Changing an upgraded ticket? Beware a co-pay nightmare


Sometimes booking a trip is an invitation to a potential nightmare, especially, when trying to use frequent flier miles, either with a free ticket or an upgrade. United Airlines’ new cash-and-miles frequent-flier upgrade rules are making the process fraught with questions.

In this case, things start out very smoothly and upgrades fell into place without a problem. But, then there was a schedule change. It was a voluntary change where my client was quite willing to pay a penalty. This is when the fun can really begin. Especially this year when the original ticket was booked on United before January 12, 2010 — the date the airline switched to an award program requiring both miles and cash to upgrade most tickets.

According to United, passengers who booked tickets before that were not required to pay money. However, passengers who decide to change an upgraded ticket at all, even by a day or a few hours, and even if you pay the penalty, will ALSO have to pay the new co-pay. Period. 

Within the 48 continental United States the fee is usually no more than $50. However, to Hawaii and internationally it can be several hundred dollars.

During these days when the new rules are being used, it’s not a bad idea to call United, or have your travel agent call United, to make sure the upgrade stays in force. 

I called United yesterday for a client going from California to New York where the system tried to charge him a change fee upon online check-in. Originally, the United reservation agent told me nothing could be done, because we had reissued the ticket.

Fortunately, a supervisor at the sales office was able to fix the problem. But had my client been at the airport with a flight about ready to leave, no doubt he would have had to pay the new change fees to avoid being denied boarding. 

Another issue with United’s change fees and additional cash payments arises when only the return portion of the ticket is changed. After some discussion, United advised me that this will not mandate a charge for the upgraded outbound as well. But in these days of rule changeovers, this issue would need to be addressed by a human, probably a supervisor, to make sure the passenger is not charged at  the airport.

Considering that many United Mileage Plus members booked upgraded tickets before the rule change to avoid the co-pay, no doubt this issue will come up over and over in the next several months, since flights booked far in advance are likely candidates for schedule changes.

This change in United’s frequent flier program policy is so new, it’s hard to know how often the schedule change problem in particular will happen. Small schedule changes where the ticket doesn’t have to be reissued might be no problem at all; ditto simple equipment/aircraft changes. 

But again, better to be safe than sorry on this one. The time to find out that there’s a technical issue with an upgrade is NOT when you are standing in a check-in line with the plane leaving in an hour.

photo by Jonathan Caves/ commons.