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The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on United Airlines

Dec. 27, 2021
13 min read
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It’s becoming harder to score upgrades on flights and at hotels, thanks to growing numbers of elite members and new options for casual travelers to bump to a better class of service. As a result, here at TPG, we often recommend booking the seat or hotel room you actually want with points in order to avoid being disappointed if an upgrade isn’t available.

That said, upgrades are not impossible, and when it comes to United Airlines passengers, there are a number of different ways to land a better seat. So, today we’ll walk through everything you need to know about upgrade eligibility, priority and more for United Airlines.

Why fight for the armrest when you can rest easy? The difference between cramped flying and classy flying is just a matter of points away with the free TPG App!

Searching for upgrade inventory

Before you can score a better seat on your next United-operated flight, you need to find seats that the carrier has designated for upgrades.

This is all based on United’s fare classes, which you can review in this comprehensive guide. United uses three different fare classes to denote upgrade inventory, as follows:

  • RN: Upgrades to Premium Plus for all passengers.
  • PZ: Upgrades to domestic first class or Polaris business class for PlusPoints (issued to Premier Platinum and 1K members), upgrades using miles and instant upgrades for Premier Platinums and lower.
  • PN: Upgrades for Global Services (GS) members using PlusPoints, and instant upgrades for GS and Premier 1K members.

Armed with this information, turn to United’s "expert mode." After enabling this hidden feature, you’ll be able to see how many seats are available in each fare bucket when searching for revenue flights on United. Generally speaking, you’ll have the most luck finding upgrade inventory very far in advance or very close to departure. As an example, take a look at the following flight from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Shanghai (PVG):

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Note that PN6 means that there are six Polaris seats available as upgrades for Global Services travelers, while PZ4 indicates that there are four seats available for mileage and certificate upgrades for Premier Platinum and 1K members (this flight doesn’t have a Premium Plus cabin). It’s also worth noting that upgrade inventory is different than regular award inventory. If you wanted to use miles for this flight, there’s only a single seat available (I1 in the blue box).

Related: How to unlock additional award availability with United

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Upgrade priority

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Just finding upgrade inventory is only half of the puzzle; you also need to understand the order in which your upgrade will be processed, in case it doesn’t clear when you book. United’s upgrades are split into two categories:

Instant upgrades at time of ticketing

United elites traveling on the two highest-priced economy-fare classes — Y and B — are eligible for an instant upgrade at the time of ticketing on select flights (assuming PN inventory is available). For Premier 1K members, this extends to M fares as well. In addition, customers applying miles or a certificate to move up to the next cabin will also be able to confirm the upgrade instantly when the necessary fare buckets (above) are available.

Waitlist upgrades

Oftentimes, your upgrade won’t clear at the time of booking, which means you’ll end up on the waitlist for an upgrade. This may not be confirmed until a few days before the flight or may even happen at the gate just before departure. For requests on the waitlist, United will clear them in the following order of priority:

  1. Premium Plus passengers: Passengers booked in the O, A and R fare classes (which represent United Premium Plus) have the highest upgrade priority of all, even above United Global Services members with full-fare Y economy tickets. This is how TPG’s Alberto Riva was able to use a $199 upgrade to Premium Plus to jump to the top of the upgrade list and ultimately earn a spot in Polaris.
  2. Upgrade type: Those redeeming PlusPoints or miles for an upgrade are prioritized ahead of elites who are relying on a complimentary premier upgrade.
  3. Premier elite status of the traveler: After Premium Plus passengers and upgrade type, elite status is the next tie-breaker. United Global Services members take the lead, followed in order by Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, Premier Gold and Premier Silver elites.
  4. Fare class: For regular economy tickets, the priority order for different fare classes is as follows: Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G. Complimentary Premier Upgrades on award tickets will be prioritized after the lowest paid fare class.
  5. Chase United MileagePlus Club cardholders and Presidential Plus cardholders.
  6. United Corporate Preferred participants.
  7. Chase United MileagePlus cardholders with $25,000 in annual spending.
  8. Time of request.

Obviously, not all of these factors will come into play on any given flight. However, if multiple passengers with the same tier of elite status are requesting an upgrade, United will move down the list and use fare class as a tiebreaker. If that doesn’t work, the system will continue on to credit card type the passenger holds (if any), spending threshold and, finally, the time the request was submitted.

MileagePlus Upgrade Awards

United also allows you to redeem miles for an upgrade, and you can even check the number of miles (and possibly co-pay) required on the airline's upgrade award chart.

As an example, TPG Points and Miles Editor Andrew Kunesh has a trip booked with United from New York (LGA) to Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) in January. He booked the cheapest, non-basic-economy ticket he could find, which ended up in the K fare class. According to United, an upgrade costs 20,000 miles one-way.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

The $75 upgrade co-pay that would usually be required on a flight like this is waived because Andrew has Premier Gold status. On his flight, though, there is no actual availability, so he'd be left on the waitlist.

He was also given the option to pay $217 for this one-way upgrade. Since 20,000 United miles are worth $226 based on TPG’s most recent valuations, cash is the better option — though likely not a great choice, based on the short length of the flight.

You can request these upgrades when purchasing your ticket or after purchase by clicking on “Manage your reservation” and clicking the "Upgrade cabin" button at the top of the screen. MileagePlus upgrades are valid on most paid tickets on United-operated flights and select Copa-operated flights, excluding basic-economy tickets, if seats are available.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

The rollout of premium economy — what United calls Premium Plus — has complicated the normal idea of a one-cabin upgrade. For United planes equipped with Premium Plus, the following rules apply:

  • All MileagePlus members seated in economy can use a single MileagePlus Upgrade Award request to move to a Premium Plus seat or upgrade to the Polaris business-class cabin.
  • If you’d like to be considered for a move to a Premium Plus seat or for an upgrade to the Polaris business-class cabin, United will move you to the first available seat. If the first available seat is a Premium Plus seat, United will continue to look for space in the Polaris business-class cabin.
  • If you requested an upgrade to the Polaris business-class cabin and United moved you to a Premium Plus seat, you’ll receive a refund for the difference in co-pay and miles after departure.
  • Members requesting a MileagePlus Upgrade Award to a Premium Plus seat only will not be waitlisted for United First on portions of their itinerary that do not contain Premium Plus.

Related: Still needs work: A review of United Premium Plus on the Boeing 787-10

Complimentary Premier Upgrades

(Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy)

United is rather generous in making Complimentary Premier Upgrades available to members with every tier of Premier elite status, and this includes one companion traveling on the same reservation — even for lowly Silver elites like myself. CPUs will be automatically requested for you on all eligible flights, which are paid tickets on United- and United Express-operated flights (excluding basic-economy tickets) in the following regions:

  • Continental U.S. (excluding premium, transcontinental services).
  • Hawaii (West Coast departures only).
  • Alaska.
  • Canada.
  • Mexico.
  • Central America.
  • Caribbean.
  • Oceania (excluding Tahiti).

If you’re traveling to Hawaii, complimentary upgrades are only available on flights from California — specifically Los Angeles (LAX), Orange County (SNA) or San Francisco (SFO). If you’re traveling on United’s 11-hour flight from Newark (EWR) to Honolulu (HNL) or departing from any of the carrier’s other hubs, you’d need to either redeem miles or use PlusPoints (discussed below). The same applies to the carrier’s nonstop, premium transcontinental flights — from Newark (EWR) or New York (JFK) to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

As noted above, select elite members are eligible for instant upgrades when booked into the highest fare classes, as long as there’s upgrade inventory available. If you aren’t upgraded instantly — or are booked into a lower fare class — complimentary upgrades will begin to clear based on your elite status at the following windows:

  • Premier 1K: 96 hours/four days before departure.
  • Premier Platinum: 72 hours/three days before departure.
  • Premier Gold: 48 hours/two days before departure.
  • Premier Silver: day of departure.

Award tickets are normally not eligible for CPUs, but you can circumvent this rule if you hold any of the following United cobranded credit cards:

  • United Explorer Card.
  • United Club Infinite Card.
  • United Club Business Card.
  • United Presidential Plus Card.
  • United Presidential Plus Business Card.
  • United Business Card.

The information for the United Club Business, United Presidential and United Presidential Business cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

PlusPoints

In September of 2019, United got rid of its old system using Global Premier Upgrades and Regional Premier Upgrades. Those were replaced with the current system: PlusPoints.

PlusPoints are not tied to certain types of flights and can be used in varying amounts to request upgrades. At the time of changing from the old system to the new (PlusPoints) system, Regional Premier Upgrades were converted to 20 PlusPoints. Global Premier Upgrades were converted to 40 PlusPoints.

How do you earn PlusPoints? They are doled out as follows:

  • 40 PlusPoints when you reach Platinum.
  • 280 PlusPoints when you reach Premier 1K or Global Services.
  • 20 PlusPoints for every 2,000 Premier qualifying points earned beyond 15,000 Premier qualifying points (Premier 1K and Global Services members only).

United MileagePlus members who meet the requirements for Platinum status and subsequently qualify for 1K will earn a total of 320 PlusPoints.

Within PlusPoints, there are two categories and varying cost factors to understand.

Waitlist upgrades

You can use PlusPoints to upgrade in various ways, and we'll cover pricing below. What's important to understand here is that you can use PlusPoints to put yourself on the waitlist, similar to what we described above.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

Notice that United informs you of the policy during the request process. Choose the seats you want to request with your PlusPoints and see the relevant prices. You'll only pay with your PlusPoints if the upgrade clears. And you can set different preferences for each leg of your trip.

It's important to note that you can't change your selections later. You can cancel and start again later, though. See more details on that in our guide to using PlusPoints.

You'll need the following amounts of PlusPoints for upgrades on 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 and W fares): 40 PlusPoints.
  • Economy to Polaris (S, T, L, K and G fares): 80 PlusPoints.
  • Partner economy to business: 40 PlusPoints.

Skip the waitlist upgrades

This is a handy feature if you're willing to pay for it. It's also available only to Premier 1K members. You can skip the waitlist and upgrade immediately on long-haul international flights, subject to availability. If your itinerary also includes domestic legs, you'll be waitlisted for those — unless immediate upgrade space is available.

(Screenshot courtesy of united.com)

While you'll typically pay 20 PlusPoints to move from economy to premium economy or 40 PlusPoints to get into business, prices to "skip the waitlist" are much higher — they vary by flight, departure date and availability, but can get as high as 100 PlusPoints (and even higher during peak times) to move from economy to Polaris.

This represents a 250%-275% increase in cost. In addition to the higher costs, you should note that these points are nonrefundable. They also can't be used to confirm upgrades on other flights if you change your flights. Be sure you understand this before confirming.

Thus, it is possible to upgrade immediately using PlusPoints on certain (long-haul) flights. As long as you have W or higher as your fare class, this feature will be available to Polaris and Premium Plus, subject to availability. Lastly, this feature isn't available within 30 days of departure.

Bottom line

United offers a number of different options for upgrading your flights to a more comfortable seat. Most of these options are given as benefits for Premier elite members — as you would expect. Even if you don’t fly United frequently enough to earn elite status, you should still be able to upgrade your trip with cash or miles. Just be sure to check upgrade inventory first, as the carrier is notoriously stingy at opening up inventory — especially in advance.

Featured image by United Airlines planes are seen at Washington Dulles International Airport. (Photo by Edward Russell/TPG)
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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