United fliers who redeem frequent flier miles for flights have always been able to nail down precisely how many miles they need to cash in for a dream vacation.
Starting Nov. 15, and right in time for the holiday travel rush, that predictability all goes away when the airline’s MileagePlus program switches from fixed award redemption amounts to a so-called dynamic pricing method that’s based on demand.
United’s handy MileagePlus awards chart that lays out the precise cost in miles for award flights will disappear that day, and it won’t be replaced.
Instead, mileage amounts will fluctuate depending on demand: emptier flights with lots of available seats may be priced lower than the current rates. Conversely, busier flights with high demand may see mileage costs go up. There will be no minimum or maximum mileage price after Nov. 15.
Why is the carrier doing this? Here’s how United explained the change: “Increasing award prices for the most in-demand flights allows us to offer lower prices on other flights. If your award travel is flexible, these updates will help you make the most of your miles.”
The airline said it will not raise any mileage redemption amounts until Nov. 15. In the meantime, United has lowered the mileage pricing on some flights to as low as 5,000 miles one-way on short-haul flights like San Francisco to Los Angeles (we found those for travel in May). Right now, it typically costs frequent fliers 10,000 miles one-way on most intra-California United flights.
In a sense, United has been doing this all along, even with a published award chart. If you want to fly during slow or off-peak periods, you can sometimes snag, for example, a round trip transcon flight for cheap saver award of just 25,000 miles. But you’ll likely have to have a certain amount of flexibility and fly at an odd time or make stops to get one at that low rate. Or the saver award might not be available at all. But if you want to take a weekend trip, departing on a Thursday and returning on a Sunday on a nonstop during spring break? Travel during peak summer season? Good luck! It’s more likely you’ll pay at least twice that much with an “Everyday Award.”
Also on Nov. 15, the airline will eliminate fees charged to fliers when they book award tickets within 21 days of travel. Currently, those fees range between $25 to $75 depending on the flier’s frequent flier status with the airline. General members (those without United elite status) pay the $75 fee when booking award travel within three weeks of their flight.
The news is both good and bad for frequent fliers.
Leisure travelers who have some flexibility for when they travel, and book early might be able to score flights for far cheaper than the current rates.
Travelers who have less flexibility, book closer to their day of travel, and want to do it in United’s first class or Polaris Business Class cabins (who wouldn’t?), could end up shelling out a lot more than what’s charged right now — and there’s really no way of knowing how much more until you start searching for flights.
For example, under the current fixed mileage redemption system, busy flights around Thanksgiving and Christmas could cost as much as 32,500 miles one-way for a domestic flight in economy class. But holiday season flights this year could end-up costing tens of thousands of miles more since those flights are typically in high demand. (Or they might not…it all depends on demand.) The higher the demand, the higher you can expect the mileage price will be.