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What Have We Learned from United MileagePlus Devaluation?

What Have We Learned from United MileagePlus Devaluation?
Anya Kartashova

Winter has come and gone, and yet another loyalty program has swung the sword and cut its value.

United Airlines MileagePlus announced a huge devaluation coming Nov. 15. Of course, the news wasn’t framed as a devaluation but as a program simplification. The program will no longer publish award charts or stick to specific redemption levels. Instead, more seats will be available for booking awards, but they’ll come at a price—a price that can change at any moment. It’ll be hard to predict what any United-operated flight will cost in miles as that number will fluctuate based on demand.

Sounds familiar? It appears that MileagePlus has taken a page from the Delta SkyMiles book. Not to spoil the ending, but any time you search for an award flight on, there’s hardly any low-level availability for award seats in the premium cabin. The sky is the limit for Delta business awards—and not in a good way.

The program runs occasional deals for economy flights to various travel regions, but you can easily book these inexpensive tickets in cash during a good fare war.

It appears that United is heading in the same direction. Just a few weeks ago, MileagePlus dropped the cost of its domestic awards to as few as 5,000 miles. Turns out the airline simply threw dust in our eyes to distract us from things to come—bad things. How long until dynamic pricing makes award flights cost thousands of miles? Apparently, seven months is all.

To make matters even worse, rumor has it that American Airlines will follow suit, according to God Save the Points.

Miles Aren’t an Investment

So, if anything, we have yet again learned the most important lesson of travel hacking. Airline miles aren’t an investment. Earning and burning is the best tactic you can practice to ensure preserving their value. In this case, United has given us notice of upcoming doom. In most cases, we can only hope for the same treatment. Miles can devalue overnight, in seven months or in five minutes. Don’t wait to find out how long it takes next time.

Be Flexible While Collecting Airline Miles

Although low-level awards will be hard to come by, they’ll still be there. To be successful in booking them, you might have to be flexible with your travel dates and act early. As soon as you see an award at a number of miles that you’re willing to redeem, don’t wait, click “book.” No doubt, the competition for these awards will increase, and you want to be all dressed up and ready to find somewhere to go when there’s availability.

Don’t Write Off Credit Cards Just Yet

It isn’t time to jump ship yet. Just because we’ve been witnessing devaluation after devaluation lately, don’t be afraid of collecting miles by applying for credit cards. It’s the fastest way to collect a chunk of miles and book an almost-free flight. Partner awards are still going to be available at the standard, fixed rates (for now), and you have plenty of options to use them for an affordable trip.

[Image Source: Shutterstock]

View Comments (12)


  1. BiPlane

    April 13, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    The law of supply and demand trumps most considerations when it comes to the business of making money, so we shouldn’t be surprised with these changes. The “huge devaluation” is more fine turning on the airlines’ parts in how they portion out their award seats. They always did this with less fine turning by limiting the number of award seats available at lower award levels. It isn’t going to be a “huge devaluation” for those flyers with time and seasonal flexibility who travel in markets with high accessibility. What we already knew is that the airlines are tireless when looking for ways to fill empty seats.

  2. RustyC

    April 13, 2019 at 10:33 pm

    More bad-but-not-surprising news. Also more evidence that AA/UA/DL is behaving like an oligopolistic cartel and the airline mergers went too far. I earned about 3 million miles back in the day but am most glad I burned about 2.9 million.

  3. aresef

    April 14, 2019 at 7:12 pm

    Yikes. I didn’t know about the devaluation. I have the Explorer card and am using miles on a trip to Chicago coming up. Maybe I should think bigger and take another trip this summer.

  4. JG_Aus

    April 17, 2019 at 5:01 am

    Just one more nail in the coffin. I stopped booking my family and my work teams on UA after they moved to cost based mileage a few years ago. They went from being the best program in the air for economy class flyers to just another also ran. With permanent status on both Star Alliance and One World, I now just take the most convenient flight and encourage my team to do the same. Global services plus 23 family member international flights and ~40 employee coach international flights the year before the devaluation to 37k coach miles the year after.
    Since most of the flights (other than mine) were coach I assume that UA didn’t care.

  5. sgtohk

    April 17, 2019 at 6:46 am

    People, who cares? Why would you want to fly just so that you can fly some more? Get a better life chaps.

  6. RaoulM

    April 17, 2019 at 7:27 am

    Just booked flights to London this fall to use up 60% of my MP balance. Glad that we used most of the UA and SPG points last year for a trip, so the devaluation of both programs dent hit us as hard – although it appears I have bad luck with my choice of programs.

    The good old days of “free” flights and hotel stays are over and I’m glad I got to use them while they existed. I hope the airlines and hotel chains have planned for the complete disappearance of customer loyalty, though.

  7. k_jupiter

    April 17, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    It was only the relative ease of getting award travel on United that keeps me coming back. BUT the last trip SFO-PEK netted me 308 miles one way. That’s 12 hours (plus one on the ground in SFO) for 5600 miles of travel, and 308 award miles. As the award miles go down and the availability goes down,so does the incentive to fly UA. Economy Plus isn’t comfortable anymore, the food still sucks, and I will start to ask for Korean Air or the like for my trips to Asia. I suspect I ought buy myself a new laptop or something with my miles. t

  8. OZFLYER86

    April 17, 2019 at 3:44 pm

    more evidence that frequent flyer programmes are dying a slow death, except for those people who actually fly a lot. Getting points/miles from credit cards is getting harder, fees for credit cards & frequent flyer tickets are getting higher & the world is heading into the biggest ever recession, where cash is king. Am constantly offer 15% to 20% off for cash, rather than using a credit card.

  9. Jackie_414

    April 17, 2019 at 3:48 pm

    My first flight on United was in 1965. Of course, back then before deregulation it was nice to fly. People got dressed up. Flight attendants, then called stewards and stewardesses, treated everyone well. Since deregulation, things have steadily declined into a cattle herding operation. In the past 20 years I have gone overseas more than 110 times, all using United and Star Alliance connections. Now my “investment” is virtually worthless.

    The comment about a three-airline oligopoly is quite to the point. Delta started it with the Atlanta hub structure. Out of that came pseudo-monopolies. With the consolidation of the majors and the obvious and overt collusion, added to the TSA hassle, is it really worth it anymore. Maybe I will just get a travel trailer and tour the US and Canada and forget about flying.

  10. Mtothe M

    April 19, 2019 at 12:49 pm

    BiPlane, which airline do you work for exactly?

  11. BiPlane

    April 20, 2019 at 5:34 am

    The points I made in my comment were apparently beyond the understanding of one reader, so I will use bullet points to clarify what I thought of the FT article; 1. Airlines are in biz to make money, the more the better. 2. They have always steered flyers into undersold flights, through lower prices or award miles 3. Some MP members will benefit 4. FT can’t demonstrate that the change will be a “huge devaluation” yet, though experience may tell us devaluation is likely. How these points somehow give the airlines a “pass” on the changes is not clear to me, just a simple statement of motivations behind them as I see it. I guess I’m not venting enough anger for some even though I’m certainly not happy with most program changes.

  12. ezefllying

    April 30, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Airlines are only “desperate” to fill empty seats when they can make some money off of it. If a passenger has already earned the miles to pay for the seat — that is, already paid their cash to the airline — the carrier’s only reason for providing award space is because failure to do so will dissuade people from being loyal in the first place. It isn’t as though there is a benefit to putting more people (that is, weight) on an aircraft. Meanwhile, the airlines have an incentive to ration “cheap” award space, even if a flight will go out half-empty, because they want to incentivize those customers who have already committed themselves to the loyalty program to continue to collect miles in order to afford an (available) reward.

    The problem is that it will take a while, at least, for even many business travelers to fully appreciate just how worthless their miles have become. That leaves an expectation gap, such that customers will continue booking on a certain carrier in the false believe that their miles will get them a valuable award ticket. The airlines, of course, promote this misconception by advertising increasingly scarce saver awards (“awards from just 5,000 miles!”).

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