Thursday, July 9, 2015

United Airlines Pricing Tricks

While some people like using third party online agencies such as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, etc to book their flights, my family prefers to book directly on the airline's own website.

Should any issue arise with the flights, we can go directly to the airline to fix the problem. If we went through Orbitz, we'd have to call Orbitz to have them contact the airline. Since the prices are the same (ignoring shopping portals), it's not in our interest to have a middleman involved.

So when we went to book our flight to Phoenix for Columbus Day Weekend, we went directly to and input our flight details. But in addition to having a direct channel to United for any flight issues, we also had a small (tiny) benefit from being members of Club. Club
We signed up for the Club earlier this year. This Club is not the same thing as the United Club (Lounges). The Club is a program where you pay $25 per year to be a member, then you receive $5 reward per ticket each time you book on These rewards go into your Travel Bank which can be used for future bookings. And since we always travel as a family of 3, that's $15 of rewards each trip.

Interestingly enough, each "ticket" is counted based on a reservation number. So instead of booking a round-trip on a single reservation, we will sometimes book the trip as two separate one-way tickets. So instead of $15 per trip, we can get $30.

Now, the downside is that if we needed to make a change to both legs or cancel the trip completely, we'd have to pay 2 change fees which are $150/person. But my father likes to live dangerously!

So for our Phoenix trip, we booked (a) one reservation Newark-Phoenix non-stop and then (b) looked for a return flight back to New York.

Creative Routing
Now, most rational people prefer non-stop flights because it reduces both (i) travel time and (ii) risk of missing your connection if there are any delays. However, when you live with my crazy father, you understand that frequent flyer status benefits may be worth the price of a few extra hours of transit.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my United elite qualification was 5,917 miles short from achieving Silver status for the rest of 2015 and all of 2016. Knowing that we'd be making a trip to Chicago at some point this year, we knew we were secure for an additional 1,466 miles, but that left needing 4,451 miles.

A round trip Newark-Phoenix would get us VERY close, but that would only be 2,133 miles each way (4,266 miles total). So I would miss the 25,000 mile mark for the year by just 185 miles!

We now had a few options:

(A) Abandon the plan to get United Silver elite status
(B) Book another flight in 2015
(C) Buy Elite Qualifying Miles from United
(D) Get creative

Most rational adults would just choose Option A. Status obsessed individuals, however, would likely go for Options B or C, but my father couldn't justify the costs.

After all, since I was the one that needed extra miles, I'd be the one who would have to go on another flight. But being just under 4 years old, I couldn't go alone. Plus, the really short flights (NYC-Philadelphia) are the ones that are most expensive relative to the distance flown, not to mention the time and additional cost required (including getting to/from the airport).

Option C would save us time/hassle, but would also be very expensive, since United is smart enough to know now to sell exactly the # of elite qualification miles you need (185 in my case). Instead, they sell you a bulk package such as 9,000 miles for almost $1,500. Clearly, we had no need for the extra 8.815 miles, so this option didn't make sense to us either.

So we went with Option D. Instead of flying back from Phoenix direct to Newark, we he decided to take the scenic route back to New York by connecting through Houston. Using the principles of trigonometry, the sum of these two segments (2,425 miles) will be greater than the direct Phoenix-New York (2,133). Now I should barely get over the 25,000 mark to hit Silver Status through Feb 2017.

Plus, since United flies Houston to LaGuardia, we could fly into a more conveniently located airport. Sounds like a very compelling alternative. Now, we'd have to make the connection, but 50 minutes between flights seems pretty reasonable, though we'll see how far the boarding gates are at the massive IAH Airport.

Now to price this connecting segment.

One-Way vs. Multi-Destination
Most people would punch in PHX and LGA then let the website figure out the connection options which would include (Denver, Chicago and Houston). Then they would select the itinerary they wanted (Houston) and click to purchase.

This method would price out this return flight at $230/person. That was actually $60/person MORE than the direct PHX-EWR flight. Suddenly, the idea of (a) paying $180 more, (b) taking longer to get home and (c) risking a mis-connect seemed a lot less attractive.

However, my father knew a trick. Instead of inputting the search as a "One-Way" he chose "Multiple Destinations." This brought him to a new page where you could run more detailed searches.

So then he input two separate flights. First PHX-IAH and then IArH-LGA with the same departure date of Monday, October 12.

Now when the search was run, he had to choose the options for each leg. He quickly found the same flights (1:29PM PHX-IAH and the 7:00PM IAH-LGA). Low and behold...

$192 per person. For the same exact flights. We just saved $40/person simply for searching in a different way.

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