United said goodbye to its award chart – the cheat sheet that lays out how many miles you need to book a flight – as it transitioned on Nov. 15 to a dynamic award pricing system.
At the time, United executives promised this change would only affect travel booked on United Airlines. As the amount of miles you need to book flights on United would vary by cash price, demand, and time of year, partner airlines like All Nippon Airways, Lufthansa, Swiss, and others would still have the same, reliable pricing.
But that's not quite the case. As it turns out, United is charging a mileage penalty for any and all award tickets booked within 30 days of departure. And that's true whether you're flying United or any of its many partner carriers with your United MileagePlus miles.
Here's a look at an upcoming flight from New York City (JFK) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) on All Nippon Airways. Notice something?
According to United's own award chart, this flight should cost 35,000 miles in economy and 80,000 miles in business class. United is slapping a 3,500-mile fee on these late bookings.
This replaces the “close-in booking fee,” a pesky fee of $25 to $75 that many airlines levy. United proudly announced it would nix these fees with the adoption of dynamic pricing.
It's no surprise the airline would simply charge more miles for a late booking on United. But the fact that you'll also need more miles to fly a partner airline is unexpected.
What This Means for United Flyers
Once again, United is taking a page out of Delta's playbook.
Delta moved to a dynamic pricing system long ago. It's the reason why Delta SkyMiles are wrongly bashed as worthless.
And while prices are more stable when using SkyMiles to book partner airlines, Delta also penalizes close-in award bookings – including most bookings on partner airlines less than 60 days before departure. And it can be far worse than what United has done.
For example, a Virgin Atlantic flight from the U.S. to London-Heathrow typically costs just 25,000 SkyMiles each way. Between 59 and 22 days before departure, that jumps to 40,000 SkyMiles. And if you book within 21 days of departure, it's a whopping 47,500 miles for the same flight – nearly double the normal rate.
Just how severe these penalties are varies by partner. It will be interesting to see if United continues to tweak how it prices these close-in awards. United's own penalty for late partner bookings seems paltry in comparison.
No matter what, it stings. That's especially true for United elite flyers, some of whom could previously get the cash fees for close-in bookings waived.
While United's close-in booking penalty for partner awards may seem small, it's the principle. United repeatedly vowed it wouldn't change award rates for travel on partner airlines – at least not yet.
That wasn't quite the case.