United Increases Award Flight Prices by 10%: What This Means For You

May 12, 2020

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United Airlines has removed its Star Alliance/partner award chart and simultaneously increased the price of award tickets on Star Alliance airlines by 10% in a sneaky move last week. While this is terrible news, partner airlines outside of Star Alliance have not been entirely affected – yet. The devaluation is not straightforward, especially if the trip includes a combination of United, Star Alliance and partner flights. In this post, we help demystify the devaluation, explain where the 10% increases tend to occur and help you figure out how to book flights at the lowest rates.

To understand why this is such a big deal, it's important to take a trip down memory lane.

  • Nov. 2017 - United devalues its award chart, raising the number of miles required for award tickets to many regions. At this point, United already had two different award charts: one for its own flights and another for Star Alliance/partner awards.

  • Nov. 2019 - United removes its region-based award charts and shifts to dynamic pricing for its own flights. Although the PDF version of the Star Alliance/partner award chart was also removed from the site, you were still able to look up the cost of flights between regions, and those prices continued to match the unpublished chart. So, the Star Alliance/partner award chart continued to live on, but in an interactive form.

  • April 2020 - United quietly removed its interactive Star Alliance/partner award chart. In addition, the airline increased redemptions on most Star Alliance flights by 10%.

While the financial motivation behind the devaluation is understandable, given the industry’s current situation, those who want to fly on Star Alliance airlines with their United miles are going to feel the brunt of the increase with higher rates and more work required to book. To see how the pricing increase plays out, let’s take a look at how United’s old unpublished award charts (including the partner chart) compare to some future flights.

United award charts

United award chart: United’s pricing is now dynamic. However, we’ve included the unpublished award chart (see page 2) as it reflects the baseline price of award redemptions.

Star Alliance/partner award chart: Although United unpublished this award chart (see page 3) in Nov. 2019, all awards on Star Alliance/partner airlines continued to price according to this chart until April 2020.

The award chart applies to the following Star Alliance and partner airlines:

United and Star Alliance flights

The bulk of the 10% increases affect Star Alliance awards, including those with a segment flown on United. In some cases, if United flies a segment, the 10% increase is based on United’s unpublished award chart rather than the Star Alliance/partner chart. Because United’s chart and its partner chart had different pricing, the devaluation could create significant pricing variances. So when you’re planning your redemption, consider the airline(s) involved and compare prices.

Flights entirely on Star Alliance - Up 10%

Award flights that are booked entirely on Star Alliance airlines have gone up in cost by 10%. For example, Saver Awards from the U.S. to Europe that are operated by Lufthansa (Star Alliance airline) are now pricing out at 33,000 miles for economy and 77,000 miles for business class from Washington-Dulles to Frankfurt, Germany (second and third options in screenshot below).  If you compare that to the Star Alliance/partner chart, you’ll see that flights from the U.S. to Europe used to cost 30,000 miles for economy and 70,000 miles for business class.

If you fly this same route solely on United, you’ll only need to spend 30,000 miles for economy or 60,000 for business class (first option in screenshot below). Although United’s pricing is now dynamic, in this case, it makes sense to stick to United operated flights.

Flights that combine United and Star Alliance segments - Up 10% but based on which rate?

Seemingly, if the flight includes a mix of United and Star Alliance segments, the 10% increase may be based on either award chart, depending on the circumstance, which is important given the pricing difference between United and partner awards.

For example, consider a trip from San Francisco to Bangkok, Thailand (South Asia Region), which according to United’s award chart was priced at 40,000 miles for economy and 75,000 miles for business class. Based on the Star Alliance/partner chart, this route used to cost 40,000 miles in economy or 90,000 miles in business class.

As seen above, both award tickets include a segment flown by Thai Airways (Star Alliance airline) and one segment by United. Both economy Saver awards reflect a 10% increase and now cost 44,000 miles. Confusingly, one business saver award costs 82,500 miles (10% increase from United’s own award chart), while the other costs 99,000 miles (10% increase from the Star Alliance/partner chart).

Adding to the confusion, if you were to fly this route on a mix of United and SunExpress Deutschland GMBH (a joint venture of Star Alliance airlines Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines), the award is priced based on the old partner chart but with no increase (40,000 economy and 90,000 business class).

If you were to fly this route in economy, you’d be better off choosing the trip that includes United/SunExpress for 40,000 miles. However, if you want to fly in business class, you’d want to select the United/Thai Airways trip at 82,500 miles. Same origin, same destination, same alliance, but different pricing based on carriers.

Partner award flights - No apparent increase, yet

If your flight includes a partner airline, your award ticket may be exempt from the 10% increase. A partner airline is a relationship that exists between United and a non-Star Alliance carrier.

For example, award tickets on Aer Lingus (a partner airline, but not a Star Alliance member) from Chicago-O’Hare to Dublin continue to price out at 30,000 miles in economy and 70,000 miles in business class.

If you want to pay even less, in some cases, awards that include a mixture of United and a partner (in this case Aer Lingus), will only require 60,000 miles for business class.

Although the business award shows a mixed cabin, the long-haul flight is flown in United’s business class. The pricing seems to be driven by the fact that United is the carrier on the long-haul flight.

The bottom line

Last week, United increased the price of most Star Alliance award tickets by 10%. Although this rule seems to apply to all Star Alliance awards, the operating carrier and the airline that flies the long-haul segment are factors in determining if there will be an increase, and if so, from which award chart.

Award pricing seems to be all over the place, and if you want to find a good deal, you’ll likely need to do extra research to make sure that you’re not paying more miles for a certain ticket when you could spend less with a different combination of United, Star Alliance and partner airlines. Generally, to use the least amount of miles, you’ll want to look for award tickets on United or on partner airlines. But with no more award chart, this means more effort for the travel booker.

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