Update: I used this trick successfully. Here was my experience.

As I led a session at the Chicago Seminars this weekend on “Special Awards,” someone chimed in with an intriguing tip:

There is a simple method to avoid the $75 “close in ticketing fee” on United awards that is triggered when you try to book a ticket within 21 days of departure.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.03.21 AM

I tested out the proposed method yesterday, and I have some input on how it works. (The trick does work!)

  • How can you save $75 per ticket on your next last minute United award?
  • What number do you need to call?

Facts

  • “Booking a MileagePlus award ticket through any channel, less than 21 days before departure” incurs a fee of $75 per ticket. This fee is reduced or waived depending on your status.
  • You can make free changes or cancellations of your United award within 24 hours of ticketing by phone or online. This is designed as a safety valve if you make a mistake in the initial ticketing, but you can use the free changes and cancellations however you’d like.

The Proposed Trick

If you want to book a United award within 21 days of departure, book the same flight for 1+ months in the future, then immediately call in to change it to within 21 days of departure. No close in ticketing fee will be charged.

My Test

I tested out the trick with a simple one way award from Kona to Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines. The award normally costs 6,000 United miles + $5.60. Note that there is nothing special that made me choose this award except that it is the cheapest award on the United chart. If this test succeeds, all other awards should be the same.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.24.26 AM

Within 21 days of departure, this award costs 6,000 United miles + $80.60 because of the $75 close in ticketing fee.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.22.12 AM

I decided to book the ticket for March 31, 2015 for 6,000 miles + $5.60 and to try to change in to October 31, 2014 without paying the close in ticketing fee. I booked March 31 online in just a few seconds.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.26.32 AMScreen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.28.27 AM

Then I called the number for United web support. They can make award changes, I rarely have to wait on hold, and the Houston-based agents are good. In this case, too good.

I told the agent I wanted to change an award and gave her the confirmation number. I gave her the flight information for the October 31 flight, and she quickly made the change. She told me that since I was changing to a flight within 21 days of departure, there would be a $75 close in ticketing fee! Failure!

I thanked her and told her I would prefer to just keep my original itinerary before disconnecting.

From my knowledge of changing United awards, I suspected that agents have to remember to collect this fee on changes. I suspected calling a less competent agent might get me around the fee.

I called United back at its general 800-UNITED-1 number. I asked the next agent to change me to the same October 31 flight.

First she said that there was no award space even though there is award space on over a dozen Kona-to-Honolulu flights on October 31. This was a great sign; she seemed incompetent! I asked her to look again since I could see the space online.

Eventually she found the space and made the change. She noted that I had booked my award within the last 24 hours, so changes were free. She never mentioned any additional $75 charge. Success!

Inside my United account, my ticket had been updated to the October 31 flight.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 10.52.29 PM

United agents won’t charge you an additional fee without getting your credit card info again or at least confirming which stored credit card you want to charge, but just to double check that no $75 charge had been snuck onto my credit card, I signed into my credit card account.

A pending charge for $5.60 in taxes on the award was present, but no $75 charge was present.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.33.37 AM

Aftermath

I went into my online account and cancelled the award altogether to get my 6,000 United miles and $5.60 back. The $5.60 will post back to my credit card within a week or two. The miles re-posted to my account instantly.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 10.53.02 PM Bottom Line on the Trick

The trick to avoiding the $75 close in ticketing fee on United awards–booking farther out and changing it close in within 24 hours of booking–works. I wish I had gotten the name of the person who gave everyone the tip.

The trick works because phone agents have to remember to charge you the $75 close in ticketing fee, and only well trained agents will remember to do that. If your agent remembers, thank her for her time, and tell her you have decided not to make the change. I think very few agents at the 800-UNITED-1 number will remember to charge you the $75.

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