Last week, United launched three new "added benefits for the savvy traveler." But a closer look raises questions about just who benefits the most -- those supposedly savvy flyers or United?
Baggage Subscription. Starting at $349 a year, you can "forget about checked baggage service charges" and instead check a bag for no fee each time you travel. You have a handful of options:
-- Check two bags in the same area, $399 a year.
-- Add Alaska, Canada, Central America, Hawaii and Mexico for an extra $100.
-- Add United flights worldwide for an extra $450.
-- Add a companion to any of these options for an extra $100.
-- Add up to eight companions traveling on the same reservation for an extra $300 a year.
The math is easy. One checked bag normally costs $25, a second costs $35 (more on some international routes). If you fly only within the 48 continental states, and travel by yourself, you'd have to take 14 one-way trips per year to break even; with two bags, you'd break even at seven one-way trips. A couple checking one bag each would break even at nine one-way trips; a couple checking two bags each would break even at four one-way trips.
The added cost for Alaska and Hawaii makes no sense; regular baggage fees are the same as for travel within the continental 48 states. And the extra $450 for global travel is really weird: Travelers to Asia and Europe get one bag at no charge.
Clearly, unless you travel a lot, the only "savvy" users are couples who take two round-trips a year and check two bags each time. Otherwise, the break-even points are pretty high for typical vacation travelers.
Economy Plus Subscription. Starting at $499 per year, you qualify for extra-legroom Economy Plus seating on any flight. That base price covers travel within just the continental 48 states; add North and Central America for $100 and the entire world for $200; add one companion for $200 and up to eight companions for $400.
Here, the math isn't as clear. The regular cost to upgrade an individual flight varies by length of flight and the specific day and time. But let's try a few possibilities: Say the normal Economy Plus fee within the continental 48 states is $50, then the one-person subscription pays off at 10 one-way flights and the base plus companion pays off at seven one-way trips. Or say the regular Economy Plus fee on a flight to Europe is $100; then, the one-person subscription pays off at seven one-way trips and the couple option pays off at five one-way trips. Here again, only a few ordinary travelers are likely to travel that often.
United Club Membership. You can buy a one-year membership in the United Club airport lounge for 65,000 miles. The regular price is $500 (less for elite frequent flyers), so the promotion values frequent flyer credit at a bit less than 0.8 cents a mile. Most folks agree that miles are worth somewhere between 1 and 2 cents a mile, so this offer is pure flim-flam.
What About Frequent Travelers? If you're a frequent business traveler, both subscription deals could look good. But the offset here is that if you travel on full-fare economy or an elite-level frequent flyer, you get into Economy Plus without paying extra. And you get one no-fee checked bag if you buy your ticket with a United Explorer credit card.
The Winner: United. United is likely to win big. It will take in more money from subscriptions than selling the services one flight at a time, and subscriptions will bind travelers even more closely to United.
The verdict. The only travelers likely to benefit from either subscription are vacationers who take a lot of trips with checked baggage or business travelers who fly a lot but use cheap tickets and don't fly enough to qualify for elite status. Otherwise, United just rakes in more money.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)