Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler
Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Booking Direct or Through Third Parties?
When it comes to booking flights on United, travelers have two main options – booking directly through United's website or app, or using a third party site like Expedia, Travelocity or Google Flights. Both options have their pros and cons, so let's break them down.
Booking directly with an airline used to clearly be the better choice. You'd avoid extra booking fees, get the airline's lowest fares, faster access to seat selection and elite perks, and better customer service if something went wrong. But over the years, OTAs have closed the gap, while airline websites haven't always kept up.
These days, there are lots of scenarios where booking through an OTA makes sense. Their interfaces are often more user-friendly, allowing travelers to quickly compare fares and options across airlines and routes. OTAs can consolidate complex itineraries across multiple airlines onto a single ticket. And they often match or beat the airline's direct pricing – CheapOair claims to offer United fares for 10-15% less on average.
However, booking directly with United still has advantages. You'll avoid OTA booking fees, earn full mileage rewards, and have a more streamlined experience accessing elite benefits. United's website gives you a head start accessing preferred seats. And if plans change, dealing directly with United versus an OTA can make rebooking simpler.
United's been making strides to improve their booking engine, adding flexible change policies during COVID. The website now highlights if a particular fare includes free seat selection, allowing you to filter and compare upgrade options. And they've fortified their Best Fare Guarantee, promising to match lower prices found on OTAs.
Experienced United travelers recommend always cross-shopping OTAs before pulling the trigger. Scott's Cheap Flights alerts followers to United mistake fares only found on third party sites. But booking directly on United should net you the most miles and perks.
What else is in this post?
- Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Booking Direct or Through Third Parties?
- Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Understanding United's Fare Classes
- Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Maximizing MileagePlus Rewards
- Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - In-Flight Amenities in Each Cabin
- Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Common Fees to Watch For
- Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Tips for Smooth Boarding and Check-In
- Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - How to Handle Flight Delays or Cancellations
- Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Leveraging United's Partnerships
Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Understanding United's Fare Classes
Deciphering an airline's fare class system can be like cracking a cryptic code. The letters assigned to each fare seem random, and it's unclear what privileges each fare actually includes. But learning United's fare class lingo is key to ensuring you book the best flight for your budget and needs.
United divides fares into several broad categories - Economy, Premium Economy, Business, and First Class. Within each are multiple sub-categories of fares, designated by letter codes. These codes offer useful clues into what perks you'll score at each fare level.
In Economy, “E” fares are United's discounted advanced-purchase fares with the most restrictions. “B” fares are slightly more expensive but allow free seat assignments. “Y” fares offer the most Economy flexibility, with unlimited free changes. In Premium Economy, “P” fares have discounted prices while “A” fares offer extras like free changes.
For Business and First travelers, “J”, “C” and “D” fares offer varying degrees of elite perks, upgrades, and flexibility. The D fare is generally the highest full-fare with the most perks. If you see discounted Business class fares like “I”, “Z”, or “R”, jump on these bucket list seats when you can.
Expert United flyers recommend first checking for discounted Economy “B” or “E” fares, especially for shorter flights where you won't necessarily need extras like free changes. Compare this discounted fare against the cost of upgrading to Economy Plus for extra legroom.
If your plans might shift, “Y” Economy fares allow you to change flights without the usual $200 fee, providing flexibility. Premium Economy “A” fares also include free flight changes. For international flights, Premium Economy can be worth the upgrade since these seats have more width and recline.
If money's no object, splurge on those “D” First Class seats for the ultimate pampered experience with Polaris lounges and bed-flat suites on certain long-haul routes. For luxurious Business Class value, look for discounted “I” or “Z” fares during sales. Signing up for fare alerts can clue you into sales as they pop up.
Part of United's fare class strategy is segmenting benefits to get travelers to pay more for greater flexibility. Those stuck in the middle Economy seats subsidize First Class flyers upfront. But understanding the codes at least lets you make informed decisions on the fare that gives you the most appropriate perks.
Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Maximizing MileagePlus Rewards
As a frequent United flyer, nothing beats scoring those gratifying upgrades, jumping boarding group lines, and ultimately redeeming piles of MileagePlus miles for free flights and hotel stays. But maximizing miles earnings takes strategy - miles don't accrue themselves.
Savvy MileagePlus members carefully select fare classes to optimize miles. Booking more expensive Business and First fares obviously nets you bonus miles, but certain Economy "Y" and "B" fares also help boost earnings. You'll earn 500-750 more miles on a transcontinental flight by upgrading from a "E" fare to a "Y".
It also pays to research United's rotating mileage bonuses on hotel stays, car rentals, restaurants, and other purchases. Recently, United offered 5x miles for GrubHub orders and 3x miles for Apple Pay purchases. Activating these bonuses whenever they arise can generate thousands of extra miles annually.
Diehard mileage runners even book extra flights solely to earn miles, though this strategy is admittedly extreme. A cheaper tactic is getting approved for one of United's co-branded credit cards, which offer generous sign-up bonuses like 70,000 miles after meeting minimum spend. Just be sure to pay off balances each month.
When it comes time to use those hard-earned miles, experts emphasize flexibility. Booking award tickets requires navigating United's complex award chart packed with off-peak, standard, and last-minute redemption rates. Lifetime elites who enjoy waived award fees have it easiest.
But occasional United flyers can still score deals like one-way awards to Europe for only 30,000 miles in Economy. The key is staying open to whatever award availability exists and not fixating on specific dates. If you see reasonable award space pop up, grab it.
Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - In-Flight Amenities in Each Cabin
United offers distinct amenities tailored to each cabin class, differentiating the First, Business, and Economy experiences. Understanding the in-flight perks at each level helps inform which cabin best fits your budget and flying preferences.
At the pinnacle, United First Class offers an ultra-premium experience with fully lie-flat seating and other lavish touches. On select cross-country and international routes, you can indulge in United’s latest Polaris seat, a 180-degree reclining suite with memory foam mattresses and plush bedding. Enjoy complimentary multi-course dining with china dinnerware and refreshed hot towels. First Class fliers also gain access to United’s Polaris airport lounges featuring complimentary food, spa-like shower suites, and custom chairs for pre-flight naps. Expect unusually attentive flight attendant service as well.
For a balanced luxury option at a more affordable price, United Business Class brings its own perks. Signature amenities include lie-flat seats on international routes plus complimentary meals, premium alcoholic beverages, and noise-cancelling headsets on all flights over 1.5 hours. At mealtimes, flight attendants place linen tablecloths and cloth napkins to class up the experience. United Club membership conveys access to 50+ airport lounges when traveling in Business Class.
Main cabin Economy remains fairly basic, though United offers options to enhance the journey. Seat-back entertainment is available on most flights, with United app streaming on select routes. Complimentary food and alcohol aren’t served in coach, though you can purchase in-flight snacks and beverages. On long-hauls, Economy meals can be pre-ordered for a fee. For extra space, you can request Economy Plus seating with up to 5 more inches of legroom.
United's savviest flyers strategize how to maximize amenities within their budget. Preferred status helps - elites score complimentary Economy Plus seating and United Club access when flying coach. If you qualify for premium cabins but find fares drooping, you can “buy up” amenities like Economy Plus Extra Legroom, premium cabin meal service, United Club passes and more, essentially creating your own customized experience. This balance of premier perks and purchased upgrades helps tailor each flight to your specific needs.
Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Common Fees to Watch For
Savvy United travelers always keep an eye out for fees that can quash an otherwise good deal. While base fares might appear cheap upfront, hidden charges have a way of ballooning the final price. By knowing the most common fees in advance, you can accurately budget and avoid unpleasant surprises down the line.
At the top of the watch list are baggage fees. United charges $30 for your first checked bag on domestic routes, and $40 for the second – prices that are about average for U.S. airlines. But the fees for international checked bags run higher, usually around $100 for the first bag and $200 for the second. Bringing bags weighing 51 pounds or more also incurs oversize baggage fees.
Even a carry-on bag isn’t free anymore with United’s basic “Economy” fares. You'll pay an extra $25-$30 per flight segment if you bring aboard a full-sized carry-on and only booked a basic Economy fare. Upgrading to Economy Plus or higher waives this irksome charge. That’s why the savviest leisure travelers on a budget now simply travel with a slim under-seat personal item on short hops.
Change fees are another common gotcha. United dings you $200 to change a domestic flight if you booked in Economy or Premium Economy. For international flights, it's $300. Certain more flexible “Y” and “B” fares do include free changes, but this isn’t the norm. The takeaway is to only book when you're fairly certain of your dates.
Pre-assigning seat selection costs extra too with most standard United fares, usually $10-$60 per flight segment depending on your route and seat preference. Elite status and premium cabins include free advanced seat selection, a nice perk. But Economy flyers on a budget are best off waiting until check-in to secure seats for free.
In-flight food and drinks are no longer complimentary in coach either. Prices are inflated, like $10 beer and wine, $7 snacks, and $10 sandwiches. Long-haul Economy passengers can pre-purchase meals for around $20. Of course, premium cabins still enjoy complimentary dining. If hungry, your best bet is eating a full meal before flying and packing your own snacks.
Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Tips for Smooth Boarding and Check-In
A smooth, hassle-free flying experience starts the moment you arrive at the airport. Knowing United's boarding processes and check-in best practices can make your airport time breeze by. Approach check-in and boarding wisely, and you'll be settling into your seat with minimal stress.
Experienced United travelers plan ahead to avoid paperwork delays during check-in. Download the United app and check-in online 24 hours before departure to secure your boarding pass on your phone. This bypasses check-in lines and gets you to security faster. Printed bag tags can also be attached at home if checking luggage - just look for the tag kiosks inside the airport entrance.
Sign up for TSA PreCheck to speed through security lines in under 5 minutes while keeping shoes and belts on. Global Entry includes TSA PreCheck and similarly whisks you through immigration fast. Both require applications and fees but are worthwhile time-savers. You can enter your Known Traveler Number when booking on United's website to notify the airline you're PreCheck-approved.
At boarding, have your mobile boarding pass displayed and approach the gate at least 15-30 minutes prior to departure time. This gives ample buffer if an earlier flight is delayed so yours can board on-time. Also build in extra connection time for layovers under two hours.
Boarding order is assigned based on your fare class, status, and specific credit card. Join the appropriate boarding lane when invited by the gate agent. Main Economy boarding is last, so ultra-budget travelers should board at the tail end unless eligible for earlier groups. Upgrading fares, earning premier status, or holding select United credit cards can all fast-track the boarding queue.
If you get randomly assigned a middle seat, politely ask gate agents if roomier Economy Plus or exit row seats are still available. Agents can sometimes still shuffle seat assignments at the gate if available. Once settled into your seat, listen closely for boarding door closure and crosscheck the departure time. Set your watch to match the plane's time so you know if delays arise.
Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - How to Handle Flight Delays or Cancellations
No flyer wants to hear those dreaded words over the intercom: “Sorry folks, we’ve got an unexpected delay.” Or even worse, the cancellation of your entire flight. As frustrating as delays and cancellations can be, approaching them with savvy patience can salvage your trip when disruptions strike.
Arm yourself with preparation before you even get to the airport. Sign up for flight alerts from United so you can be notified if delays arise even before arriving at the gate. Download the United app which provides real-time notifications on flight status. Avoid tightly-scheduled connections when booking if possible, planning longer layovers to absorb delay impacts.
If a delay suddenly materializes at the gate, stay calm and weigh all options. Opening the United app provides delay updates and rebooking options. Snagging an earlier flight can get you back on track fast if seats exist. But rerouting could involve more connections, so have a preference on your priorities – direct flight, earlier arrival, etc. If the delay is weather-related, other airlines likely face similar issues, so be open to tweaks.
For multi-hour delays, inquire if United can re-accommodate you on partner airlines like Lufthansa to reach your destination sooner. Consider renting a car or booking a separate ticket on a low-cost carrier like Southwest if you simply need to get somewhere fast. Many airlines waive change fees during lengthy delays if flights were booked directly. Unite's Customer Solutions team can assist with rebooking if you call during extended disruptions.
During lengthy tarmac delays, request gate returns if timelines exceed limits. Staff handing out complimentary refreshments can ease frustrations but don't let vouchers deter you from following up for full flight credit later. For cancellations, immediately request rebooking on United's next available flight. If that involves an overnight stay, request expense-covered hotel accommodation and airport transfer along with meal vouchers or stipends.
Document causes for any substantial delay or cancellation for future reference. Major aircraft issues or airline-caused problems may entitle you to compensation, usually a flight credit or voucher, under federal regulations. But weather events and air traffic issues are outside the airline's control so credit eligibility depends on circumstances. Total delay duration also factors in.
Friendly Skies or Turbulent Times? Navigating United Airlines for the Savvy Traveler - Leveraging United's Partnerships
One underutilized way savvy United flyers can enhance their travel experience is by leveraging the airline's extensive partnerships with other carriers and hospitality brands. Thanks to its membership in the Star Alliance and numerous other partnerships, United travelers gain access to wider route networks, reciprocal frequent flyer benefits, and other perks that make navigating the skies smoother. But you have to know how to tap into these partnerships' full potential.
For starters, when booking award flights on United, don’t forget to check availability on partner airlines like Lufthansa, Air Canada, ANA, and Singapore Airlines. United won't always display partners' award space, so you have to search one-by-one on each airline site. But doing so can reveal more plentiful award availability thanks to greater overall seat capacity across all partner airlines. This is especially useful for securing those coveted international first and business class award seats. Redeeming United miles for a luxurious ANA first class flight from Tokyo to New York is a scenic treat while only setting you back 80,000 miles versus 110,000+ on United's own planes.
United’s airline partners can also rescue you during flight cancellations and delays. Don’t just accept whatever rebooking options United initially offers - proactively call partners like Lufthansa and Air Canada to see if they can get you to your destination faster on their planes using United's tickets during major disruptions. Similarly, partners can provide backup options if United doesn’t have award availability for your dates. Always cross-check.
When you have a complicated itinerary mixing United and partner segments, call United to combine onto a single ticket booked in the right fare class. A single ticket with mixed partners allows you to breeze through connections, rebook easily if plans change, and earn qualifying miles towards United elite status from the partners’ flights. Speaking of elite status, United Silver, Gold, Platinum, and 1K members enjoy priority lines, lounge access, and other reciprocal perks when flying United’s partner airlines worldwide. Just be sure to enter your United loyalty number when booking partner flights.
On the hotel side, United loyalty members can earn bonus miles on stays with Marriott, Best Western, Hertz, and other partner brands. United even has an exclusive partnership with MGM Resorts allowing members to redeem miles for Vegas hotel stays at prime locations like Bellagio and Aria Resort. When staying at partner hotels, mention your United loyalty program membership at check-in to confirm you’ll receive miles and status perks.