Save $100 or More When Canceling a United Award

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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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61 COMMENTS

  1. To answer your final question of the post – Use trick #2 to change to a ticket way in the future and then trick #1 once the schedule changes.

    • That’s risky. You pay $50 now for no guarantee that you can cancel free later. I could see it being a good idea under certain circumstances.

  2. I’ll take a guess…you’ll discuss how to upgrade to Biz or First class on airline partners that release those seats only at the last moment. I had a similar idea and was wondering how much the change would cost, so thank you for posting this trick today. It’s cheaper than waiting until the last moment and incurring the $75 late booking fee.

    • Ding, ding, ding. I think you’ve got it. You’ll see at ~ 5 AM ET whether we’re talking about the same idea, but I think we are.

      • I look forward to it. I’m thinking if someone wants to fly to a destination either way, book coach now and pay $50 later to change to biz or first and change the travel date by a few days if needed. The alternative is to not book at all and risk not having any availability less than a month out, or paying $75 for late booking.

  3. Use the option to Add/change/delete a connection 21 days before departure for no fee to add some absurdly tight connections on segments that are known to change. Keep adding until you get a schedule change, then cancel.

    • That’s a great idea. It might be tough to execute–find a new routing without changing origin or destination. Are there segments that are known to change a lot?

  4. Awesome post. Can i change the return date on a award bookin after
    Travel start and if so how much is that? Also my trip is nyc to dac, dhaka bangladesh, it has 2 connections, so if i change the date after my journey starts, my connection will most
    Likely be from a different city, would that be allowed on UA

    • Changing the connection won’t incur a fee. But after travel starts, I don’t know whether United charges a change fee if the leg you’re changing is more than 21 days in the future. I would love to know if anyone knows; the fee page is ambiguous about that.

      • United certainly charged me for that in the past. I have the Club Card now so I can avoid this very charge. Well this is only going to last one year, definitely not worth the annual fee (for me at least).

  5. Lets stay i have booking for NYC-LAX-NYC-MIA. here NYC-MIA is free oneway using open jaw(thanks to you for letting us know).

    1. If I cancel NYC-MIA with > 21 days left, will there be any cancellation fee? what happens if I dont just travel without cancellation
    2. same question asked before. will i incur changing fee for changing the date for NYC-MIA leg after completing LAX-NYC trip and have > 21 days left ?

    • You can’t get stopovers on awards within the mainland US on United. (You can on Delta.)

      1. Yes, so just don’t fly it, no need to cancel. If the free oneway were before the main trip, you would have to fly it or cancel it to avoid the whole itinerary cancelling.
      2. I don’t know. United.com is ambiguous, and I’ve never tried. If anyone knows the answer, please share!

    • Schedule changes should work on every airline. The “change” that’s really a cancellation/new award won’t help because AA charges $150 to change the origin or destination.

  6. What if you flight gets cancelled? Say there is really bad weather in one part of the country and you think your flight might get cancelled, can you change you award flight to that city where the weather is bad? It sounds improbably, but I thought I would ask anyways.

    • I’ve never done it, but I often notice on AA.com or United.com travel advisories when bad weather is expected. If you read them, they always say you can change your flights to the affected city for free.

      • This would probably work more often for a frequent traveler, but good luck for the occasional traveler. Where do you look for weather advisories?

  7. I have two one-way saver first class awards to and from Europe. Is there any way to combine these into a single round-trip so I can add a free North American one-way? Saver availability on my dates is no longer available.

    • I don’t think you can combine them. You can call United at 800-United-1 and ask if it’s possible. If it is, the $75 change fee should be more than made up for by the free oneway you add.

  8. how long does it take to post…i JUST did this and it definitely is NOT immediate. I switched to hawaii inter-island (actually may use this) but they charged my card $150 ($75 x 2) but not immediate refund of miles.

      • @Jason in fact i an still waiting and united said they will consider it AFTER I complete the inter-island flight. I believe Mile Value has not throughly checked this method out and i am out $150 and/or 30,000 miles because of bad info. I wish he would have said this had not been tested or sine other warning.

        • @jason – i got my points back! Just the other day. Got 30k points for the changes. Took for damn every and was very stressful. Next time i would do something else, but it did work. So $150 fee and about 30 phone calls, emails, etc and and I got the points. I guess you could equate that to buying points for $0.005 a piece which is good. But for the stress i would find another option.

          • Sorry I missed these comments. I’m glad you got the miles back in the end. From your experience, did the calls get the miles back? Or was it simply a matter of waiting until the interisland flight’s date passed?

  9. So I tried Trick #1, there was a change to my reservation. The change was minor, the flight departed five minutes later and landed five minutes earlier. I tried three times to call and cancel the whole itinerary. Each time they said the change was too minor. Is this normal? I didn’t want to push back to hard but I’m willing to if anyone else had any luck? Thanks!

    • @nick – had the same issue…they would NOT change it as the time change was
      “too small”. I am not sure at what point it becomes enough for them to change, but it has never been enough for them to change my 3 flights that i have tried.

    • I hope they are not getting stricter on this. Five minutes is a very minor change. I am confident, they would cancel for free in the change is one hour or more.

  10. Do you happen to know how long it would take for United to re-credit the miles if you were to change the origin and destination (trick #2 where you change it to an intra-hawaii award)?

  11. I want to change or cancel an itinerary that I booked for a friend.
    Can I still change to another flight for someone who is not the original traveller?

  12. One more question – wife and i plan to book main r/t award to JNB 330 days in advance. Thus we would put the free one way before. What would happen if we did the one way, but had to cancel the main r/t portion? i.e. would we lose all the miles, or is there a way to partially cancel/change award to get some of the miles back? thank you!!!

  13. Has anyone tried not “cancelling” a star alliance booking with MP but changing both origin and destination? I am currently 1K set to expire at the end of the month and will drop to Gold. I have award tickets booked as backup for R3 RGN Fare. If my R3 fares are honored, do I need to cancel or can I simply change both the origin and destination? Thanks

  14. Hi Guys/Gals,

    I have award book to Asia this summer and it in United BusinessFirst anways I want to change it to a different carrier First class and the award is open… But the downside of this is I don’t have enough miles in my account to upgrade that to First class… Can I pay the difference with money or that can’t not happen…

    Thanks!

    • No. But you can easily earn more United miles by opening one credit card. Which of these do you already have? Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase United MileagePlus Explorer, Chase Ink Bold, Chase Ink Plus?

  15. Wanted to share a horror story regarding cancelling a flight with United after a schedule change. Flights were changed ~15 mins and I didn’t want the ticket anymore, so I jumped on it and called in saying I don’t agree to the change. Never had a problem before, but this time the guy kept dragging his feet, telling me it’s “only 15 minutes”, that it “doesn’t make a difference”, etc. etc. Finally he got mad at me and just hung up. I call back again, get someone else who informed me that I’ve already accepted the changes and they will not be refunding my ticket!! I realized the first agent had just clicked the button for me, and I got really angry but the second agent said it was done. I asked to speak to a manager, who was incredibly defensive. When I demanded to know when this change had been “approved” by me, he refused to answer! I insisted and after a brief back-and-forth, he actually gave me a date and time IN THE FUTURE! When I tried to point out how ridiculous it was (and also kept yelling “THAT DATE AND TIME HAS NOT OCCURRED YET”), he mumbled it was a time-zone issue. I was seething, but managed to keep my cool long enough to explain how time zones work and how it would still be in the future. Finally trapped, he begrudgingly gave me the refund. But it was a horrible experience!

  16. Do you suppose I can change an itinerary if I already completed on leg of the trip? I booked JFK-LAX-SYD-MEL and was planning on returning the same way, but now something has come up and I need to either postpone my trip by two weeks or reroute through Singapore. The problem is that I’m already in Melbourne now after completing the first leg of the trip. Do you suppose that will be possible for ONLY a change fee?

  17. I know someone else had also asked earlier.

    What is the fee if one wants to make a change (after starting travel) to the return journey date more than 21 days before the return journey date? Travel is with a layover of 4 hours in Munich. Will it make a difference if layover is made in Frankfurt for a later date? origin and final destination remain the same.

    Any ideas?

  18. Thanks to this post, I was able to EASILY cancel a reservation (less than 5 minute phone call!!), saving myself the $200 cancellation fee due to a schedule change. Love the Blog!!!

  19. Currently have 4 awards to Europe from SFO to Paris on United, and return is co share from Venice (with current star alliance partner US Airways). Since the trip is after March 1 when US Air leaves the alliance, if I want to make a future date / flight change after March 1st, I’ll be unable to change the US Air portion. What’s the likelyhood if I push the point now that I could either cancel the whole trip due to the US Air change, or reschedule without a change fee to a better departure date (if available)? Anyone had any luck with these type of changes? I would not have chosen this if I knew US Air was leaving the alliance.

  20. As a Premier Gold, I was fully prepared to pay a fee to change my flight next week – same routing, different dates. Tried the online Change Flight tool and for some reason, no fee was charged.

  21. What if I just process the following one instead: “Cancel reservation now and change ticket later”.
    Apparently, my wife cannot fly with her daughter from LGA to NRT through YYZ on Friday. We do not want to pay $200 per reservation (my daughter had 2 separate ones for both flights) at the same time we do not really want to loose 240K miles we used for business class:)

  22. This worked for me! I wanted to change my itinerary, but was unsure how to avoid the change fees. I was “fortunate” in that they had changed my flight schedule. I used the same wording listed in this article, and I was issued a full refund (not just a credit!) to my credit card, so I could easily re-book on this or another airline.

    Thank you for the advice!

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