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How I use my United PlusPoints to maximize the chance of an upgrade

June 9 2022
8 min read
Polaris business class seat on a United airplane
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United's top elite Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services members are familiar with PlusPoints, the 2019 replacement for notorious Global Premier Upgrades and Regional Premier Upgrades.

In essence, earning PlusPoints is simple; it is harder to redeem them — especially strategically.

Every year that you qualify for Premier Platinum, you are rewarded with 40 PlusPoints. When you make it to Premier 1K, you're given an additional 280 PlusPoints. Then, you receive an additional 20 PlusPoints for every 2,000 Premier qualifying points you earn.

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As a Premier 1K member, I end up with 320 PlusPoints each year. I do my best to redeem them strategically to get upgrades on flights that offer a good value or would otherwise be uncomfortable in coach. Over the years, I've learned a handful of tips and tricks that let me confirm upgrades before departure and end the year with no PlusPoints unredeemed.

Let's take a closer look.

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How many PlusPoints do upgrades cost?

United Airlines Polaris business class on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

While you can use your PlusPoints for higher (most expensive) fares on ANA, Copa and Lufthansa, here are how many PlusPoints you'll need to spend for upgrades on United metal.

Domestic and North American short-haul international flights

  • Premium Plus to business or first: 10 PlusPoints.
  • Economy to Premium Plus: 20 PlusPoints.
  • Economy to business or first: 20 PlusPoints.

All other international flights

  • Economy to Premium Plus: 20 PlusPoints.
  • Premium Plus to Polaris: 30 PlusPoints.
  • Economy to Polaris (Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W fares): 40 PlusPoints.
  • Economy to Premium Plus (Skip Waitlist): 70 PlusPoints.
  • Economy to Polaris (S, T, L, K, G deeply discounted fares): 80 PlusPoints.
  • Economy to Polaris (Skip Waitlist): 110 PlusPoints.

If your PlusPoints are expiring, it can make sense to spend them on the "Skip Waitlist" feature. But other than in that circumstance, I advise avoiding it altogether. After all, 110 PlusPoints for one upgrade is roughly the same as three standard economy-to-Polaris upgrades on some routes.

Related: United PlusPoints upgrades: Why you should reconsider spending more points to skip the waitlist

Confirmed upgrades

When you book a flight and request an upgrade to business or first class on United (either domestic or international), at least 90% of the time it will be a waitlisted upgrade. You can seldom confirm a business- or first-class seat using PlusPoints when booking your flight.

Occasionally, you'll find confirmed upgrades on short-haul domestic flights, especially on United Express flights.

The PZ fare class is available on this flight, indicating that there are seats confirmable to first class. (Screenshot from united.com)

While this is a way to get an upgrade, it's not an appealing use of PlusPoints, at least in my opinion, for three reasons:

  1. As a Premier member, you might already receive an upgrade (as a Complimentary Premier Upgrade), so you don't want to waste your PlusPoints on a flight where you'd already receive a complimentary upgrade.
  2. These flights are generally short with comparable (or identical) service as economy class.
  3. United First seats on United Express planes aren't much of an upgrade from Economy Plus (no lie-flat seat).

Sometimes you'll find RN fares on long-haul flights. This means that you can book any economy fare and confirm a Premium Plus seat.

(Screenshot from united.com)

While some of my fellow TPG colleagues would beg to differ, I think that Premium Plus is night and day compared to standard economy class, especially on long-haul red-eye flights. The Premium Plus seat is similar in dimensions to the domestic United First seat. So I'd gladly spend 20 PlusPoints to move from economy to Premium Plus on a long-haul flight. After all, it's 20 PlusPoints to upgrade a short-haul domestic flight to United First.

Premier Platinum members can use their 40 PlusPoints for a round-trip international upgrade from economy to Premium Plus. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

For a similar seat, with upgraded service and food on a long-haul flight, for the same number of PlusPoints as a domestic upgrade, it's a no-brainer.

Related: United’s making a big change, with 7 implications, to its newest long-haul market

Waitlisted upgrades

Now, it's time for the saga of United's infinitely complicated upgrade list. My colleague, TPG credit cards reporter Ryan Smith, has written a fantastic guide to the intricacies and prioritization of United upgrades.

Long-haul international

You'll notice that passengers in Premium Plus are first in line for business- and first-class upgrades. Let's take this scenario on a long-haul international flight:

  1. A Global Services (likely spends six figures every year with United) member is booked in economy and has requested an upgrade to Polaris business class for 40 PlusPoints (the price for an upgrade from economy class to Polaris).
  2. A United Premier Platinum elite member is booked in Premium Plus and has requested an upgrade to Polaris business class for 30 PlusPoints (the price for an upgrade from Premium Plus to Polaris).

There's one seat left. Who's going to get the seat? The member with the highest status, right?

You'd think so, but, no, the Premier Platinum member would be upgraded because they're in a higher cabin.

I use this "secret" to leap forward on the upgrade list. Premium Plus is a small cabin with 24 seats at the most. So by booking Premium Plus and requesting an upgrade to Polaris, you have a reasonable certainty of being one of the first passengers in line for a Polaris seat.

On a 16-hour flight from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Singapore Changi Airport (SIN), I had booked economy class and requested an upgrade to Polaris (40 PlusPoints). A day before the flight, when I checked the upgrade list, I was 19th in line for an upgrade, and there were five seats left in Polaris. In other words, I wasn't going to be upgraded.

So I purchased an upgrade to Premium Plus for $287 and requested my upgrade to Polaris (30 PlusPoints). Now, I was second on the upgrade list and was upgraded at check-in.

(Screenshot from united.com)

I was thrilled to be upgraded with my PlusPoints, and the upgrade from Premium Plus to Polaris took 10 fewer PlusPoints than what economy to Polaris would have required (if the economy-to-Polaris upgrade had cleared).

Oh, and a paid upgrade to Polaris was offered at $5,690, which was great to avoid. That represents a fantastic value from PlusPoints.

Short-haul domestic

Last month, I flew United between Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) and Denver International Airport (DEN) for work. A couple of hours before the flight, I was second in line for an upgrade (not using PlusPoints, a standard Premier 1K complimentary upgrade), but only one seat was left.

I called United and requested PlusPoints to be placed on my reservation in the hope that it would make me first in line for the upgrade. Since I had already checked in, the phone representative had to uncheck me in for my flight before they were able to put PlusPoints on my reservation.

The PlusPoints were added, and when I rechecked in for my flight, I saw that my upgrade had cleared!

(Screenshot from United)

I suggest using your PlusPoints only on flights that wouldn't have been upgraded otherwise. So if you find that you're not going to get a complimentary upgrade, use the trick of calling United, ask to be unchecked in for your flight and add PlusPoints to your reservation even if you're already in the airport. That should boost you a few spots on the upgrade list, and who knows – if you're like me, maybe you'll start getting some more unexpected upgrades.

Bottom line

United Polaris lounge at San Francisco (SFO). (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

You can redeem your PlusPoints however you please. But the main thing to avoid is using your PlusPoints on a flight that you would have already been upgraded on.

By paying for Premium Plus, you will leapfrog all the economy-class customers who are already on the waitlist, even if their status and fare are higher than yours.

I've spent 100 PlusPoints this year (60 PlusPoints for two Premium Plus-to-Polaris upgrades and 40 PlusPoints for two domestic first-class upgrades), and I have 220 PlusPoints expiring on Jan. 31, 2023. In the coming months, I plan on booking discount Premium Plus fares and requesting upgrades to Polaris business class. After all, that's a great way to get 10-plus upgrades to Polaris using 320 PlusPoints with a high place on the waitlist each time.

Featured photo by Polaris business class seat. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/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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The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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