reward the frequent flyer. They reward the indiviudal who supports the airlines reward program and partners.

    1. Excellent point!  And it is usually those folks who scream the loudest that the airlines are “unfair”

      1. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the airlines would/could differentiate between those who earn miles actually flying or through credit card usage.

        1. They have the information, they know exactly where the miles come from.  And they do differentiate.  The FF members with the highest status earned through actually flying get an expanded pool of reward seats to choose from.

          Once you have your reward seat, they probably don’t have any way of knowing the source of the miles/points.

  15. I am a part of the UA FF program but do not use it.  Before you all make fun of me i use USAirways FF program.  Yes and it works out great.  PVD has limited service (AA withdrew in 2008) and SW has a large market here.   So what i do is get my US miles, credit card miles and buy some miles..  Then I take these same miles and call the international line and get a flight on a Star Alliance carrier.  This has worked well so far. We have gone to HNL on Econ+ with UA, to SYD  First on Asiana and now we are going to Germany on Luft business.

    We never upgrade because we do not fly enough and find that we want to save the miles for the Bus/F long haul flights on the *Alliance trips.  Our next plan is to go to South Africa on SAA Business.    We also plan these trips way in advance (for work reasons) so we can get those seats when they open.

  16. Even a dedicated “read all the fine print” flyer like me is hard pressed to keep up, esp with the new UA; I flew CO for 25 years.  Hotels offer automatic status upgrades based on what you’ve earned … ie, if you’re Hilton Diamond you can get the top status at another chain such as Radisson or Best Western.  What would really make the airlines’ loyalty programs useful is to offer that status upgrade as well.  If I’m CO gold, I could be the same tier at AA for instance.  Of course they’ll never do this because it would allow their passengers to switch loyalty to another airline.  God forbit the airlines let their customers have control of anything – they want us to be eternal victims of their whims.

    However, there are some improvements at UA/CO, at least for Silver people.  Yesterday I was able to book upgraded flights SFO-EWR online for 35K points; at CO it would have cost me 40K points and I couldn’t do it online, had to pay the $25 fee for talking to an agent to make the booking.

    Don’t most airline affinity credit cards allow you to check bags for free, priority boarding, etc?  I’m eager to test this by flying premium economy to SEA with my UA Visa in July, first time I’ve flown coach in years.

    1. With most airlines if you have the airline or hotel affiliated credit card thaT gives you some status level n their promotions.

      A credit card holder is just like the lowest level elite group flyer where one checked bag is free.

    2. I have the gold Amex/Skymiles card. It earns me miles and also allows me a free checked bag. (And up to eight people on the same reservation). I also get priority boarding and can pay with miles on eligible flights. (I bought a ticket SEA-BOS in September getting $200 using 20K miles. Didn’t have quite enough for a miles reward ticket and even if I did, the flights sucked badly.

      I don’t fly often enough (or use the Amex card. I prefer my Discover card for the cash back bonus) to earn a lot of miles. But it was nice to get that flight for only a little over $100. Made my mini vacation affordable. The Red Sox tickets and hotel room were expensive enough 😀

  17. The goalposts aren’t moving.  They were moved four years ago, and rather dramatically.  A trans-Atlantic business class ticket on DL used 90,000 points circa 2004.  The same ticket used 220,000 points in 2010.  Today, it uses 265,000 points.  A COACH seat in 2012 is now 90,000 points trans-Atlantic, plus fees over a hundred dollars.

    I believe no small part of this change was brought about by the proliferation of credit card airline point/mileage programs producing situations in which the prospective passenger indeed seldom flies on the carrier chosen but rather uses his or her points/mileage earning credit card for every possible transaction.  Those frequent fliers that travel hundreds of thousands of miles annually are lumped together with those other accounts as a result.

    1. Try looking at a wider range of flights and you’ll get better results than 265k miles.  If you know DL’s pricing engine tricks and reasons it functions like it does then you’ll save big miles.

  18. In defense of United, which I never thought I’d hear myself say!, I just redeemed 20,000 miles for a round-trip FF ticket from San Francisco to Las Vegas.  The fee was $5 each way, or $10.  That seems like a good deal to me.  Of course, I remember the days when I could go round-trip to NYC for 5,000 miles more, but I think those days might be gone, at least for a non-stop flight. My current strategy is not to save up miles but to use them asap, even on shorter flights.  It is also now possible to use, for instance, 10,000 miles for a one-way ticket to somewhere close, say San Francisco to Los Angeles, which a few years back you couldn’t do–then it had to be a round trip, no one ways.  Bottom line, get in there early, at least several months in advance, to look for a ticket.  Another thing, I was surprised at how well-organized United’s site is for info on FF flights.  Just sayin’. 

  19. Can someone please explain to me what Lori Dynan’s problem is.

    It looks to me like UA and CO awards were already the same since 15JUN 2011 (see pic). Can’t find a reason to complain about it now or after 3MAR 2012 (if you did not complain earlier).

    If she did not want to pay for the upgrade, why not  simply buy an AUA fare for $3396.99? Note it looks like it is cheaper to buy this FC fare than a BC fare.

    If I price an economy RT tkt (01-08 JUN) for WAS-OGG, I get a price of $1304 (Fare Code QLPE30ZN). The Q co-pay is $375 per direction or $750. Add the $25 calling fee and the $10 mystery fee. Total $2089 (before any baggage fee). That’s about the same as her comps.

    So would you rather pay $3.4K to seat in the front cabin (FC) or pay $2.1K and your (minimum 35K) miles to seat in BC? [Essentially your miles was worth $1300.]

    Where am I going wrong with my calculation? Is this a bad deal?

    1. It’s not that it’s such a bad deal, rather more that the number of seats available in the general vicinity of the desired travel date has shrunk and the points/mileage cost to redeem them has risen so much (see my post 3rd one up). 

      1. For what it’s worth, at least with CO/UA one can co-pay to get an upgrade. It sure beats having to buy a Y/B/M class ticket [only to find out I can’t get the upgrade later].

        Those escalating redemption points and reduced availability are definitely a foregone conclusion with mergers. If there are less airlines and more of us, then I can’t see how we will win.

      2. Capacity has been in decline since the 9/11 mess, this is nothing new.  Add to that the ease of acquiring FF miles in most programs and you see the bottleneck.  This isn’t rocket science.

        And FF programs aren’t going to go away, they’re too valuable.  It seems this might be one reason a US/AA merger likely won’t happen, AAdvantage is too valuable for US to afford.

    2. You are correct; she is still saving money by upgrading with miles over the cost of paying for first class.  But I think she is upset because she has to pay anything at all, that’s my hunch. 
      With pre-merger UA, before the charges started, it would have cost her 30,000 miles and a $100 co-pay round trip to upgrade.  So she is paying more now than she would have then. But she is still getting something from her miles. 

      1. After reading all of the comments here, it seems to me she is even lucky she found a upgraded seat to Hawaii. If I were her, I’ll do everything I can to spend all my miles, even if I gain 20  lbs. eating out for free (just kidding) :-), since they might be worth less (or worthless) in the near future.

        Does anyone know if we can exchange airline points/miles for gasoline?

        1. And can’t find any such thing with United.  But Delta used to, not sure if they still do, have a gift card section where you can buy gift cards at a very reasonable price.  I used to get $500 gift cards for 30,000 miles each from Delta. 

  20. There is little or no reason to book based on airline FF miles anymore.  We have found we are better off using a credit card that accumulates points that can offset the cost of a ticket, regardless of destination and/or seat selection or class.  On ULA, as  Premier customer, forget trying to use miles to upgrade to first class, you now have the privilege to access PURCHASING an Econ.Plus seat!
    No thank you…I ‘ll use my AMEX Plat. exclusively and pay for the best routing and seats. regardless of airline-AMEX will then apply my points to offset the cost….AND they will deal with changes and cancelations, etc.
    For us, the high annual fee has been recouped and then some.

  21. It will never happen but if we could get everyone to boycott these stupid programs it would help out quite a bit.  For one people could get seat assignments and not have to check in at the airport.

  22. I’ve started using miles for hotel stays. United’s required miles are always double what I can spend on other airlines. The handwriting’s on the wall. These programs will soon be completely worthless.

  23. United will definitely lose loyal customers–like me. I live in Hawaii and fly to Europe and Asia about six times a year. An upgrade from Hawaii to Europe is 20,000 miles plus $350 co-pay (fare class M) each way. I am a million mile flyer–which means nothing now to United. It is fairly easy to upgrade from Honolulu to San Francisco, but close to impossible to obtain a confirmed upgrade from San Francisco to Frankfurt, a popular international route. So I am forced to gamble that the upgrade will clear or I am wasting $350 in copays to fly from/to Honolulu–$700 for a roundtrip flight I don’t mind in economy plus. I don’t even try to upgrade to Asia and comp upgrades internationally are a thing of the past.

    I am in contact with Delta about switching my business to them if they match the elite status level I currently have with United. Monday I was on hold with United for two hours and that was the straw that broke my back. So I purchased a ticket on Delta for my upcoming flight, and most likely all future flights.

    1.  But do you really think Delta will be any better (hint: it won’t). Hundreds of people complain about their frequent flyer program, but the reality is that they are all essentially the same – the minor details and name are different, but that’s all.

      1. No I’m not a grass is greener person. Delta has comparable flights/routes to United and I am now in the mindset to take my business elsewhere. That’s all.

        1. As someone else said in this forum, go for the flight schedule and fares first. For Asia, I would suppose Delta has UA/CO beat. IMO, UA can’t even cover most of SE Asia (beyond TYO and HKG)  without using NH and some other codeshare (not unless you want to go via GUM or track back to the East Coast).

        2.  Good for you – but United won’t care, and there won’t be huge losses of loyal customers.
          And fwiw, many Hawaii fares and most international fares aren’t upgradeable at all on Delta.

          1. I understand that Y (definitely) and B/M (still maybe) Delta booking classes are upgradeable. Now Delta’s website is quiet on the B/M class. I wonder why?

          2.  Not sure – but M/B fares to Asia are typically around $5000+, while other economy fares are around $2000-3000 and discount business is perhaps $8000.
            Bottom line: if you want business class, pay for business class.

          3. Yes,  especially since Delta is selling S- Business Class Excursion fares LOWER than M-Economy Class.

            I priced a R/T S-Bus Cls LAX-MNL for less than $4.1k. As I said earlier, no need to upgrade, just buy Business Class on sale.

    2. I tried to get BC Upgrades for my client, EWR-NRT-MNL. They could easily get the CO/UA EWR-NRT segment by paying a co-pay but the NRT-MNL was on ANA and was a lot more complicated. The Intra-Asian segments (not on CO metal) needed Y/B/M equivalent fares (for Star upgrades) which made the whole journey so expensive.

      After countless hours, I realized no one is paid enough money to try to figure this puzzle out. Just reading the chart gives me a headache. Explaining it to clients – “priceless”.

      It’s a lot easier for me to sell my clients “Z” or “I” business class special fares (on Delta or other Asian airlines)  to Asia rather than to monkey around with this CO/UA mess (and get blamed for surprises).

      It all boils down to this – everyone has too many miles (saved) and there is not enough seats to buy with it. Then the airlines want to “capture more value” for those scarce seats by increasing co-pays and miles needed for redemption.

  24. I haven’t been able to get a “low” mileage ticket from delta in either coach class or first class for years even though their supposed fare calendar says I am choosing to fly on a low mileage day. My most recent attempt was ludicrous at best. I’ve been looking for months at trying to book a flight from atl to sfo and every flight I tried was 45000 miles for a coach ticket and 80000 miles for a first class ticket but their fare calendar says both flights were on low mileage days which should have been 25000 or 40000 miles. I didn’t book a flight. Then their fare calendar went to medium mileage and the miles requirements required the same amount of points.. In essence, delta’s fare calendar is a joke! Ive just resigned myself to knowing that I am going to have to use 45000 or 80000 miles to get a “free” flight. One of these days I’m going to calculate just how much it has cost me in actual money to “earn” those “free” flights especially considering the bulk of my flying comes from short flights “earning” 500 miles at a pop. And, all of this is predicted on even being able to find a seat in the first place!

  25. I no longer care to collect mileage, and, loyalty program is no longer a decisive element for choosing a airlines over another like 10 years ago. It was a different scenario before year 2000 when I didn’t mind a longer journey or a tortuous path to accumulate the mileage or the elite status. I did a milerun from time to time when there are a promotion (for example: AC 6 times mileage or do 3 airlines in the same alliance get 10,000 miles).  I even agreed to paid a more expensive ticket to stay with the same Alliance. But now, the mileage worth almost nothing, specially if you claim economy seat. The only perks left today is the Elite status. Loyalty programs are no longer the elements of the decision processus.

  26. A couple of years ago my husband and I flew from IAD to MAD, buying our tickets from United.  We wanted economy plus, but the flight was operated by Aer Lingus.  So we decided to use miles to upgrade.  It cost us 40,000 miles EACH, plus $500 each way.  Add it up!  $2000 and 80,000 miles! First class was nice, but I don’t think we’d do it again.

    Then a year ago we flew from IAD to LAX  RT on Delta, using miles only for 1st class.  That was 60,000 miles each, and $5!  A much better deal, we thought.

  27. @emanon256:disqus   Re: YUL-ORD-DEN
    You are right, the one with the 777 flight does not show up. Weird.
    This is the way I made it show up (in Worldspan).

    03MAY-TH-253P YULDEN(YMQDEN) ** MT              AC1
    1  #UA5828 Y5 B5 M5 E5 U5 H4 Q2 V1 YULORD- 253P 420P  *  ERJ 0E
    2  #UA 605 F4 A1 J5 C5 D5 Z3 P1 Y5    DEN- 651P 832P     777 0E

    I had to specifically request a departure of 253PM and via ORD for YUL-DEN on UA. Of course that meant I had to first find a YUL-ORD flight that would depart YUL early enough to make the ORD Min Conx Time requirement. That’s how I got the 253PM departure from YUL. (Note 2PM will work, too.)

    I don’t think I can keep my sanity as a TA selling mainly UA. Good thing I don’t mess too much with UA. These minor issues better get fixed soon.

    1. I still can’t get it to show on United’s website, though now it is showing a direct YUL-DEN with 2 stops which I find quite annoying, its YUL-ORD-DAY-DEN.  Then it keeps giving me options with regional directs with stops from ORD-DEN all with an ~40min connection in ORD.
      The only non-regional multi stop it will let me book is:
      UA 5869               2:23pm 3:51        YUL-ORD
      UA 941                  5:28pm 7:07        ORD-DEN
      I would normally feel safe with 1h37 for ORD domestic, but with customs, I would feel safer with the later flight.
      I just called, it took 40 minutes, but the agent was able to book the flight.  He was actually quite professional, it just took a long time.  But he was able to do it.  He said they are having a lot of system problems, but I am glad it worked.  Now I have 3 hours to clear customs, change terminals, and hopefully stop at Frontera Grill for some guacamole.

      1. Considering how much you travel, why not get a GDS?
        I wonder if that is doable in your company?
        I don’t have the patience to wait 40 minutes for something I can do in 2-3 minutes. That just proves there is something wrong with the new UA/CO merged company. Anway glad you got the flights you want.That guacamole sounds great with Corona. Cheers.

        1. I’ve looked at a GDS before, but I can’t justify the price.  I work semi independently, so while I work with a company, I pay most of my own expenses.  I also work predominantly for non-profits now, I find them much nicer clients.  So I won’t feel right trying to pass on that cost to them.
          I do use a system called KVS which is much cheaper, but I can’t book through it.  I don’t think it’s quite as powerful either. It’s like a view only GDS with access to fewer systems.
          I don’t know how you do it, I spent close to 2.5 hours today before work, during lunch, and this evening trying to book that flight.  My local agent told me that most flights are non-commissionable, so I don’t bother her with them.  But having to spend that much time booking a flight for which you don’t even get a commission is just not fair to travel agents.

          1. Many years ago, our company was “asked” by our customers if we could sell them airline tickets because they wanted the way we treated them (for the current service we handled) and they simply could not find a decent travel agency in their towns or city. So we started a “community” of customers with similar needs. One of the toughest challenges we faced with was learning how to use a GDS very well or well enough to do a good search. A GDS is archaic, a remnant of the IBM mainframe world. But if you learn its short or terse “command” language, you could do a lot with a few keystrokes. I’m old enough to have worked in a big IBM Mainframe shop so cryptic one letter commands didn’t scare me. The real problem is that there are really very few folks around here to do any training. Most of the current (newer) users of GDS are in India or the Philippines where airlines and OTAs have their call centers.

            I think this is the problem of the UA/CO merger. A worker knows what he has to do but must have the skill and experience to do it in the tool he is given. Take a simple task as seat assignment. An agent knows he needs to assign seats when a pax checks in. If you knew how to do it on Apollo (or a skin built above it), it does not necessarily mean you can do it as well in SHARES. There is always a steep learning curve to redo each and every task from one system to another.

            I have always been amazed about how many folks in flyertalk were diehard UA loyalists. I think UA had the most involved loyalty program and they built a system to support it. Just imagine the code that goes in to prioritizing UPGRADES (or Standbys) prior to the flight’s departure. What if  UA had a different policy compared to CO?  IMO a loyalty support system is not necessarily included in a generic Departure Control System (DCS)  or Reservation System that Apollo or Shares or any GDS company would partition for an airline. UA can always fix flight schedules, missing reservations, etc. But to ALIGN a very complicated MileagePlus program is like forcing a square peg into a round hole. I’m sorry but MALIGN would have been a more accurate term.

  28. I wonder how much of this is caused by airline employees who do not have a clue. Here is what happened to me.
    I paid 110,000 miles each to fly First and Business Class on American and Cathay Pacific from Texas to Hong Kong. My return trip involved an overnight stay at LAX. I called in one day to see if we could reschedule to avoid the overnight and was told “I can do that for 50K miles each.” I told him that if I paid 110K to go to the Oirent,  I wasn’t going to pay another 50K from LAX to TX. He replied he could put us in coach for 25K each, and I hung up on him.
    Called back a few days later, they had no availability, but there would be no charge since we were not changing our date/departure/destination.
    Called back a few days later, they were able to make the change for a $2.50 processing fee each.

    So, is the airline changing the goalposts, or did their reps simply have no clue? I don’t know. But I do know that if you don’t like what they tell you, hang up and call back later and speak to someone else, you may get what you wanted.

  29. Don’t forget the $300 dollar surcharge you have to pay per ticket for a BA award ticket between the USA and the UK.

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