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Why Premium Plus and higher fare classes are the secret to United upgrades

Aug. 17, 2022
7 min read
United Boeing 787-9 Polaris business class
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Editor’s note: United is now upgrading Global Services members in economy class before non-Global Service members in Premium Plus. For example, when a Premier 1K member books Premium Plus is requesting an upgrade to Polaris, a Global Services member in economy class who requests an upgrade to Polaris will be given priority on the upgrade waitlist.


"Boo-hoo," says me — a United Airlines Premier 1K who has received just two Complimentary Premier Upgrades to first class in 2022 after 26 eligible United flights.

With upgrades few and far between, my quest for discounted air tickets hasn't been meshing well with United's upgrade waitlist, which emphasizes upgrading the travelers in the most expensive coach seats. Sometimes it can feel like a doctorate is required to make sense of the infinitely overcomplicated United priority upgrade waitlist.

However, if you know how fare classes work, demystifying the upgrade process becomes a little bit easier. Let's take a closer look at how United's fare classes affect your shot at an upgrade and how to improve your chance at an upgrade on connecting tickets.

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How your fare class affects your upgrade priority

United Airlines Polaris business class on the Boeing 777-300ER. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

United uses 14 paid economy fare classes — starting with N (basic economy, not upgradable) and going to Y (full-fare economy).

Here's the ascending order of United economy fare classes: N, G, K, L, T, S, W, V, Q, H, U, E, M, B and Y.

The waitlist is set up to upgrade Premier members with the same status in the higher fare classes (more expensive tickets) before upgrading those in lower fare classes (less expensive tickets).

For example, let's assume there's one seat left in first class. One Premier 1K member is in the T fare class, while the other is in the B fare class. In this case, the Premier 1K member in B (the higher fare class) would receive the upgrade.

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And I'm always the 1K member in the T fare class (aka the last 1K to get upgraded). So that's one of the major reasons I'm not having luck getting upgraded on United.

But on connecting flights in international Premium Plus or Polaris business class, there's a solution.

Related: Decoding United’s revenue, award and upgrade fare classes

Domestic flight upgrades on international premium-cabin connections

A United Airlines domestic first-class meal. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

When you shop for flights and see that your selected itinerary is a multicabin one, your gut reaction is bound to be, "Oh, no."

But on some United tickets, your reaction should be, "Oh, yes!"

For example, check out this flight from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Zurich Airport (ZRH), which has a connection at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD).

If you select basic economy, economy, refundable economy or premium economy, you'll be seated in coach on the first flight since there's no premium economy cabin from SFO to ORD.

(Screenshot from united.com)

But look closely, and you'll see that premium economy fare puts you in the B fare as opposed to the T fare in the case of the other economy-class options.

By selecting the B fare, you're almost certain to be one of the first complimentary upgrades cleared with your status.

Related: The best summer 2022 benefit of Premier 1K status — and it’s not what you’d expect

Confirming an upgrade before you fly

United Premium Plus. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Now that you know that most United domestic connections to an international Premium Plus flight are in the B fare, let me show you an even better trick.

All Premier members (Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K) are eligible for instant upgrades on most domestic full-fare economy Y-class and B-class fares when the PN fare class is available.

What does this mean?

Let's say you're a Premier Silver member traveling from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Frankfurt Airport (FRA) via SFO. With United's expert mode enabled, you can see one seat in the PN fare from SEA to SFO on this example date.

(Screenshot from united.com)

By booking the B fare (which comes with the international connection in Premium Plus from SFO to FRA), you'll be able to confirm your upgrade to first class from SEA to SFO right now.

To get an instant upgrade, you'll need to book your ticket, select "My trips" and find the reservation once it's been issued. When you open your reservation, you'll see an option to "upgrade cabin." If the PN fare is available and you're booked in a Y- or B-fare ticket, you'll see an option to confirm your upgrade to first class now.

Yes — you've been upgraded!

Remember that Premier Silver, Gold and Platinum members are entitled to instant PN upgrades on Y- and B-fare economy tickets, while Premier 1K members can receive instant PN upgrades on Y-, B- and M-fare economy tickets. Certain routes, like John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or SFO are ineligible for instant upgrades.

I recently used this trick to get an upgrade from Washington's Dulles International Airport (IAD) to SFO on the last leg of a trip coming back from Europe. And incidentally, the IAD-to-SFO flight was on a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which had recently been reconfigured with United's Polaris business-class seats — it was a very comfortable six-hour flight home on a lie-flat seat.

Related: Everything you need to know about United Polaris business class

Bottom line

If you're connecting to or from a Polaris flight and first class is already full on the domestic flight, you'll likely be ticketed in full-fare economy. Likewise, if you're connecting to or from a Premium Plus seat, you'll also likely be ticketed in a full-fare economy ticket on your connecting flights.

Premier members can score instant upgrades to first class on full-fare economy tickets on most routes when the PN fare is available — bypassing the upgrade waitlist saga.

And even if the PN fare isn't available, you'll have a significant leg up on the upgrade waitlist by being ticketed in full-fare economy.

So enjoy the upgrades on your connecting flights — you've got good odds.

Featured image by United Boeing 787-9 Polaris business class (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
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    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees