United MileagePlus Devalues Miles (Again)

United MileagePlus Devalues Miles (Again)

United has drastically increased the price of award flights to Europe, though sweet spots still exist
Passenger walking through an airport terminal

Devaluations are common in the airline space — meaning that the miles you earn now become worth less and less with each passing year. For U.S. frequent flyer programs, we've seen major devaluations in recent years resulting from a switch from award charts to dynamic pricing. Though no major U.S. airline currently uses an award chart to price their awards, airlines still tend to price most flights within a specific range of miles.

United MileagePlus is one program that was already heavily devalued due to a switch to dynamic pricing. Yet it still offered some good deals and "sweet spots" to travelers who had flexibility when it comes to dates and destinations.This is especially true since United doesn't include crushing fuel surcharges that other frequent flyer programs tack on.

Unfortunately, United MileagePlus rolled out a major devaluation last week, increasing the number of miles you need for most bookings to and from Europe — including partner awards. This applies to economy class flight awards, and is even more noticeable for business class awards.

Flights to Europe now cost more

United uses dynamic pricing for its frequent flyer program, meaning that the number of miles required for a flight varies based on time and demand. However, even with the variation in pricing, those who keep a close watch on United MileagePlus will notice that some flights cost much more (in miles) than they did just a few weeks ago — more than 40% in many cases.

For example, you could once book Saver awards to Europe with United for as little as 30,000 miles in economy (one way) or 60,000 miles in business class (one way). As you can see from the screenshots below, one-way economy awards to Europe between Chicago (ORD) and Rome (FCO) this fall now require between 43,900 to 70,000 miles.

United Chicago to Rome

Unfortunately, the news is even worse for United business class awards. As you can see from the award chart below, flights in business class for the same itinerary now start at 155,000 miles one way, with some as high as 295,000 miles.

United Chicago to Rome Business Class

You'll find a similar price change for partner awards to Europe. For example, the chart below shows that one-way economy flights from the New York metro area (EWR, JFK and LGA) to Istanbul, Turkey (IST) on Star Alliance partner Turkish Airlines now start at 43,900 miles over the same time frame.

JFK to Istanbul, Turkey

Meanwhile, business class awards for the same itinerary start at 115,000 miles one-way and go all the way up to 245,000 miles.

JFK to Istanbul, Turkey Business Class

United sweet spots still exist

So, what can United loyalists do? And really, what can anyone do when their favorite rewards currency becomes worth less (inching ever-closer to worthless) over time?

For the most part, frequent flyers can beat the system by earning points that are more flexible instead of airline-specific rewards. In the meantime, it makes sense to reserve United miles for those times when you can find a "sweet spot" — a flight award that costs less than average.

For example, you may want to use United miles for flights to Europe in situations where you can be flexible with your departure airport, your arrival airport or both. As you can see in the screenshots below, we found partner awards on LOT Polish Airlines, SWISS International Airlines and Austrian Airlines in business class to various European cities from New York (JFK) and Chicago (ORD) for well below 100,000 miles one-way.

New York City to Frankfurt, Germany:

JFK to Frankfurt, Germany

Chicago to Berlin, Germany:

Chicago to Berlin, Germany

Also be aware that United MileagePlus still has featured awards — a list of discounted award flights. United updates these flight deals regularly, so you should keep an eye out for upcoming deals that might work for you.

As of this writing, for example, you can find the following one-way deals:

  • San Francisco (SFO) to Maui, Hawaii (OGG) in business class for 48,500 miles plus $6
  • Houston (IAH) to Frankfurt, Germany in business class for 80,000 miles plus $6
  • San Francisco (SFO) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN) in business business class for 88,000 miles plus $24
  • Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to San Francisco (SFO) in economy class for 35,100 miles plus $57

Making the case for flexible rewards currencies

The ultimate way to beat frequent flyer devaluations involves diversifying your rewards so you're never stuck paying for an overpriced award flight. You can do this by earning points in programs like American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards and the Citi ThankYou program. Chase Ultimate Rewards includes United MileagePlus as one of its travel partners, so you can transfer Chase points to United at a 1:1 ratio.

Not only do flexible programs let you transfer points to a range of airline and hotel programs, but you can also use points to book travel directly through an issuer's travel portal. Chase travel credit cards even offer 25% to 50% more value when you redeem points for airfare or other travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal. Some of these redemptions are on par with what you can get through point transfers — especially when cash prices are low.

Earn and use your miles wisely

Ultimately, United's devaluation should come as no surprise. All the major airlines have been doing this with their programs for years, both through dynamic pricing and also through inflation of their rewards currencies.

There's not much anyone can do other than learn how to play the game. This means earning flexible currencies so you have options, and carefully researching available awards to find the best deals.

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