Yesterday, prices for award tickets booked with United miles surged for most routes as the devaluation announced last year finally took effect.

But the prices we’re seeing on united.com aren’t the prices I expected based on how United said the devaluation would work.

To review, United made its award pricing a lot more complicated by splitting its single award chart into two charts–one for awards on United planes and one for awards on partner planes.

In case your award flies both United flights and partner flights, United told us how to determine whether your award would price according to the United chart or whether it would be on the more expensive partner chart.

I know for sure that United’s prior statements about whether an award would be on the United chart or partner chart were wrong.

Since United didn’t tell you (correctly) how its computers will price awards, let me fill you in.

What did United say the rule would be? What is the rule in practice? How is united.com pricing awards? How many United miles do you need for the trip you want to book?

One of the major parts of the United devaluation was the introduction of two new charts:

  • a United Chart
  • a More Expensive Partner Chart

This is how United said in a FlyerTalk thread that your chart (and therefore award price) would be determined if you mixed award space on United flights with award space on partner flights:

Although there will now be two charts, it will be still be possible to combine United/United Express and MileagePlus partner award flights on the same itinerary. However, the MileagePlus partner award cabin level will need to be lower than that of the United-operated segment(s) in order to take advantage of the United Saver Award price. So, for a US to Europe itinerary where the long-haul segment is in United Global First, the intra-Europe connecting segment would need to be in Business or Economy (as they typically already are) to take advantage of the United Saver Award price. Similarly, for a US to Europe itinerary where the long-haul segment is in United BusinessFirst, the intra-Europe connecting segment would need to be in Economy to take advantage of the United Saver Award price.

United basically said that if you flew United BusinessFirst to Europe and connected to a partner flight in business class intra-Europe, you would pay the partner business class price of 70k miles each way instead of the United price of 57,500 miles each way.

That is incorrect. United.com is pricing United business to Europe plus a partner flight in business class at the United price of 57,500 miles.

(Click on any screen shot in this post to enlarge it.)

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 12.08.01 AM

But if you fly a partner’s flight transatlantically you pay the partner business class price of 70k miles.

Here is an award with Chicago to Boston in United business and Boston to Frankfurt in Lufthansa business. The transatlantic leg controls, and the price is the partner price of 70k miles one way.

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 12.50.16 AM

I’ve only shown that United was wrong about how awards would price with the new bifurcated charts. So how do awards really price? What rule is the computer actually following?

The rules United.com is actually following are slightly different than we were promised and slightly better for us.

The important flights for determining what chart an award pertains to are the region connecting flights.

United’s award chart is divided into 17 regions:

  • US 49 + Canada
  • Hawaii
  • Mexico
  • Caribbean
  • Central America
  • Northern South America
  • Southern South America
  • Europe
  • Middle East
  • Northern Africa
  • Central & Southern Africa
  • North Asia
  • Central Asia
  • South Asia
  • Japan
  • Oceania
  • Australia & New Zealand

If all region-connecting flights on a United award are on United flights, you are on the United chart. If all region-connecting flights are on partners, you are on the partner chart.

Straightforward enough, but here’s where it gets wordier to explain.

If you have at least one region-connecting flight on a United flight and one on a partner flight, you will be on the partner chart unless the United flight is in a higher cabin than the partner flight.

Examples

  • You fly Chicago to Frankfurt in Lufthansa business. You pay the partner business class price (70k) since the region-connecting (and only) flight on this award is a partner flight.
  • You fly Denver to Chicago in United business and Chicago to Frankfurt in Lufthansa business. You pay the partner business class price (70k) since the region-connecting flight (US to Europe) on this award is a partner flight.
  • You fly Chicago to Frankfurt in United business and Frankfurt to Athens in Lufthansa business. You pay the United business class price (57.5k) since the region-connecting flight (US to Europe) on this award is a United flight.
  • You fly Chicago to Frankfurt in United business and Frankfurt to Cairo in Egyptair business. You pay the partner business class price (80k) since there are two region-connecting flights (US to Europe and Europe to Northern Africa), both are in the same cabin, and one is on a partner.
  • You fly Chicago to Frankfurt in United business and Frankfurt to Cairo in Egyptair economy. You pay the United business class price (70k) since there are two region-connecting flights (US to Europe and Europe to Northern Africa), and the United one is in a higher cabin (business vs. economy.)
  • You fly San Francisco to Seoul in United business and Seoul to Beijing in Air China business. You pay the United business class price (70k) since it is the only region-connecting flight (US to North Asia.) Seoul and Beijing are both in North Asia, so that is not a region-connecting flight.
  • You fly San Francisco to Tokyo in United business and Tokyo to Beijing in ANA business. You pay the partner business class price (80k) since there are two region-connecting flights (US to Japan and Japan to North Asia), both are in the same cabin, and one is on a partner.

Takeaways

  1. There is no need to downgrade your intra-region flights to stay on the United chart. Previously United said you’d have to fly to Europe in United business but connect within Europe in partner economy to avoid paying the partner business class price. Now we know that’s not true. We can connect in partner business intra-Europe without changing to the partner chart.
  2. Be willing to downgrade to partner economy on region-connecting flights that are short. In an above example, you could save 10k miles  by flying Egyptair economy from Frankfurt to Cairo instead of Egyptair business as part of a Chicago to Cairo award. For some people it will be worth saving the miles by flying partner economy on short region-connecting flights.
  3. Pay attention to transit cities. Take a look at the last two examples above. By transiting Seoul instead of Tokyo, you can save 10k miles each way on an all-business-class award that features United on the longhaul. Since United is giving us intra-region partner business class for no extra miles, but wants extra miles if we add region-connecting partner business class, opt for intra-region flights where possible.

Evidence

Click screen shots to enlarge.

SFO-ICN-PEK for 70k vs. SFO-NRT-PEK for 80k

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.08.41 AM

Both awards feature United business on the longhaul and partner business on the short haul. The only difference is that Tokyo to Beijing is region-connecting (Japan to North Asia) while Seoul to Beijing isn’t (both in North Asia.) United.com is clearly treating region-connecting and intra-region partner flights differently for purposes of determining which chart to put an award on.

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.07.40 AM Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 1.07.53 AM

As a fascinating (to me!) side note, the SFO-NRT-PEK award is 80k with the United and ANA flights both in business and the exact same 80k with the United flight in first and ANA flight in business!

It just so happens that US to North Asia is 80k both in partner business and in United first. An itinerary with the United flight in first and ANA flight in business doesn’t trigger the partner first price (120k) because the United flight is in a higher cabin than the ANA flight.

HNL-NRT (B), NRT-BKK (E), BKK-SIN (B) for 50k vs. HNL-NRT-TPE-SIN (all in business) for 60k

This is an intriguing example. These two awards from Honolulu to Singapore both start with business class on a United flight.

The first award routes via Tokyo and Bangkok to Singapore. It has two region-connecting flights. Honolulu to Tokyo is Hawaii to Japan, and Tokyo to Bangkok in North Asia to South Asia. (The third segment is intra-South Asia.)

Since the second region-connecting flight is in economy, the award stays on the United business chart instead of being pushed to the partner chart. It doesn’t matter that the third leg, Singapore to Bangkok, is a partner business flight because that is intra-region.

The second award has three region-connecting flights as it hits Japan, North Asia, and South Asia. Since all three region-connecting flights are in the same class (business), we are on the partner chart and paying 10k extra miles.

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 12.17.43 AM Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 12.18.15 AM

Partner Region-Connecting Flight in Economy Keeps Us on the United Chart vs. Partner Region-Connecting Flight in Business Bumps Us to the Partner Chart

Both the awards below feature United business from Newark to Europe. Then one connects on an Egyptair flight in business to Africa and costs 80k miles. The other connects on an Egyptair flight in economy to Africa and costs only 70k miles.

Do you see why? (Hint: see Takeaway #2 above.)

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 12.33.47 AM Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 12.33.54 AM

Recap

United said United business + partner business will always put you on the partner business chart. In fact, that’s only true if both flights are region-connecting. If the partner flight is intra-region, you can stay on the cheaper United chart.

The new complexity of United awards makes hiring the MileValue Award Booking Service an even better value proposition.

Getting United Miles

I’m still bullish on United miles. They’re fantastic for economy awards. They’re also reasonable for United Business awards, and I consider United Business to be a very comfortable bed with solid food and entertainment options. See reviews here and here.

There are a lot of options to get United miles. There are United co-branded credit cards. There are also cards that earn Ultimate Rewards like the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, and Ink Bold that allow 1:1 transfers of their Ultimate Rewards to United miles.

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