The Basics

Is United Penalizing Regular Members to Give More Award Value to Cardholders/Elite Members?

Written by Charlie

Is United Airlines be penalizing regular members with award space to give more value to their credit card holders and elite members?

As I have written before, I am a big fan of United’s credit card perk that allows cardholders (and elite members) to get greater United flight award availability. This is a really great way to see some value on this card that otherwise trails behind the American and Delta counterparts with benefits for traveling on the airline.

Is United Penalizing Regular Members to Give More Award Value to Cardholders and Elite Members?

Link: How the United Card Continues to Give Me Great Value

But, is this benefit starting to penalize regular members who either don’t have the United Airlines credit card or are not elite members? I have been noticing a lot more flight routes coming up empty on award flights when I am not signed in. As a United credit card holder, all I normally need to do is to sign in but if you do not have any of the United credit cards, this could be a real problem.

American Airlines gets a lot of flack for their lack of regular award space on transatlantic routes. United Airlines seems to actually be having quite the constraint on award space even on simple regional routes. Of course, there are tons of routes and I have not checked them all but I have been checking dozens of routes to see what the award availability is like and have also been doing a lot of searches for people for award bookings. And I can tell you that the award space seems to be much tighter than before!

award value

This is a United hub (Washington-Dulles) to Orlando NOT SIGNED IN

award value

This is the same route SIGNED IN – a lot more award availability!

Big Problem for Flights Connecting to International Flights on Awards

What makes this even more annoying is when searching for international routes. United’s partners tend to have some pretty good availability, especially in economy cabins. But, if you are trying to depart from a smaller, regional airport with your United award, this has been a problem. I have found incredible availability for the overseas portion of the awards but really had a lot of problems finding the United feeder flights for the overseas flights.

award value

All of these flights only available to cardholders or elite members

Again, I have United credit cards so this is not a problem for me. But, there are many people who book on United that do not have the card. Since Ultimate Rewards points transfer at 1:1 to United, you do not need a United card to actually accumulate United miles.

In my mind, United may be penalizing their regular members while trying to keep award space tight to give their cardholders and elite members more value. As a cardholder, I appreciate the extra award space but I still feel that United should just open up more across the board instead of so severely limiting regular United members without the cards.

What do you think? If you do not have the United card or status, do you have problems finding United award flights?

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About the author


Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.


  • card is just one part. it’s mostly for giving more award space to their own elites, and this only applies to coach cabin. There’s a similar concept initially for more space in business (IN bucket instead of I), but that has never really materialized in practice. (elites and card folks also have more access to last-seat YN space, if that matters to anyone)

    and this isn’t really news. the practice of XN access for card folks have been for quite a few years. it’s just that previously they didn’t put such a blatant disclaimer right there.

    the argument for rewarding their own members is a strong case (scores of airlines like LH, SQ, CX etc deploy this practice), so therefore the only alternative here is sending card folks back to X space instead of XN.

    • I know it has been segregated like this for a while but it has gotten to be much more obvious in the past few months. It seems as if they are maintaining the same amount of awards seats but moving more of them to the XN bucket. I understand rewarding elites but it is kind of at crazy levels now. It is even more restrictive that partner coach flights in the summer!
      I was able to find numerous seats for NYC/ORD/IAD to Europe on partners but United wouldn’t have a single basic award available to any of those airports from regional airports. And when I fly, those planes are almost half-empty! Just glad I have the card!

  • This also affects those of us who have a United card and also have say an Amex card to transfer points to Singapore to book a United flight. I’m finding I used to be able to do this but now I pretty much always have to use my united miles for united flights.