United Introduces Opaque Hotel Awards

In a novel mashup of an airline mileage program and an opaque booking site, United has partnered with Hotwire to offer MileagePlus members hotel room-night awards for fewer miles. The catch: As with other opaque bookings, you won't know exactly which hotel you're booking until you've committed to the stay. And the commitment is irreversible—you can't cancel and have the miles reinstated just because you're unhappy with the hotel chosen for you. As with United's published hotel and rental-car awards, the opaque hotel awards are available to Premier members and United MileagePlus Chase cardholders with account addresses in the 50 United States, Puerto Rico, or Guam.

If you've never booked on Priceline or Hotwire, the process is straightforward. As with any other online hotel booking, you specify desired dates and destination. In response, you are presented with a list of hotels within range of the specified city or airport. But with opaque booking sites, the hotels are identified only by description ("4 Star Hotel in LA Intl Airport LAX area," for example) rather than by name. And in the case of United's new Unpublished Hotel Awards, each of the partially identified hotels has a mileage price associated with it.

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The key question with opaque bookings is always some version of the value-choice trade-off: Are the savings sufficient to offset the risk of booking a disappointing hotel? There's no easy answer.

A search for unpublished hotel awards in the Los Angeles International Airport area turned up 41 mystery hotels, priced between 15,000 and 47,000 miles per night.

By contrast, the same search on published MileagePlus hotel awards displayed 486 hotels, each identified by name, fully described, with TripAdvisor ratings, priced from 15,000 to 110,000 miles per night.

But because there's no ready way to compare the normal and discounted rates at the same hotels, assuming that some properties are on both the unpublished and published lists, it's impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons to gauge the discount linked to the opaque bookings.

With the value of United miles redeemed for published hotel stays averaging well under 1 cent apiece, the value proposition would have to improve considerably to make hotel awards a good deal. The discounted rates for opaque awards may improve the situation somewhat, but it's impossible to tell for sure.

In other words, you're left to wonder: Do I feel lucky?

Reader Reality Check

Will you take advantage of United's new unpublished hotel awards?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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