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Bye bye United. How United lost (another!) 1K Member

Category : united

First, I want to say that this is not your traditional FHWW fare. Instead, this is about fares of a different sort – airfare and loyalty programs. I could rant for quite a while on this topic, but instead, I’d like to tell you about my story and the decision I recently made.

A Longtime United Customer… no Longer

I’ve been a long time traveler on United, starting from my days back in Chicago when they were the big game in town to when I moved to the East coast and found United to still be a good way to go. Having been in United’s frequent flier program since 1994, I accumulated a lot of miles and lifetime value. I stuck with their quirky ways and used them most of the time when the competitive fares were about the same. Of course, I would regularly fly Southwest and other airlines when the fares were out of whack.

But this story is not a complaint about airfares. It’s a complaint about the decreasing value of loyalty.

I am a 1K Frequent Flier in the United program. Why they call it 1K is beyond me because it actually is 100K, that is 100,000 miles flown in one year qualifies you for their highest level loyalty rewards program. It’s worth highlighting the word highest because that supposedly means you are the most important set of customers to them, with perhaps the exception being those in the Million Mile club (not to be confused with the Mile High Club), who might also be 1K members.

The problem is that 1K program membership has over time eroded to mean little. I would primarily use the benefits of my 1k membership by getting upgrades as often as possible and additional mileage bonus points.

The key operative word in the above is try. United really does all it can to make it hard to use the rewards that are the benefits of its loyalty program. If you try to upgrade when you check in, forget it. Odds are it will already be fully booked, most likely by upgraders in loyalty program levels lower than your own. Your best shot is to upgrade 24-72 hours in advance.

But then there’s a big catch. Even 1k members can’t upgrade all classes of tickets (Q and S especially), and if your itinerary includes a flight on a code-share with another airline, forget it. You’re back to cattle class. This is not an issue on short-haul domestic flights, but I flew halfway across the world on a Star Alliance member airline and got treated no better than someone who had zero loyalty.

Now, I’m not complaining about economy class. Sure, if that’s what I paid for, maybe that’s what I deserved. But then again, what was the value of having 1K membership? If the only value of loyalty is having to pay for higher-fare “upgradable” economy class tickets (which set you back a few hundred or more dollars in addition to the discounted economy class fare) and then you can’t even use that loyalty on supposed partner airlines, there’s really no value to loyalty.

Airline loyalty is heavily skewed in the favor of the airlines. The airlines benefit by capturing your revenue. The passengers benefit little in the way of upgrades or free tickets.

Now, I can put up with all that if United at least treated its 1k passengers with some respect (after all, we are dedicating our travel budgets to them!). But the straw that broke the camel’s back was my latest overseas trip when they basically told me that they can give a rat’s ass about my 1k Membership.

Now, they didn’t use the “rat’s ass” part, but the rest is absolutely true. I was trying to upgrade on a segment of my airfare that involved a partner airline (yes, I know now that’s impossible, see above). But the problem is that the partner airline was telling me that it was United’s problem to resolve. United was telling me it was the partner’s problem. I bought my ticket from United, so I was inclined to believe the partner.

I’m also United’s loyal customer, so you’d think they’d want to go to bat for me. Nope. Wrong on both counts. They told me “I don’t care what level of partner you are, you’re not going to get anything from United.”

I just stood there dumbfounded. What kind of @!##@$ crack is that? You don’t care about my loyalty? Well then, F– you! You’ve lost it.

The Lesson to be Learned

Loyalty is an aspect of trust. It has to be earned. It can’t be singled-sidedly granted and then revoked. Customers give their loyalty. Companies earn it. But somehow we have it all backwards in the travel industry. Somehow customers have to earn loyalty and companies give benefits as if they were donating turkeys at a Thanksgiving charity dinner. When they run out of turkeys, the benefits are gone.

For me, I’m going to fly on the airline that offers the best deal at that time. If I want to fly business class, I’m better off paying for that and saving the hundreds of dollars in the meantime by avoiding paying the price for loyalty.

And if you are thinking of creating your own loyalty program, don’t do it the way that airlines, hotels, and rental car companies do it — through collecting points and then limiting rewards. Do it by giving your customers the incentive to keep coming back and refering their friends and neighbors. Reward people by giving them flat discounts off airfares and upgrades.The more you fly, the more discounts you get. Think of it as coupon-based loyalty.

What are your thoughts / frustrations with the airline industry and United’s program in particular? Have you also made a 2008 New Year’s resolution to avoid companies that treat you as if they would rather you not be their customer?

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This blog is a personal blog written and edited by me. For questions about this blog, please contact Rex at info [at] fourhourworkweekdiary [dot] com. This blog accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions or other forms of compensation. The compensation received may influence the advertising content, topics or posts made in this blog, including the article written above. That content, advertising space or post may not always be identified as paid or sponsored content. The owner(s) of this blog is compensated to provide opinion on products, services, websites and various other topics. Even though the owner(s) of this blog receives compensation for our posts or advertisements, we often give our honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experiences on those topics or products. The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the bloggers' own. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer, provider or party in question. This blog may contain content which might present a conflict of interest. This content may not always be identified.

Comments (4)

Impresive – and sadly acurate – commentary.
I had a large number of points left over early last year and was invited to “use them or lose them”. So I converted them into a return trip from Sydney, Australia, to Las Vegas.

It was an economy class ticket, but hey, it cost me about $US150 to get there and back instead of nearly A$2000 if I’d paid for it so i wasn’t complaining.

The best thing about flying United from Australia to US is that not many other people do. So each way I ended up with three seats to myself – a flat bed in effect when you fold the armrests up – certainly flatter than the old fashioned seats I last experienced business class on a flight from Germany to Washington DC….

UA has sadly fallen so far behind the standards one now expects from European, Asian and Oceania airlines, one can only wonder how they survive. Is it because Americans fly through a sense of duty?

Your Mileage Plus experience is symptomatic of a terminal virus for which management are far too blinkered to look offshore for a cure.

Australians and New Zealanders are prolific fliers – we have to if we are going to see other parts of the globe! I know of not one who would willingly fly a US airline. And United – alas – is now at the bottom of the list….

I have to agree that things have gotten worse at United. Unfortunately those of us in Denver have limited choices if we travel internationally.

One of the commitments they have evidently trashed is the non-expiring miles which they guaranteed to 1 million mile travelers. As I’m getting up in age, the possibility to accumulate miles while working for use when I retire was really valuable to me. Now that I’m starting to serious consider retirement United has GONE BACK on this previous commitment that miles in a one-million mile traveler’s account would never expire.

Simply put, they don’t care any more.

I think its time to get rid of these old threads or crap. I still fly United and they have made giant strides in their cabins, and customer service on and off aircraft. I am a 1K and I get there only by flying 100 segments NOT the mileage.
Granted the past time I was a premier executive i was upgraded more often then now, I’m still cofident things are improving. You can fly US AIR and Continental and your segments will count towards United, if you DON’T have accounts with the other two. Next weekend April 18th I’m flying to HNL (Honolulu) from LAX (Los Angeles) on a triple 7 I’m waitlisted for an upgrade for my wife and I. I’ll let you know how I fare (ha!) but you can be sure there will be employees ahead of me, and that’s my biggest gripe. It’s not even allowed on Virgin America, agaisnt corporate policy, no personel ALLOWED, a far cry from a 757 full of united FA’s in FIRST CLASS headed from LAX to SFO for their asian trips. Even United Express will put their pilots in first before they honor the customers. Makes you wonder,


Wrong.. except for pilots traveling to work a flight, all UA staff are confirmed in economy and standby for first class AFTER all eligible full fare passengers. NOW all UA premiers on paid tickets receive complimentary upgrades, if available up to 4 days in advance of their departure, based on premier status. So let us be greatful and thankful. A benefit for airline staff being given away for free, I expected some backlash from UA crew and employees, but they have been exemplary and now seem excited about their new merger with CO

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