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How to Use United Premier Upgrades

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Among the various benefits of holding elite status with an airline is the ability to receive complimentary upgrades, both automatically and with certificates you can apply to upcoming trips. TPG Contributor Richard Kerr takes a look at the latter, showing you how to use United’s RPUs and GPUs.

With 2015 winding down and many of us focusing on getting our frequent flyer accounts in order, I wanted to cover a few of the intricacies of elite status that the TPG team is most often asked. Today, I start a series on how to use elite upgrades for each of the three US legacy carriers. First up is using Premier Upgrades from United Airlines.


United’s MileagePlus program rewards elite flyers with Global Premier Upgrades (GPU) and Regional Premier Upgrades (RPU) to bump them to a higher class of service on a given flight. Once you achieve Premier Platinum status, two RPUs will be deposited in your account. Once you achieve Premier 1K status, you’ll get an additional two RPUs and six GPUs.

You’ll earn an additional two RPUs for every additional 25,000 premier qualifying miles or 30 qualifying segments you fly after achieving Premier 1K. With GPUs, you’ll receive an additional two for every 50,000 premier qualifying miles or 60 qualifying segments you fly after achieving Premier 1K status.

With 48 BusinessFirst seats, I want to know who has had a GPU clear on the 787-9. Photo courtesy United.
United offers 48 BusinessFirst seats on the 787-9. Photo courtesy United.

RPUs can be used on flights within the continental US, between the continental US and Hawaii and on p.s. service transcon routes. GPUs are eligible for all United, United Express and Copa-operated flights, as well as select Lufthansa flights. There are quite a few exceptions and notes to that blanket policy, so make sure you check the upgrade chart to see if your flight qualifies for an RPU or if you have to use a GPU. For example, my personal favorite use of an RPU is Tokyo Narita (NRT) to Guam (GUM).

Be sure to check the upgrade chart and footnotes carefully to see whether you need a GPU or RPU.
Be sure to check the upgrade chart and footnotes carefully to see whether you need a GPU or RPU.

If you’re new to United status and think that once an RPU or GPU appears in your account you’re guaranteed a seat upfront, you may be in for disappointment. It’s important to understand all the rules and the United upgrade priority for your RPU or GPU so you can use the best strategy to successfully use your upgrades.

Regional/Global Premier Upgrade FAQs

1. When Can I Use an RPU or GPU? — You may request a RPU or GPU from the time of booking until 24 hours prior to departure. Time of request is the third item determined for priority on the waitlist after your Premier status and the fare class of your ticket. You may use an upgrade to go from paid economy to United first on domestic flights or BusinessFirst on international flights, or paid BusinessFirst to United Global First class on three-cabin flights.

2. When Can My Upgrade Be Confirmed? — If an R class fare (discussed later) is available at the time of booking, you may instantly confirm your RPU or GPU. If not, you’ll be placed on a waitlist with other passengers based on your priority, and the upgrade can be confirmed all the way until departure.

3. What Fare Classes are Eligible for an RPU and GPU? — All paid, published tickets are eligible for an RPU. For GPUs, fare classes Z, P, S, T, K, L, G or N cannot be upgraded on flights to South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asia or Japan. Only Global Service members (above Premier 1K) can use an RPU/GPU to upgrade on award travel.

4. How Can I Apply My Upgrade? — You can either log in to and apply the upgrade electronically on your itinerary or call MileagePlus and have a phone agent apply the upgrade.

5. Can I Only Use RPUs and GPUs for Myself? — You may request an upgrade for another traveler whether they are traveling with you or not. If the upgrade is not confirmed and they are traveling without you, they will be waitlisted based on their own premier status.

6. How Do I Use a GPU/RPU on Other Airlines? — An RPU can only be used on United, United Express or Copa-operated flights. A GPU may also be used on Lufthansa-operated flights and Lufthansa-operated codeshares marketed by United. There are quite a lot of rules and not very many pleasant stories about going through the process. Lufthansa fare classes not eligible for upgrade include Z, P, V, W, S, T, N, L, K, R, X, I, O, ID, AD and IP.

7. What If My Upgrade Doesn’t Clear? — The RPU/GPU will be redeposited into your account as long as no segments of your one-way itinerary were confirmed with an upgrade. For international itineraries, your GPU will be returned if the international segment doesn’t clear, even if you are upgraded on connecting flights within the US.

Basic Strategy of the RPU and GPU

1. Search for Upgrade Confirmation at Booking — By utilizing “Expert Mode” on, you can search for the individual fare class that allows you to know if an upgrade via a GPU or RPU is available immediately upon booking. To make this happen, you must first log in to your account and head to the search preferences section of your profile. You’ll see a large paragraph explaining the terms and conditions of using Expert Mode and have to check a box.

Log in to your account and agree to the Expert Mode terms and conditions.
Log in to your account and agree to the Expert Mode terms and conditions.

Next, click the save button and your profile should now show Expert Mode as enabled.

Expert mode enabled on your profile.
Enable Expert Mode in your profile.

You can now complete a revenue flight search and click the details tab next to the duration of a United-operated flight. In the bottom left corner, you’ll see all the available fare classes for your flight. You want to look and see if any R fares are available — since with this class, an upgrade via GPU or RPU can be confirmed upon booking.

R fares tell us an upgrade is available at booking with an RPU or GPU.
R fares tell us an upgrade is available at booking with an RPU or GPU.

2. Watch Your Segments — Both kinds of upgrades are for one one-way, one-cabin upgrades. There’s no segment limit for using an upgrade on your one-way trip, but a stopover will require you to utilize more than one RPU or GPU. A stop within the US and between the US and Canada of more than four hours is considered a stopover, whereas a stop longer than 24 hours between any other destinations is considered a stopover.

You have to be careful here. If you apply an RPU to SAN-LAX-EWR and the SAN-LAX legs clear for an upgrade but LAX-EWR does not, your RPU is still considered utilized. I recommend you call United and ask for only the LAX-EWR to have an RPU applied. If it clears, you can then call back and ask to extend the same RPU to your initial SAN-LAX leg.

3. Consider Your Route — If you’re looking to use a GPU on ORD-NRT or EWR-HKG, your chance of success could be lower. Heavy business routes where companies routinely buy revenue tickets leave fewer seats for GPUs and RPUs. If you want to fly the newest products or planes (like the 787-9), you could find yourself out of luck as well. Seasons also play a part — for example, flights to Europe in the winter have more seats open up front.

Perhaps counterintuitively, an empty plane up front doesn’t correlate to R fares being available or GPUs and RPUs being confirmed. United has to give itself plenty of time to sell as many revenue seats as possible. Some suggest five open seats in first on domestic routes or six to eight open seats in BusinessFirst on international routes within a few days of departure is the sweet spot for applying an RPU or GPU. Any fewer, and time-of-departure revenue upgrades take the last couple of seats. Of course, this is taking into account your status and fare class as well.

It would be terrible to have an RPU considered redeemed if only the SAN-LAX segment were upgraded.
It would be terrible to have an RPU redeemed if only the SAN-LAX segment were upgraded.

4. Novices Should Commit Early — If you haven’t played this game enough to find your own sweet spot for upgrade confirmation, apply your RPU/GPU as early as possible, as this will put you ahead of other elites in your same tier and the same or lower fare classes as your ticket.

United 787 BusinessFirst cabin.
GPUs and RPUs can get you a seat up front, but your upgrade isn’t guaranteed.

Are Premier Upgrades Worth the Stress?

More and more United flyers are complaining about RPUs rarely clearing, as smaller 737s and regional jets operate the domestic flights. Currently, finding a domestic flight showing R availability at the time of booking can seem as rare as a pink unicorn. Time-of-departure upgrades are now a very successful way for United to boost revenue, while they also deprive elites of the coveted seats upfront. I, for one, have been lucky here in Japan and burned through RPUs as fast as I can get them. This is because NRT-GUM always clears for me and coworkers. That said, I do see and feel the frustration of United flyers back in the US.

GPUs seem to be more successful, as fewer people can afford the often-astronomical BusinessFirst prices; time-of-departure upgrades are beyond the generic tourist’s budget; and fewer people have GPUs, since there are fewer 1Ks than Platinums.

Personally, I don’t think an RPU or GPU gives you that much of a leg up on domestic flights these days when compared with simply waiting for your Complimentary Premier Upgrade (CPU). The route, capacity and your fare class will influence your chances to upgrade more than an RPU would when flying domestically.

Regardless of whether my RPU/GPU has cleared, I always enjoy watching the upgrade list hawkers at the gate – some rubbing their lucky charm, some arguing with the gate agent about where they should be on the list and others who hope for an equipment swap from a 737 to a 757 or widebody.

What has been your experience using RPUs and GPUs?

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