Are some non-saver United awards bookable via partners?

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Are you looking for something miles & points-related to take your mind off of all of the coronavirus coverage? Are you a problem-solver investigative type looking for a puzzle to solve while you sit at home social distancing yourself? If so, this post is for you. Let me just first clearly remind everyone that this post isn’t meant to encourage anyone to do any unnecessary travel in the near future. But I know I can’t be the only person at home right now looking for something other than the news to occupy my mind, so today I thought I’d share something that has been stumping me for a while and set some of you loose on figuring it out. If you are looking for a story with a neat beginning, middle, and end, this post is not it. I can’t figure out the end — I need your help.

A few months ago, I stumbled on an anomaly that I haven’t been able to replicate — at least, not in exactly the same way: I found a non-saver United flight that appeared to be bookable via Turkish Miles & Smiles. I was looking for a flight from Albany, NY to Salt Lake City, Utah on a date when there were some saver awards available on United.com. However, when I pulled up Turkish Miles & Smiles, I found an itinerary bookable for 7,500 miles one-way that wasn’t available as a saver award via United. In fact, the same itinerary via United.com was 32.5K miles for 1 passenger, whereas Turkish showed availability for 3 people at 7.5K each. I intended to look into it further, but plans were on hold and eventually fizzled. I searched and searched for other similar examples at the time and didn’t find them.

However, in several attempts to find similar results, I’ve found other weirdness in the Turkish Miles & Smiles online booking engine and by extension via LifeMiles. For those unfamiliar with Turkish Miles & Smiles and its sweet spot for booking United award flights, I encourage you to read How to book United flights with Turkish Miles & Smiles. The short story is that Turkish charges 7,500 miles each way in economy class for domestic star alliance awards, like domestic awards on United, and Turkish is a 1:1 Citi transfer partner (so it’s easy to earn points that are transferable to Turkish).

A near-universal rule of booking award travel is that when you want to use partner miles to book a flight (for example, when you want to use Turkish miles to book a flight on United), there must be saver availability on the itinerary you want to book. United only makes their saver awards available to partners (and they don’t allow their partners to book flights that require you to have the United credit card or United elite status, either).

At least, that’s how it is supposed to work. In 99% of the cases where you want to book an award on Airline A using Airline B’s miles, Airline A needs to have saver availability. The rest of this post will toss that theory somewhat into question, but that’s usually the rule.

We have known since last July that when you make a phone or email booking with Turkish Miles & Smiles, a layover of more than 4 hours causes Turkish agents to price the award double the standard award price — at 15K miles one-way rather than 7.5K miles one-way, almost as though it is 2 separate tickets. Based on a comment from someone at FTU DC a couple of weeks ago, I think that the Turkish computer system actually is building that as two separate tickets and if you booked it for 15K you may have some challenge in getting United to put the pieces together.

However, when you book online, we have in the past shown that you can have a layover of 11+ hours with the ticket still pricing as a single award at 7500 miles one-way.

However, I’ve run into some odd situations where online awards have priced out at 15,000 miles one-way.

For example, I took another look at Albany to Salt Lake City (note that I don’t actually have any plans to travel to Salt Lake City now, these searches are just theoretical in order to attempt to find patterns).  On August 19th, I found an itinerary via Turkish Airlines (flying on United) leaving Albany at 12pm and arriving in Salt Lake city at 10:02pm. This award priced at 15,000 miles one-way — double what an economy class award should cost on this route.

Interestingly, that same itinerary is available via United.com, but not as a saver award. Via United.com, it costs 29,500 miles. It is odd that a non-saver itinerary prices out at all via a partner like Turkish.

But let’s get weirder.

Because of my Marriott Titanium status, I currently have United Premier Silver status. When I log in to my United account and search the same date and route, that option is available as part of United expanded availability for elite members (and presumably for Chase cardholders?).

Wait — can Turkish book United expanded availability?!?? Obviously, Turkish is not seeing this because of my status but rather for some reason, United is showing it as available to Turkish. That’s weird. It does not appear to be available to other Star Alliance programs.

Something else that stood out to me was the fact that the above itinerary would cost $11.20 in taxes whether booked through Turkish or United. One-way domestic awards usually cost $5.60 in taxes within the US. Interestingly, both United and Turkish showed $11.20 in taxes. This Flyertalk thread tells me that this is because the connection is greater than 4 hours, so it counts as a “stop” instead of a layover (hence United needs to pay the departure tax on the second leg and they pass that along to you). This makes sense to me: Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer has the same 4hr rule on domestic US awards — a domestic US itinerary with a layover of more than 4 hours must be booked as 2 awards, this tax situation must be why. Whereas United (and apparently Turkish?) have their systems set up to automatically recognize this and double your taxes in a case like this, Singapore (and presumably other foreign programs) must not.

However, we still have two things that were perplexing me:

  1. How is Turkish showing this bookable when United doesn’t show it as a saver award?
  2. Why is this pricing not consistent? (Read on)

To answer question #1, my first hypothesis was that United.com must show the two legs separately available as saver awards (when not logged in as an elite member). My assumption was that Albany (ALB) – Newark (EWR) was available as a saver award and that Newark (EWR) – Salt Lake City (SLC) was available as a saver award, hence Turkish is marrying them as a saver award together because their system prices the two legs separately due to the long connection. United, on the other hand, uses married segment logic to somehow bump up the price (for anyone who is not an elite member). However, while Albany to Newark was indeed available as a saver award, Newark to Salt Lake City was not available as a saver award on the flight in question (UA 1250 for departure at 7pm nonstop from Newark to Salt Lake City).

I went through to the payment page on Turkish Airlines and it certainly looks like that pair of flights can be booked for 15K total miles via Turkish Miles & Smiles even though it can’t be booked as a saver award at United for non-elites. For the record, when I searched via Juicy Miles, that same itinerary available via Turkish does not show up under any of the other Star Alliance programs (there are plenty of other saver award combinations — though most of them involve 2 connections, likely to avoid the more-than-4hr-connection).

I don’t yet have an answer to question #1. The easy guess is that it is somehow phantom availability that will disappear or not confirm after trying to book it. That’s possible — I didn’t try to book this as I don’t actually need this flight and I didn’t want to waste phone agent time canceling this booking when phone agents are likely overwhelmed with people who have much more pressing needs at the moment. But I have run into other awards that errored out early in the process — with the above itinerary to Salt Lake City, I can get through to the final payment page. It looks like it would ticket.

Perplexion #2 (yeah, I just made that word up) gets a little weirder yet in some instances. Take for example my searches for an award from Newark to Honolulu in February 2021. First, I should note a reminder that the Turkish Airlines website doesn’t show anywhere near all of the United availability there is to book. The website shows some availability, almost all of the itineraries shown are 1-stop even when nonstop is available and Turkish rarely shows 2-stop options on domestic awards (but not never 2-stop….it’s all over the map). If you want to book something you see as a saver award on United.com that doesn’t show up on the Turkish Airlines website, try emailing a ticket office. On these example dates to follow, I believe United.com shows the nonstop available in economy class as a saver award, but ignore that for a moment as we look at what Turkish shows. On Friday, February 5th, 2021, there is a 1-stop itinerary with an 8hr layover in San Francisco that prices out at 15K miles and $5.60.

That doesn’t make any sense, does it? If it were following my logic above, one would expect the taxes to be $11.20 because of the longer-than-4hr-layover. It would stand to reason that perhaps this is pricing as 2 awards (each 7500 miles and $5.60 cumulatively costing 15K + $11.20) — except that the taxes aren’t doubled here. Why not? My only guess is that perhaps flights to Hawaii are exempt from the longer-than-4hr-layover tax rule? In other words, perhaps overnight connections to Hawaii do not incur the second departure tax unlike other domestic itineraries.

Initially even more confusing is the fact that the very next day — on February 6th — the same exact itinerary shows up for 7500 miles initially in search results.

However, when you click through to try to book that, the price jumps to 15K miles and $5.60. The itinerary above that departs Newark (EWR) at 11:00am prices at 7,500 miles and $5.60 as it only has a 2hr layover in San Francisco. Something I noticed after many searches is that the Turkish site only shows one price for all itineraries in a single cabin even when some awards price differently on the next page in the booking process (for example, the itinerary boxed in red above bumps up to 15K on the next page; the one above it stays at 7.5K).

Note that in both of those cases (February 5th and February 6th), the 21:00 departure from Newark that connects overnight in San Francisco en route to Honolulu is not available as a single award via United.com, though both legs do show saver availability separately.

Weirder still, LifeMiles.com shows an available itinerary that begins on that 21:00 departure from Newark, but rather than connecting a single time in San Francisco, it also connects in Los Angeles.

That combination is not available via United.com. Adding oddity on top of oddity, JuicyMiles.com shows 4 itineraries bookable via LifeMiles, but none of them depart at 21:00.

The JuicyMiles screen shot above shows an itinerary with a 9am departure that isn’t available as a saver award at United.com when you aren’t logged in — though I do see that 9am departure (and 8:16pm arrival) available when logged in as an elite member on United. However, I don’t see the 9am departure available via other partners. Nor is it available via LifeMiles.com…though there is both the 21:00 departure and an itinerary departing at 19:00 available via LifeMiles.com, niether of which are reflected on JuicyMiles and neither of which are available at United.com (even when logged in).

But you’ll likely note that both of those later 2-stop itineraries have higher-than-usual taxes — an inexplicable $12.91. Huh? I don’t know why it’s pricing that way via LifeMiles.

For anyone wondering if Turkish has just re-priced awards to Hawaii, have no fear. You can still book flights to Honolulu for 7500 each way in economy class or 12500 each way in business class provided that the layovers are less than 4 hours.

But on subsequent searches, I could no longer find an itinerary with a layover of more than 4hrs that didn’t price at 15K miles once you click through to book it (some of them showed as 7500 miles initially like above but re-priced on the next booking page). That isn’t totally unfair if the domestic rule is that a layover of more than 4hrs counts as a stopover from the perspective of the federal government. It isn’t inconsistent with availability I see via most other foreign programs apart from LifeMiles. But I don’t understand why the Turkish booking system wants to charge the departure tax twice in some cases and not others when the layover is longer than 4hrs unless it’s just a “Hawaii thing”.

Of course, the Turkish website sometimes just doesn’t make sense. For example, if you want to book a trip from Hartford, CT (BDL) to Houston (IAH), the Turkish site really wants to route you through Istanbul for some reason. Don’t get excited — it also wants to charge you as though you are flying economy class to Europe and back (30K each way for 60K total one way here).

It likes that routing through Istanbul so much that it wants to charge you 60K even when itineraries entirely on United are available.

Don’t worry — if you click through on the 12:50 departure from BDL to IAH connecting at ORD, it re-prices to 7500 miles and $5.60. Unfortunately, I think because the engine thinks you need an international connection, it errors out and tells you that you don’t have enough time to connect on the other United itineraries (which all have connections under 90 minutes). However, it will let you move forward with your Hartford-to-Houston-via-Istanbul itinerary if you really want to do that.

However, you might have trouble checking in for that flight (because, cabotage).

Help me figure this out

To recap, here are the key areas of confusion I’ve been trying to resolve:

  1. Turkish Airlines sometimes (though not often) shows availability on United flights that aren’t available as saver awards to non-elites/CC holders. Why and how? Is there a predictable pattern to be found?
  2. LifeMiles apparently also allows some routings that United does not. Is there a predictable pattern to be found?
  3. Is Hawaii an exception for the 4hr connection rule in terms of taxes paid? In other words, are taxes to Hawaii capped at $5.60 each way even when incurring a layover of more than 4hrs?
  4. Does Turkish have any other routing weirdness like Hartford-to-Houston-via-Istanbul that may be more beneficial?

If you find an answer to Point #4 (I haven’t), you’re probably better off keeping it to yourself. But the first 3 answers could be beneficial for all of us trying to book awards as patterns could help us identify times when we should search via Turkish and/or LifeMiles for itineraries that we wouldn’t see via other Star Alliance programs. It also makes me wonder what additional availability might show for Star Alliance programs I never use, like EVA.

Whether or not we’re able to answer these questions, a key takeaway for me here is that when I need a flight on a specific date, it may be worth searching more than just United.com as there may be more availability than I’m led to believe based on saver space. That said, I’ll take an assist on this: have you figured out any of the above answers?

 

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