My Experience With United’s Complimentary Companion Upgrades

Feb 4, 2013

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Today was a rite of passage of sorts for my traveling toddler.  It wasn’t like the days she first walked, or used the potty, or slept through the night.  Those were all bigger milestones for sure, but this was still an occasion to be marked.  She scored her first complimentary first class upgrade!  In a domestic first class cabin filled predominantly with white males over the age of 40, my bubbly three year old happily took seat 1A as my “companion” thanks to my United Platinum status.  She didn’t know or care that the seat was any different from those in coach – she was just happy to be flying.  However, I knew that she couldn’t possibly kick anyone and that we would have plenty of elbow room.  ;)

When I checked into our flight at roughly 24 hours before check-in I was asked by the computer if I wanted to add myself to the upgrade stand-by list.  I knew from looking at the seat map that the flight was pretty empty, and many seats in E+ were also empty.  Since my husband was also on the flight, I decided to do an experiment and see what would happen if I added myself to the upgrade standby list.  I was under the impression that I would not clear into first class if my companion did not clear, and since I was going to choose Little C as my companion, then I assumed it would be an all or nothing thing for the two of us in terms of moving up to first.  My husband also has elite status with United on his own, so it was technically possible he would also clear based on his own status, but as a Silver it was pretty unlikely.

However, within a few minutes I learned via an auto-generated email that I had been upgraded.  My little three year old companion had not.  Huh?  This is not how I thought the system worked from other experiences I had heard and read.  I wasn’t worried about it as my husband could just take my upgrade while I stayed with C in coach (no chance she would happily part from me on the plane), but it was confusing since that isn’t how I thought it worked.  In the end, my daughter also cleared an hour or two before departure, and my husband just barely missed out on the upgrade and happily chilled by himself in E+ (which is by far the more relaxing experience of the two choices).

Now back to how this happened….. I presume that since the computer first asks if you want to be added to the upgrade list (and tells you that your reservation will then be split), that the damage is immediately done and you can now be upgraded all by yourself.

What is confusing is that the next screen then asks for your companion.

However, you are already no longer on the same reservation as your companion.  The companion does seem to make it to the upgrade list with your status (though below everyone else with your status), but your upgrade does not seem to be dependent upon theirs.  If I was traveling alone with C, this could be a deal breaker.  Obviously I am not going to sit in first while she is in economy.  With a flight as empty as this one was, I might press my luck if I thought we both had a shot at being upgraded as there were plenty of economy seats together to switch back to if it didn’t happen.  However, on a full flight there is no chance I would risk losing our seats together if I didn’t trust that we would either both be upgraded, or both remain together in coach.

Given my current elite status, when traveling on United with my family, my upgrade strategy will change from flight to flight.  Sometimes it will be worth going for the upgrades, and sometimes the downside of splitting up or even just the down-to-the-wire uncertainty won’t be worth it.  This is especially true on the outbound because you are now all split for the return flight, and this can cause some especially entertaining drama (more on this later).  I do know that for the foreseeable future, whenever C and I are on the same flight, she has to stay right next to me wherever I am seated for the sake of everyone on board.  She is currently a serious mama’s girl!

What has your experience been with companions and complimentary upgrades – both with United and with other airlines?  What is your strategy, especially when traveling with your little one(s)?  Stay tuned for a post on how our first class experience was….the preview is “all the juice you can drink!” 



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