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Continental, United Frequent Flyer Programs Close to Merging

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Continental and United announced major changes that bring their still-separate frequent flyer programs closer to a final merging. The changes involve rationalizing award schedules and allowing transfers between accounts. At least for now, you should look at the changes as tweaks rather than major adjustments. Big changes may or may not come later.

Combine Miles: Effective immediately, if you have miles in both programs, you can transfer some or all of those miles, in either direction, as often as you wish. Transfer will incur no fees and will not alter your elite status in either program. You can transfer up to 200,000 miles every day, in increments of 1,000 miles. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

The immediate impact is that if you have miles in both programs, but not enough in each for an award you want, you can combine both holdings into a single pot of miles that will allow you to claim an award you couldn’t claim in either line separately.

Identical Award Schedules: Starting June 15, 2011, the two lines will completely rationalize their award schedules. This process involves only a few minor adjustments in award requirements—some up, some down—and poses no significant downgrading:

  • All awards on both lines will be available on a one-way basis.
  • Both lines will offer a (slightly) reduced-mileage requirement for short flights within the base 48-state area.

The most popular low-mileage awards—the “fat chance for a seat” level with extremely limited seat availability—will change very little. I cite round-trip requirements because that’s the way most of you use your awards, but all are available for one-way travel at half the mileages shown. Among the more popular awards in economy class:

  • Within the mainland U.S., Alaska, and Canada: 25,000 miles, no change in either program.
  • Mainland area to Hawaii: 40,000 miles, no change in either program.
  • Mainland area to Europe: 60,000 miles, up 5,000 from United’s current level.

Award travel in the next higher class—first-class on two-class planes, business class on three-class flights:

  • Within the mainland area: 50,000 miles, no change in either program.
  • Mainland area to Hawaii: 80,000 miles, no change in either program.
  • Mainland area to Europe: 100,000 miles, down 5,000 from Continental’s current level.

On most routes, the higher level “good chance for a seat” awards typically remain double the mileage required for a “fat chance for a seat” award. The biggest difference is for a business-class seat to Europe, which, at 250,000 miles, is two and a half times the “fat chance” level.

Upgrades from the cheapest economy fares on both lines require stiff co-pays: 40,000 miles plus $150 within the mainland area, 55,000 miles plus $250 to Hawaii, and 40,000 miles plus a whopping $1,100 to Europe.
Although the combined line will extend United’s “Premium Economy” option to the combined fleet, so far neither frequent flyer program award schedule recognizes the product at all.

The Impact: As usual, the real problem with the low-mileage frequent flyer awards is scoring a seat, and neither line is commenting on any upcoming changes in seat allocation policies. In my experience, Continental has been more generous than United, so my hope is that Continental’s approach will prevail.

The two programs will officially merge into one sometime late this year. In the meantime, no matter which line has your miles, always check both when you look for an award trip. As to the trivial question of which name will be retained, my bet is on “Mileage Plus.” Continental’s “One Pass” name was designed to reflect the fact that, initially, it was a single program for both Continental and Eastern Airlines.

One additional reminder: If you have a bunch of American Express miles, and if you would like to use those miles in the combined line, you have until September to transfer AmEx miles into a Continental account. After that, the combined program will no longer participate in the AmEx program.

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