United reinstates minimum stay, raises fares


United announced that it will reinstate minimum-stay requirements on its lowest fares, beginning October 6. Under the policy, most fares will require a one- to three-night minimum stay, or a weekend-night stay (most likely a Saturday). Minimum-stay rules have only been used sparingly in recent years, so bringing them back to combat high fuel costs is not an altogether surprising move.

Minimum stays are primarily meant to deter business travelers from grabbing the lowest-priced seats. These customers often try to fly into and out of a destination on the same day, so by imposing a minimum stay, same-day round-trip fares are bound to skyrocket, forcing business travelers to choose between an expensive trip or a night (or three) away from home. On the other hand, leisure passengers (generally traveling to a place for a few days) may get a fairer crack at the cheap seats.

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The new policy wouldn't be that bad for leisure travelers, except the price of United's cheapest seats is going up by as much as $90. The airline's least-expensive tickets will now range between $69 and $199 one-way, depending on the itinerary. So not only are the cheap seats wrapped in more red tape, but they're more expensive, too.

And while many vacationers won't blink at even a three-day minimum, some will frown when it turns out the cheap seat they're after requires a Saturday-night stay. It's one thing for an airline to say how long you must travel, but it's a whole other ball game when the airline is telling you when to travel. Personally, I always try to return from vacations on Saturdays so I have Sunday to rest, do laundry, and prepare to rejoin the real world. A Saturday-night requirement would make this impossible for trips shorter than a week.

This news continues what has been a busy few weeks for United, following announcements of a first-checked-bag fee and an alliance with Continental. United also revealed it will eliminate about 950 pilots, so the airline figures to stay in the spotlight for a while longer.

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