Normally canceling a United award incurs a $150 per ticket fee if you don’t have United status, but I know two tricks to reduce or eliminate that fee.

Ordinarily, when you cancel a trip, you get back the miles and the taxes you paid less a $150 fee. So if you had a Pittsburgh to LAX economy award ticketed, you’d get back your 12,500 miles and $2.50 taxes, but you’d pay $150.

The net result is equivalent to buying 12,500 miles for $147.50. Annoying, but worth it if you value United miles above 1.18 cents each, which pretty much everyone should.

Trick 1 – Cancel after schedule change

Wait for a schedule change, and then call to cancel the trip. United makes very frequent schedule changes. Often the changes are only 5 or 15 minutes and affect only one leg of your itinerary.

No matter how small the change is, if you want to cancel your itinerary for free, you call up and ask to cancel after a schedule change. I stay very vague on the call.

I say, “The new schedule doesn’t work for me. I’d like to cancel the itinerary.” They will try to change the itinerary. You can politely listen to the options that you will reject, or you can say: “I’ve checked United’s flight schedule, and there is no itinerary that works for me.”

They will eventually cancel the itinerary, refunding the miles and taxes paid, with no fee. If they drag their heels, insist that you would not have booked the itinerary as it is now, and you shouldn’t be penalized when United changes its schedule.

How do you find minor schedule changes? They are usually not emailed to you. Check the itinerary online at united.com. Find the itinerary you want to cancel, and click to view it. It will list whether there are any schedule changes.

If there are changes, it will also have a button to push to say you’ve seen the change or something to that effect. Don’t push that button, or you may waive your chance to cancel for free.

Trick 2Change the itinerary

Trick 1 is ideal because you get all your miles and taxes paid back for free. But United doesn’t always make the minor schedule changes that are a necessary condition for Trick 1 to work.

That’s where Trick 2 comes in handy. Trick 2–changing the itinerary–works whenever you want to cancel the itinerary, and you are willing to book a new United award in its place.

Amazingly you can can “change” a United award to a different award with a different origin, destination, cabin, airline, and date and pay the lower change fee instead of the cancellation fee. The only restriction that I’ve found is that the new award must completely fall within one year of the booking date of the original award.

My reading of the rules–see the fee chart above–is that this change should cost $75, so “changing” your award should save $75 since normally canceling an award costs $150. But when my sister used this trick, she was only charged a change fee of $50, saving her $100, and she has no status.

Specifically she wanted to cancel a Montreal to San Francisco award that had cost 12,500 miles and $59.50. After waiting for a schedule change that never came, I urged her to cancel the award to get back her 12,500 miles for $90.50 ($150 – $59.50).

Instead she decided to see if she could use the Change feature online because it would save her time, since she planned to use the miles for a different trip. I didn’t think it would work since her new award–Dulles to Honolulu–had a different origin, departure, and date. I thought United would make her cancel her original award.

She was able to change her award online, saving $100 compared to cancelling the award, and I’ll show you how to do the same with screen shots.

Starting on any united.com page, select Reservations and Change/View Existing Reservations from the drop-down menu.This image shows the first two steps. Clicking Change/View Existing Reservations brings you to this screen, which lists the Mileage Plus account holders’ reservations. Click View of the one you want to cancel, and then select Change Flights.

After selecting which segment of that award you want to change, you are brought to a new search screen.

Search results are displayed much the same as any United.com award search.

One crucial difference is that the normal calendar, which shows what dates near your selected date have availability isn’t here. That’s why I would recommend you do a normal united.com search for the flights you want and note the dates before going through this change process.

The miles price listed is the net of the new award minus the old award. The cash price is the net of the (change fee + new award’s taxes – old award’s taxes). The change fee is $50 for non-elites and Silver Elites. If either figure is negative–that is, you stand to get a refund of miles, dollars, or both-it may display that incorrectly at this step, but you will get the refund you deserve.

I selected a flight to change to, and the confirmation screen appears.

For this award, the change would cost 7,500 miles and $50. The miles price is the difference between PIT-LAX and SFO-HNL. The cash price is the change fee plus or minus the net of the taxes between the two awards. In this case, both awards have the same $2.50 in taxes, so the cash outlay is just the $50 change fee.

The “changes” United will allow are seemingly limitless. Imagine I wanted to shed myself of my PIT-LAX award at a discount, and I wanted to take a last second trip to Europe in Lufthansa first class. No problem, even though I’m replacing a oneway award with a roundtrip award.

The price is listed as “Starting at” because it depends on which classes you choose each way.

A final special case is to “change” the award you want to cancel to a flight you don’t plan to fly. Imagine I had no award I wanted to take on United in the near future, but I don’t want to pay the $150 cancellation fee. Instead I could “change” my award to the cheapest award on the United chart: intra-Hawaii in economy.

This is very close to the same value as cancelling outright, but should be preferable to people who are cash poor/miles rich. In this scenario, you pay 5,000 miles and $52.50 to cancel an award instead of $150.

That’s like turning down the opportunity to buy 5,000 United miles for $97.50 or 1.95 cents each. I would definitely turn down that purchase price.

That means my preferences when I decide to cancel a United award are:

  1. Trick #1- Wait for a schedule change; cancel for free.
  2. Trick #2- “Change” the award I want to cancel to a completely different award that I can complete within one year of the original award’s issue date. Incur a $50 fee.
  3. Trick #2- If I have no other United award I want to take in the time frame, “change” the award I want to cancel to an intra-Hawaii award. Incur a 5,000 mile and $52.50 fee ($143 total value).
  4. Cancel the award. Incur a $150 fee.

 

A few more notes. I don’t know whether you can make changes to an award over the phone that change the origin, destination, and date or whether they’d make you pay a $150 cancellation fee and make you rebook.

Don’t forget that changing the award may hamstring you in the future if you want to make another change. All award travel must be completed within one year of the original award’s booking date. No matter how many times you change the award, this holds true.

If you repeatedly “cancel” awards by changing them to intra-Hawaii oneways that you don’t fly, you may raise the ire of United. It’s not inconceivable to me that they would close your account.

Nobody ask United why they charge $50 for online changes instead of the $75 that their award fee chart says they should be charging non-elites.

Can anyone see the other extension of Trick #2 I’ll be posting about tomorrow? I don’t think I gave enough information to guess it.

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