Award discounts are becoming a regular feature of United's Mileage Plus program.
United's last discount—the ninth in less than a year—was a modest 10 percent, but it was for its most popular award, the restricted coach ticket for travel within the U.S. and to Canada.
United's new award discount is also for travel within the U.S. and Canada, but it's different in key respects.
In particular, rather than discounting restricted award tickets—as United has done repeatedly in its past award promotions—this time it has put unrestricted awards (Standard awards, in United's parlance) on sale. United describes Standard awards as follows:
Standard Awards allow you to fly any time seats are available on the plane. There's no limit to the number of Standard Awards allowed on each flight, so you have more options at the times you want to fly—even at peak travel times when Saver Awards may be unavailable.
Of course, there's a price for that flexibility: Standard awards generally require twice as many miles as Saver awards.
Through May 18, Mileage Plus members can book Standard round-trip coach awards within the U.S. (excluding Hawaii), or between the U.S. and Canada, for 40,000 miles, a 20 percent discount from the normal 50,000-mile price.
The discounted travel may take place any time between May 12 and October 31.
Deal or No Deal
United's past award discounts have been no-brainers. If the award trip was worth the miles at the published rates, it was an even better value at the discounted rate.
This offer is harder to assess, because what's being discounted is a second-choice product. No savvy traveler would pay twice as many miles for an unrestricted ticket if a restricted award were available on the same itinerary.
Since standard awards are only booked under duress, the promotion will leave some with the queasy feeling that this is akin to the old retailer trick of offering aggressive discounts on inflated "suggested retail prices."
Still, the reality is that restricted award seats are going to be hard to come by this summer, as planes are expected to be flying almost full. That will force some Mileage Plus members who have the necessary miles and motivation to bite the bullet and book Standard awards. In that scenario, it's clearly preferable to pay 40,000 rather than 50,000 miles.
While the offer has its limitations, it's superior to past offers in two respects. First, it gives Mileage Plus members more than three weeks to plan and commit to an itinerary. United's previous modus operandi has been to force would-be discount travelers to make a quick decision.
And second, award travel at the lower rates can take place any time within a 5.5-month window. Previous award travel windows have been much less accommodating.
Whatever the promotion's merits, don't commit to a Standard award, even a discounted one, before trying to book the trip as a Saver award. If Saver seats aren't available through United's online booking engine, call the reservations center and see if an agent can help you. You'll pay a booking fee, but that still beats paying more miles for a Standard award. And the fee only applies if the booking is successful.
Reader Reality Check
Do you expect to use Standard awards for travel this summer?
If you were planning to use a Saver award and no seats were available, would this promotion be enough incentive to pay more miles for a Standard award?