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United Expands Mileage Plus Award Options

United has introduced two significant new features to its Mileage Plus program: one-way awards, and the ability to combine miles and cash to purchase tickets.

With one-way awards, program members can book award flights on United or United Express for half the number of miles required for a round-trip.

So a one-way Saver (restricted) coach award for travel within the continental U.S. can be booked for 12,500 miles—half the 25,000 miles required for a round-trip.

For the time being, the one-way bookings cannot be combined within a single reservation to make up a round-trip. But beginning this summer, United promises true mix-and-match capability, allowing program members to build a round-trip composed of two or more one-ways, combining, for instance, different classes of service or using an unrestricted award for one segment and a restricted award for another.

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With the new Miles and Money feature, Mileage Plus members can use a combination of cash and miles to book restricted round-trip coach awards on United and United Express. According to United's website, "The amount of money you'll pay will be based on your origin and destination." It's not clear from that whether the number of miles and cash co-payment are based on flight distance or ticket price.

As an example, I tried to book an award flight between Los Angeles and New York. United's website presented me with two options: 25,000 frequent flyer miles, or 15,000 miles plus $120. The latter amounts to buying 10,000 miles for $120, which is 1.2 cents per mile. But other flights generated different results. In any case, over a range of test bookings I made, the effective price of miles varied from just under one cent to just under two cents. If that is indeed the range, it's a decent deal.

Neither of the changes is revolutionary. One-way awards are already a standard feature in the programs of Alaska and American, among others. And members of Delta's program can already combine cash and miles for tickets.

Still, the most rewarding loyalty scheme isn't necessarily the most innovative program. Rather, it's the program that, overall, gives consumers the most value and convenience when it comes time to redeem their miles.

And on that score, United is headed in the right direction.

In just the past six months, United has rescinded the fees for last-minute award bookings, and extended the availability of award discounts on hotel and rental car awards to all Mileage Plus members. And over the past year, it has led the industry in offering limited-time award discounts.

Members of United's program can only hope there's more of the same to come.

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