United massively devalued its award chart two weeks ago, especially for premium cabin international awards on partner airlines, which have been the bulk of my United awards.

I caught some flak because it didn’t bother me too much. In fact, I wrote Eight Silver Linings of the United Devaluation, and even more irritating to people who thought I was going too easy on United: Three Reasons Why the United Devaluation is the Best Thing For Us.

On that post, I got this representative comment:

Scott, I guess you mistakenly used your April Fools story today but in case you didn’t. I have 10 questions for you:

A. Are you related to the CEO or any of the Board member of United?
B. Do you have substance abuse problem?
C. Does someone at United have pictures of you in an uncompromising position?
D. Is someone at United holding one of your family members hostage?
E. Do you really think more Economy Award Seats are now going to become available?
F. Do you believe in Santa Claus?
G. Have you ever been hypnotized?
I. Do you have a learning disability?
J. Are you a member of the Tea party?
Maybe you should look up the work “devalue”
I’ll save you the trouble. “reduce the worth”

Is your next story going to be titled “How The Devaluation Of The Dollar Helps The American Economy?

I strongly suggest you find another subject to write a blog on because clearly airline reward travel

I respect everyone’s opinion on the United devaluation, and I hope mine is clear: I don’t like it when miles are made less valuable, but I expect it to happen, and I don’t begrudge the devaluer as long as fair notice is given.

United gave fair notice. We have until January 31, 2014 to book awards at the current price through early 2015.

But United has secretly–with no notice before or after the fact–made insidious changes to its MileagePlus program that constitute cheating its frequent flyers.

What two changes has United snuck in that reduce the value of its miles?

You Now Have Only Four Segments on a One Way Award

Previously there was no limit on how many segments you could book on a one way United award. Or if there was a limit, it was eight or more, which is a limit you couldn’t possibly hit on a normal one way award.

I booked myself a seven-segment one way award where I hopped around Europe for a week and had a once-in-a-lifetime speed-travel experience for only 12,500 United miles.

Now the limit is four segments for all one way awards. To my knowledge, the Wandering Aramean first reported this limit last month.

I can confirm that this change has happened from a personal booking I made last week. During the Lufthansa First Class released-space glitch, I decided to book Seoul to Frankfurt to Munich to Toronto to Los Angeles to Honolulu as a five-segment one way award that got me into Asiana First Class, Lufthansa First Class, the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, and got me home to Hawaii.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 8.25.13 PM

In the past, this would have been no problem, but the agent got a little nervous at ticketing time and put me on hold. She came back to tell me that there was a maximum of three connections (four segments) on one way awards now. Apparently an August 1, 2013 memo changed the rule with no notice to customers before or after the change.

This is a brand-new, posted-nowhere rule that will affect a lot of United frequent flyers trying to book “regular” non-tricky awards. Try to book from a secondary American airport to a secondary airport in Thailand, China, Europe, or anywhere else, and you’ll see that four is often the minimum number of segments needed, and five segments are often needed because of the scarcity of award space.

Changing the rules like this without letting us know is cheating United frequent flyers and is completely dishonorable behavior.

I’ll reiterate my position: It’s OK for airlines to change their award programs. It’s OK for those changes to be negative for flyers. It’s not OK to give no notice of the changes. It’s not OK not to post your rules anywhere.

(Sure United posts some award rules here and here, but they certainly don’t mention this rule or a host of other routing rules, which is why I wrote I Don’t Know United’s Award Rules.)

If you’re going to change the rules of the game, let us at least cash out our old miles under the old rules during an interim window. Anything less is cheating your customers.

The End of Free Oneways?

File this one under “developing.”

I got a tweet a few weeks ago that a reader couldn’t book a free oneway on a United award because a United agent told him that no free stopovers were allowed in the US. (Free oneways require a stopover at your home airport.)

I fired up united.com and had no problem booking awards with a stopover in the US. For instance, see the world’s simplest free oneway that includes a one week stopover in Newark, USA:

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 2.45.04 PM Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 2.45.11 PM

I knew that the computer program, which allows stopovers in the US, hadn’t changed, but maybe there was another secret memo.

I called up and tried to book the same award by phone. When I got to the “Then I’ll stop in Newark for a week and continue to Chicago on February 26” part, the agent cut me off: “No stopovers are allowed in the US.”

“Hmm.. Can we try it? I’ve often booked stopovers in the US without a problem.” I asked.

She agreed, the computer allowed the stopover in the US, and I could have booked the award. But only because I persisted. It does appear that United has instructed agents not to allow stopovers in the US. For whatever reason, this hasn’t gotten through as clearly as the three-connection rule has.

If this “rule” of no stopovers in the US is enforced, it will mean the end of free oneways for Americans and the end of stopping in New York on your way to Europe or Los Angeles on your way to Asia.

It would be another unannounced devaluation. It would be changing the rules in the middle of the game without telling the other team. It would be cheating United frequent flyers.

Recap

United cheated its customers by not announcing changes to award routing rules. I know that’s a harsh choice of words from someone who’s generally a United fan, but I believe it. Hopefully United–and all airlines, and all companies–will announce rule changes to their customers with enough anticipation that customers can mitigate negative changes.

I’ll continue to fly United, collect its miles through credit cards, and recommend that others do the same. But every unfriendly change will lose some customers, some credibility, and hopefully some money for United.

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