The Ultimate Guide to Getting Upgraded on United Airlines

Aug 5, 2019

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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 strongly recommend booking the seat or hotel room you actually want in order to avoid being disappointed if an upgrade isn’t available. Upgrades are not impossible, however, and when it comes to United Airlines passengers, there are a number of different ways to land a better seat. Today we’ll walk through everything you need to know about upgrade eligibility, priority and more for United Airlines.

In This Post

Searching for Upgrade Inventory

Before you can even think about scoring 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 elite certificates plus all upgrades using miles
  • PN: Upgrades for Global Services members using miles or certificates and all instant upgrades

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 for tomorrow:

Note that PN6 means that there are six Polaris seats available for Global Services travelers, while PZ4 indicates that there are four seats available for mileage and certificate upgrades (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). Finally, this upgrade inventory isn’t available on ExpertFlyer, which only displays award and revenue fare classes.

Upgrade Priority

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

More often than not, 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. Premier elite status of the traveler: After Premium Plus passengers, 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Chase United MileagePlus Club cardholders and Presidential Plus cardholders
  5. United Corporate Preferred Participants
  6. Chase United MileagePlus cardholders with $25,000 in annual spending
  7. Time of request

Obviously not all of these factors will come into play on any given flight, but 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 status, spending and finally the time the request was submitted.

MileagePlus Upgrade Awards

United also allows you to redeem miles for an upgrade. For the time being, the carrier publishes a chart for this award option, though unlike American Airlines, it isn’t especially straightforward. The price varies based on your region of travel, fare class and Premier elite status. To see the rate that applies to you, visit the page with the interactive award chart and enter your origin and destination. Then click the Upgrade Awards tab at the top.

As an example, I have a trip booked with United from Washington-Reagan (DCA) to Houston (IAH) in August. I booked the cheapest, non-basic economy ticket I could find, which ended up in the T fare class. Based on the award chart, an upgrade would cost 20,000 miles each way, and this is confirmed when I log in to my account:

The $75 upgrade copay that would usually be required on a flight like this is waived because I have Premier Silver status, but in this case, there’s no actual availability, so I’d be left on the waitlist.

I’m also given the option to pay $189 for this one-way upgrade. Since 20,000 United miles are worth $260 based on TPG’s most recent valuations, paying is the better option — though still not a great choice based on the short length of the flight.

You can request these upgrades when purchasing your ticket or after purchasing by clicking on “Manage your reservation.” MileagePlus upgrades are valid on most paid tickets on United-operated flights and select Copa-operated flights, excluding basic economy tickets.

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.

Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs)

United is rather generous in making Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs) 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 US (excluding premium, transcontinental services)
  • Hawaii (West Coast departures only)
  • Alaska
  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • Central America
  • Caribbean
  • Oceania

If you’re traveling to Hawaii, complimentary upgrades are only available on flights from California — specifically Los Angeles (LAX) 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 apply an upgrade certificate (discussed below). The same applies to the carrier’s nonstop, premium transcontinental flights — from Newark to Los Angeles or San Francisco and from Boston to 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/4 days before departure
  • Premier Platinum: 72 hours/3 days before departure
  • Premier Gold: 48 hours/2 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:

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

Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs)

Upon qualifying for United Premier Platinum status, members will receive two Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) and another two are awarded after qualifying for Premier 1K status — a notable drop in quantity that took effect as of Jan. 1, 2019. RPUs will be deposited to your account when they are earned, and they’re valid through the end of the following Premier program year (i.e., the same amount of time as your elite status).

RPUs are valid in the same regions as CPUs plus the following

  • All flights from the US to Hawaii
  • Premium transcontinental flights
  • Flights in South America on Copa Airlines

The primary benefit of RPUs over CPUs is that they can be confirmed at the time of booking, if there’s upgrade inventory available. In addition, RPUs can be used to sponsor another member, meaning you can gift your upgrade to a friend or family member, even if you aren’t traveling with them. Each certificate is valid for a one-way, one-cabin upgrade, though if you have a stopover (generally over four hours in the US/Canada or over 24 hours internationally), you’ll need to use another certificate.

Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs)

United’s most valuable type of upgrade certificate is the Global Premier Upgrade (GPU). Premier 1K members earn six GPUs each year after qualifying, plus an additional one for every additional 25,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) or 30 Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs) flown during the year that the 1K status was earned.

GPUs can be used to upgrade any paid United economy fare (excluding basic economy) to move to Premium Plus or business class. However, if you plan to upgrade from economy to business, fare classes S, T, L, K and G may only be upgraded on flights within the continental US, or between the continental US and Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and Oceania (except Tahiti). This restriction doesn’t apply to upgrades from economy to Premium Plus or from Premium Plus to Polaris.

Like RPUs, GPUs can be confirmed at the time of booking if there’s upgrade inventory available, but if there isn’t, you can also waitlist and hope that space will open up closer to departure.

In addition, United has also expanded the reach of GPUs, allowing you to use them on two of its closest and most luxurious Star Alliance partners: ANA and Lufthansa. On ANA, this is only available on flights booked into C, D, J, Y, B, E and G fare classes, while Lufthansa limits upgrades to tickets booked into the B, C, D, E, G, H, J, M, Q, U and Y fare classes (and US government fares are not eligible for upgrades). You also can’t upgrade from economy to premium economy on either carrier.

ANA allows you to request a GPU upgrade eight weeks before departure; Lufthansa will let you request an upgrade a full 331 days in advance. Although United’s Polaris business class is certainly a huge upgrade over its previous product, you’ll likely get a much better value using your GPUs on carriers like ANA and Lufthansa instead. The good news is that for both of these carriers, upgrade inventory is the same as award inventory, so you can upgrade to first class if there are any O seats available, and business class if there are any I seats available (assuming you booked an upgrade-eligible fare class).

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 — but 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 Edward Russell/TPG

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