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The Mystery of Complimentary Upgrades on United Award Tickets

Jan. 24, 2013
6 min read
The Mystery of Complimentary Upgrades on United Award Tickets
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For a while now it has technically been possible for elite United flyers to get upgraded on an award ticket…..however it has been like the mythical pot of gold at the rainbow as far as I was concerned. At least until now.

Here are the official rules on how the upgrades on award tickets are supposed to work:

Premier members who are primary cardholders for certain Chase-issued credit cards are eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades when traveling on award tickets on United-operated flights. The following credit cards qualify for this benefit:
  • MileagePlus Explorer
  • MileagePlus Explorer for Business
  • OnePass Plus
  • World MasterCard for Business
  • Presidential Plus
  • Presidential Plus for Business
  • MileagePlus Club Card
  • MileagePlus Club Business Card
Complimentary Premier Upgrades on award tickets will be sorted as indicated in the "Upgrade Confirmation Priority" section above (which basically says that complimentary upgrades come after those on high "instant upgrade" fare classes, those using instruments like regional and global upgrades, and then upgrades are sorted by Premier status, then fare class and award travel), and prioritized after the lowest paid fare class within each Premier level. This benefit does not apply to companions traveling on award tickets.

I have been an elite flyer with United for over six months now, and have had a co-branded credit card for many years, but had never personally seen any evidence of these magical complimentary space available upgrades on award tickets until this week. When my family flew a few days ago from Houston to Vail I didn’t see myself on the upgrade standby list, so when I got to the airport I went to the gate agent to get myself added…mostly as an experiment just to see what would happen. That particular gate agent didn’t know how to do it, but she said she would call and get some help. Sure enough when I looked on the mobile United site a few minutes later, I was indeed on the list as #1 on the upgrade standby list (the highest I had ever been). I wasn’t going to clear, but at least I saw that the process work.

Of course, I technically couldn’t add myself to the standby list until the day of departure at the airport, so many other folks can clear before I ever have a shot at being on the list. In fact, the first class cabin on that flight was prettyempty until 24 hours before departure, so I am betting I would have cleared as a Platinum had I been on the list earlier. I wasn’t upset at all by this, just happy to know how it worked.

Then when we flew my mom up last minute from Houston to Vail to join us, I used miles out of my account, and as such she inherited my status for the trip (probably a glitch, but a long standing one). Within minutes of booking her flight I got an email that she had been upgraded. So in that case she didn’t have to be put on the standby list at the airport, she just cleared magically within minutes of booking the flight. It is worth mentioning that this 737 was so empty that first class actually went out with seats open even after they upgraded some non-revenue passengers. So, a United Silver on an award ticket would have even been upgraded that day!

Then about a day before we flew home I got an email saying I had been automatically upgraded for the return flight. My mom then sat at #1 on the waiting list for the last 24 hours and was upgraded after boarding. She declined the upgrade and sat with Little C and myself while I gave my husband my upgrade. Her upgrade went to the next person on the list.

So, how is this really supposed to work? My best guess is that I wasn’t on the upgrade list on the outbound because I was on a reservation with my kiddo and my husband so it passed me over. However, as is common with United, it automatically split me off their reservation on the return (probably because I was manually put on the upgrade list on the outbound) and thus put me on the upgrade stand-by list automatically on the return. My mom was on there the whole time as she was a single traveler with Platinum status in the eyes of the computer system.

Armed with those facts I now have some ideas about how to strategically make award reservations in the future if upgrades are important on that particular trip. Often when traveling as a family upgrades aren’t really important because we probably aren’t all going to clear anyway – at least not on award tickets where you aren’t technically supposed to have a companion. Lord knows that my kid would not be pleased if I went and sat in another part of the plane, and I'm not nice enough to always fly with C by myself while my husband chills in first. Especially if that means we are now having to sit next to a "stranger" who may or may not be kid friendly. However, there are some flights where a freebie upgrade on a award ticket will be great!

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This experience also reinforced to me that having a co-branded United card like the United MileagePlus Explorer Card or United Club Card is helpful as an elite traveler even though you already have many of the benefits that come with the card like priority boarding, checked bags, etc. Read this thread if you are interested in getting a United card. Without the card we wouldn’t have scored a total of three complimentary upgrades on this trip. If you have elite status with United, having one of the cards essentially makes your miles more valuable since your award trips are now upgrade eligible.

What has your experience been with getting upgrades on United award tickets?

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