I Don’t Know United’s Award Rules

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I’ve got a thriving Award Booking Service. I hold myself out as an expert on the nuances of award-booking rules, and yet I don’t know United’s award booking rules. Let me explain.

On February 10, 2011, someone believed to be a United employee posted on FlyerTalk that the new routing rule for United awards would be that the actual routing you choose can exceed MPM by no more than 15%.

For those who don’t know: MPM (Maximum Permitted Mileage) is the maximum length that a routing on a paid ticket between an origin/destination city pair can be. City pairs with published fares between them have an MPM. For instance the MPM of SFO-SYD is 8,911 miles according to ExpertFlyer.

MPM is not the distance between two cities. For instance, San Francisco and Sydney are 7,417 miles apart.

That means a paid ticket between the two cities doesn’t have to be direct. SFO-LAX-SYD would fall well under the MPM. The FlyerTalk thread convinced everyone including me that United’s award rules allow an award to exceed MPM by only 15%.

Matthew at upgrd.com wrote a post saying this was the new routing rule on 2/10/11. Lucky agreed that was the rule on 4/29/12. Gary Leff agreed in a few posts, though on 6/10/12, he wrote, “After the merger with Continental was announced [United] increased it to Maximum Permitted Miles + 15%. The post-March 3 rules are a bit more opaque.”

I have parroted this MPM-plus-15% rule several times on this blog and to my clients. But there is currently no such rule–or at least it isn’t enforced by humans, isn’t enforced by the computer, and United agents don’t know what I’m talking about.

I can prove to you very simply that the computer doesn’t enforce the rule. The roundtrip price from San Francisco to Sydney with United miles should be 135k miles in business class. Indeed that’s exactly how this itinerary prices:

As you’ll notice on this award, oneway is direct: SYD-SFO. But the routing from San Francisco to Sydney is San Francisco-Tokyo-Bangkok-Sydney.

This circuitous routing checks in at a whopping 12,675 miles.

Remember that the MPM for SFO-SYD is only 8,911 miles meaning MPM + 15% is 10,247 miles. This flight path exceeds MPM + 15% by over 2,400 miles. This routing is MPM + 42%.

But united.com is willing to let me purchase the award for the normal 135,000 miles. It sees nothing wrong with the routing!

So what is the real routing rule? As the post title indicates, I have no idea.

United.com has two pages with award routing rules. (Click on the rules next to a “+” sign near the bottom of the page.) One for awards on United, United Express, and Copa flights titled MileagePlus air awards, and another for partner award travel titled Star Alliance air travel awards. Neither page mentions maximum lengths for an award.

United agents won’t be able to tell you what the rule is, and it’s very important for trip planning. This isn’t just academic. Last week, I tried to book the following award:

BOS-FRA-LIS-RAK

AGP-BRU-FRA-BOS//BOS-PHX-SAN

That’s Boston to Marrakesh, Morocco, returning Malaga, Spain to San Diego with a stopover in Boston. Of course, this an award with a free oneway. Boston to San Diego was to be flown several months after the rest of the award.

This is a double open jaw roundtrip award with a stopover. So far that’s fine. From the rules on united.com.

Boston to Marrakesh doesn’t run into any MPM issues. Nor does Malaga to San Diego. The MPM from AGP-SAN is 7,304.

The route as flown is 7,540 miles, meaning it exceeds MPM by only 3%.

But the computer wouldn’t price the award, and agents, supervisors, and the rate desk all said that I could not ticket the award as constructed. (I cut BOS-PHX-SAN, and the award priced at 110k in business class as expected–60k for USA-Africa plus 50k Europe-USA.)

Apparently my award violated some rule, not listed on united.com. I don’t know what that rule is. Nor do I know what the United rule relating to MPM is (or whether there is any rule related to MPM on awards.)

As someone who tries to maximize my own and others’ awards, this is obviously a source of great frustration. United needs to clearly publish all its rules. Not doing so makes it impossible to fully participate in the MileagePlus program.

My best understanding of what’s allowed on United awards is what the computer prices–not what you can book online, which has more errors. If you call up an agent, give her the flights, and your award prices, it’s fine. If not, you can speak to as many supervisors as you want–don’t waste your time talking to the first line agent, she has no power–and you probably will not get your award ticketed for the right price.

What the computer prices is not entirely clear. The computer’s program is not an elegant, fully designed whole. Instead, it’s a mash up of changes related to the integration of Continental and United and the problems that created. That means that the computer prices some awards but not others with no discernible rhyme or reason.

To combat this problem, Tahsir and I have started telling our clients: “All these flights have space. A free oneway should be possible on this award, but I can’t guarantee United will price this award in accordance to the rules on its website.”

Will this affect you?

If you live at a major hub, the computer pricing issues will probably not affect you. If you add a one-segment free oneway to a simple roundtrip award, this will probably not affect you. The computer seems to be having the most problems with complex routings.

Recap

United does not have a rule that limits awards to MPM + 15% as widely believed. The exact rule related to MPM–or whether there is one–is unknown.

Other rules are also unknown. We don’t know what we don’t know. United needs to rectify this immediately.

Bonus

To whet your appetite for tomorrow, the award in this post that costs 135k United miles costs only 110k US Airways miles. The commonly held belief about US Airways MPM rules is also wrong.


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25 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t know if you follow Seth’s (Wandering Aramean’s) blog, but he has some great tips on what UA award rules really are. His podcast at Pointshoarder has some ideas (12 min in & 20 min in): http://pointshoarder.com/2012/07/26/pointshoarder-7-dividend-miles-and-mileageplus/

    “United needs to clearly publish all its rules.”
    I disagree. AA posts very clear rules and it becomes tougher to redeem certain awards or routes because of specific rules. Posting clear cut rules tends to take away many quirks that people can take to their advantage.

    • I will listen to that. My perspective is the rules are what they are. Making them clear won’t change them. If clearing them up changed them, that might be bad. But if it just clarifies them, it’s purely good.

  2. This is true. On a recent booking from OMA-MIA-ZRH-BOM//BOM-MUC-ORD-OMA, I tried to add a free one way at the end and the computer wouldn’t price it out. I noticed that this was the case with flights that HAVE stops. I was able to price out free one ways on Non-stop flights fine.

  3. I have to wonder, too, whether insisting that “United rectify this immediately” (and unless your name is Smisek you probably aren’t in a position to make this demand) wouldn’t cause United to clarify and tighten up things in ways not to our advantage. The ambiguity is probably letting us get away with things that a cold, tight, hardnosed writing of clearly thought out and enforced rules wouldn’t. I know it’s frustrating having to tell clients, “I’m not sure”, but wouldn’t it be worse having to tell them “No” more often?

  4. I think the error might be in that the first open-jaw spans two travel regions. It shouldn’t cause an error, but it does. I’ve tried many routings where an open-jaw spanning two regions worked.

    I just tried a booking of BOS – AGP // AGP – BOS // BOS – SAN and it worked fine. Of course my intermediate airports were a little different.

    It’s funny because LAX – HKG//HKG – SYD//SYD – LAX books fine even though it violates their circle trip rule.

    • Yeah, it’s easy to violate their stated rules (circle trip). One agent actually said what you said was the problem–two regions. That’s nowhere in the rules though. And I’ve booked awards that transit several regions.

  5. Hi, I emailed you yesterday morning on your award booking form page about the trouble I am having booking a one way ticket from ROC-FCO and then FCO-CNX, with a 3-4 day stopover in Rome. I am hoping to hear back soon!

    • I didn’t see an email in any of my accounts. Fill out the form on milevalue.com/award-booking-service, and I’ll be back to you within a few hours–24 max.

    • Considering that I’ve had a United rep tell me that the maximum segments for a ONE-WAY is 8 segments, an 8-segment round-trip is fine.

    • There’s no max segments on a United award. But if there were, an agent could have told me that. Instead it was rejected without explanation.

  6. I’ve noticed that I can price the following award for 60K in Business/First on UA:

    SEA-MEX, MEX-PHL, PHL-SEA

    But it will not allow:

    SEA-PHL, PHL-MEX, MEX-SEA

    Any reason why?

  7. I was having a VERY hard time booking this routing:
    HNL-SLC//SLC-IAH-EWR-MUC
    TLV-WAW-FRA-YYZ-DFW
    Even though a complex itinerary, I knew that it should be possible. It wouldn’t price online and even though I got an agent to create the itinerary, it wouldn’t price. No matter how many people I talked to, supervisors included, each one of them came up with some reason or another as to why it wouldn’t work. The reasons weren’t consistent, so I knew they were all just spouting off whatever came to mind. I had made a dummy booking online with the same origins/destinations but on different dates and without all the connections, and it priced perfectly. So for some reason, the connections threw the computer for a loop.
    So in came Flyertalk to the rescue — numerous people helped me out, but one in particular gave an incredibly useful tip – ticket the dummy booking and call in (I did so within 24 hours so as to retain the right to cancel if it didn’t work) to change the dates and routing. It worked like a charm. There’s a bit of a gamble involved in releasing the award space and then betting on it being there when you try to snag it again, but for me, it worked!

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