So, everyone knows United and Continental are merging. I know, shocker. The logo is continental, the frequent flier program is continental, the way they value fliers by fare paid is continental…essentially isn’t continental with the United name and economy plus…as well as First Class on a few international planes. Personally, I have high hopes this will be an improvement for me personally, but that’s a story for another post. For those of you coming from either United or Continental, I wanted to highlight six tricks I think everyone needs to know.
1) United award booking online sucks, and always has. Basically, if an award involves a Star Alliance partner beyond United, you can’t book it online. With Continental’s website not only can you, but you can book one ways, split-class, etc. The Continental award booking engine is everything you could want, and I really hope it survives. One extra trick: unless you need a stopover, never book a roundtrip. Book it as two one ways. It gives you much more flexibility especially if things change and you find a better routing.
2) Continental.com lets you book some really odd routings! Calling United, you were always very limited by the MPM (maximum permitted miles) on awards, but continental.com seems to be a bit clueless. When I type in in DC to London, I’ve gotten routings via LA, San Francisco, and once I even got a routing via Rio de Janeiro. Go figure. Lesson here is try, try, try – you never know what yo might be offered, and if you’re flexible you might get something fun!
3) Sometimes United is better, sometimes Continental is. If you book on the Continental side, you can still get COPA and Virgin Atlantic awards sometimes – very nice! However, if you book via the United 1-800 number you can often get routings Continental just won’t show. Especially when booking on partners. Check both sides, put things on hold, and figure out the best deal. Biggest lesson is try, try, and try again!
4) I’m sure everyone has figured this out, but integration sucks. Booking a United-operated flight on Continental, or a Continental-operated flight on United just won’t be easy. Things will happen, computers won’t talk to each other correctly, and you’re asking for trouble. If you save lots of money maybe it’s worth it…but for now, try and book with the carrier you plan to fly. If things do go tits up, you’re like to save yourself lots of drama. Integration will take 1-2 yrs minimum (Delta is STILL integrating) so plan for a bit of pain.
5) Earnings are not always the same. If you fly COPA, for example, you can credit to Continental, but not United. This is fine for 2011, but it’s still to be seen how 2012 will work. Since they merge details from both programs, there’s a chance to ‘game’ the system here. Always double check, and always make sure you work things out in the way that’s best for you.
6) Prepare for frustration. In my experience, in the last year, Continental crews are often bitter at United, and United crews are often bitter at Continental. Some of the announcements I’ve heard pilots and flight attendants make cause me to cringe not only as a paying passenger and a stockholder, but as a businessperson. There’s lots of hurt feelings out there, and you’re going to experience it sometimes. Try and ignore it, move past, remove emotion from the equation, and ask for what you need or want in a rational way. Crews may behave emotionally, but if you attempt to be rational there’s a much better chance you’ll get what you want from the situation.
These are just my 2011 thoughts on the merger. I’m sure lots of folks will disagree, but with well over 150,000 flown miles nearly evenly split between the two airlines this year I do have a decent sample to work from…and it’s going to be a bit of turbulence ahead. Be prepared, and you’ll fare better!