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When it comes to frequent flyers, one of the things that separates the amateurs from the pros is how closely they pay attention to the fare classes of their ticket. You might think that tickets just come in economy, business and first-class fare buckets. However, each of those is further sub-divided into distinct letter codes designating them as anything from deeply discounted economy all the way up to full-fare first class, not to mention those set aside for awards and upgrades that allow for redemptions.

Want to snag a seat in United Polaris? Expert Mode can help. (Photo by Zach Honig/TPG)

Knowing which fare class your ticket is booked in can be extremely important for a few reasons. First, not all fare classes earn miles the same way, especially with airline partners, and you might earn fewer (or no!) miles with discounted fare classes than full-fare classes.

However, more important for most people is finding both award-seat inventory (meaning not just whether there are award seats available on certain flights, but also how many there are), as well as tickets that might be upgradable using miles or United’s elite Premier Upgrades — including global, regional and complimentary.

By knowing which fare classes are available on certain flights, elites and regular MileagePlus members alike can determine their chances of confirming an upgrade, whether award tickets will be available for their whole party and more. That’s especially useful since United pulled its upgrade inventory from ExpertFlyer back in 2013 (though award buckets have since returned), so the best way to figure out the fare situation on your flights is by using United’s own Expert Mode.

Turning On Expert Mode

Let’s start with the easy part. To enable Expert Mode, go to United.com and log in to your MileagePlus account. Navigate to your account homepage and find the Profile & preferences drop-down.

 

From the Profile page, scroll down and find the Preferences box, then click on View All Flight Search Preferences.

Scroll down to the section titled “Expert Features,” which should look like this:

Click the box next to “I acknowledge these considerations and choose to enable Expert Mode,” and then click Save. Then you can go back to United’s homepage and search for flights as usual.

Just note that you must be logged in to your account so that Expert Mode is enabled when you perform a flight search. In the past, I found that certain browsers (Chrome and Safari) worked better than others (Firefox), but it seems like this is no longer an issue.

Fare Classes and Upgrade Rules

Now for the complicated part. United has dozens of fare classes and different codes to denote whether there are any and how many seats are available for upgrades on specific flights. This will help you identify whether you’ll be successful in your quest to snag a better cabin for your flight. Let’s go through the major ones for an award traveler.

United has three different upgrade fare “buckets” that denote seats available for upgrades.

  • PN is used to designate instant upgrades from full-fare Y/B/M tickets to first/business class, plus all Global Services upgrades.
  • PZ is used for all other upgrades, including certificate upgrades for Premier Platinum/Premier 1K members, mileage upgrades and complimentary elite upgrades.
  • RN is used for all upgrades to United’s new Premium Plus cabin (only available on select aircraft and routes).

However, just because inventory is there doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to upgrade, as there are many added restrictions of which you should be aware. You’ll need to check United’s Upgrades Overview page, which lists which fare classes are available for which types of upgrades on which routes.

Here is the chart of upgrade rules:

You’ll notice a lot of blue dots and asterisks in there. Those are exceptions, and here are the notes on those:

  • For regions with a *, Global Premier Upgrades are not available on flights booked in fare classes S, T, K, L, G or N.
    • On flights with a Premium Plus cabin, upgrade-eligible members have no fare class restrictions to move from economy to Premium Plus or Premium Plus to Polaris.
  • For regions with a **, the co-pay is waived for Premier members.
  • All multi-cabin flights operated by Copa Airlines are eligible for Regional Premier Upgrades and Global Premier Upgrades without fare restrictions.
  • Instant upgrades for all Premier members on Y and B full-fare Economy tickets and for Premier 1K members on M fares are available on all flights that are eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades.

Note that Premier members traveling on full-fare economy Y and discount full-fare economy B fares are eligible for an instant upgrade at time of ticketing on select flights. Premier 1K members traveling on M fares are also eligible for instant upgrades.

However, remember that if you’re a Premier member booking a Y, B or M-class economy ticket, you also have to know that there’s a PN seat available for that complimentary upgrade on your flight in order to actually get the upgrade.

Elite Upgrade Certificates

Now for those upgrade certificates. Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) and Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) are elite perks earned when you hit certain levels with MileagePlus. They’re automatically deposited into your account based on the status you earn.

You receive two RPUs for reaching Premier Platinum, and another two for hitting Premier 1K, though United removed the ability to earn more as of this year. These certificates are valid through the end of the following program year.

You could use a GPU to upgrade your next United flight to the carrier’s Polaris business class. (Photo by Zach Honig/TPG)

You earn six GPUs for hitting 1K and another one for every additional 25,000 Premier Qualifying Miles or 30 Premier Qualifying Segments you fly in the same calendar year. These are also valid until the end of the following program year (end of January).

These elite certificates are completely transferable to friends or family members, and they book into the same fare classes above depending on the elite level of the certificate-holder, not the traveler. As a result, you’d need to have PN inventory to successfully process a certificate upgrade coming from a Global Services account and PZ inventory for a certificate upgrade coming from a Premier Platinum or Premier 1K account.

However, if you’re using a friend’s upgrade certificate and the upgrade can’t be confirmed immediately, just note that your place on the waitlist will be based on your Premier level with United.

RPUs can only be used on United, United Express or Copa-operated flights. GPUs may also be used on Lufthansa-operated flights and Lufthansa-operated codeshares marketed by United, and as of 2016, they’re applicable on ANA-operated flights as well. However, don’t get your hopes up. Both require expensive fare classes, and there are a lot of horror stories out there about trying to process a GPU on a partner flight, so this likely isn’t a great option for these certificates.

Finally, note that upgrade requests must be made within 24 hours of your flight’s departure time, though you can clear at any time up until your flight leaves.

For full details, check out United’s pages for Global Premier Upgrades and Regional Premier Upgrades.

Mileage Upgrades

Any MileagePlus member can use his/her miles to upgrade eligible paid tickets, and as of now these prices are listed on United’s award chart. However, these will likely disappear later this year when the carrier completes its switch to variable pricing and removes award charts for flights on or after November 15, 2019. While you need to request these online or over the phone up until 24 hours before the flight, you can also request a mileage upgrade at the airport within 24 hours of departure.

Just beware that certain fare classes require a co-pay to upgrade with miles (though United waives the co-pay for Premier members traveling within some regions). In addition, your mileage is deducted and any applicable co-pays are charged immediately at the time of request, though it is refunded if your upgrade doesn’t wind up clearing.

Complimentary Upgrades

All MileagePlus elite travelers are eligible for complimentary upgrades on most domestic flights as well as most short- and medium-haul international flights. Once again, the same upgrade inventory applies (PN for Global Services and PZ for all other elites), though these won’t start processing until the week before departure. You can read about when these windows open in TPG Editor Nick Ewen’s valuation of United elite status.

Award Tickets

The final set of fare classes apply to award tickets, and things are even muddier here. United uses nine (yes, nine) different fare buckets for awards.

Polaris

  • JN – Everyday awards for elites and credit cardholders
  • ZN – Everyday awards for all other customers
  • IN – Saver awards for elites (since they have access to expanded award inventory)
  • I – Saver awards for all other customers and partner redemptions

Premium Plus

  • ON – All awards (variable pricing)

Economy

  • YN – Everyday awards for elites and credit cardholders
  • HN – Everyday awards for all other customers
  • XN – Saver awards for elites and credit cardholders
  • X – Saver awards for all other customers and partner redemptions

Note that these fare buckets are consistent, but the carrier’s move to variable award pricing is not, so you’d need to search for your exact flight (while logged in) to see how many miles you’d need to redeem.

Examples and Using Expert Mode

Let’s see how all this works on the site. For the most part, you’ll probably be looking for PZ availability on flights that you can instantly confirm upgrades on rather than putting yourself on the upgrade waitlist and working through the byzantine hierarchy of United’s upgrade priority.

However, in order for Expert Mode to display available award classes, you must search for a paid ticket. Award searches aren’t going to help.

As a quick example, here’s a flight search from San Francisco (SFO) to Honolulu (HNL) in mid-November. When the results pull up, click on the Details tab for a particular flight, and that will display all the fare classes.

On this flight, you’ll notice there are two PN tickets, meaning there are two seats currently available for Global Services or instant upgrades. However, since the flight is also listed at PZ0, that means any non-Global Services members trying to upgrade with miles won’t be able to do so right now.

You may notice that this search is showing L-fare tickets in discounted economy. This is important, because the fare class you book will indicate whether you can upgrade a flight with miles or a GPU/RPU, and it may also determine the number of miles you’d need to use or the co-pay you’d need to fork over to do so as a non-Premier member.

For example, a L-fare ticket from San Francisco to Hawaii can be upgraded to first class for 27,500 miles plus a $125 copay if you don’t have United status. However, a W-fare ticket drops that rate to 25,000 miles, while a V-fare ticket drops it to 22,500. By booking into a slightly higher fare class, you can lower the number of miles you’d need (assuming that there’s award inventory on your flight, of course).

To do this, scroll back up to the top and click on the “Advanced Search” link. There’s a section of the search page that allows you to search by specific fare classes. If you put “W” in that box …

… that pulls up the following results:

You’d essentially pay an extra $121 to book into W fare class and save 2,500 miles. Plus you’d earn an extra 605 miles, so the net gain to your MileagePlus account is 3,105 miles for the extra expense. Given that TPG’s most recent valuations peg United miles at 1.4 cents apiece, you’re saving $43.47 worth of miles by spending an extra $121. Not exactly a good deal by any stretch.

Now for something a bit grander in scale. Let’s say you want to book a trip to Australia and fly United’s route from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) on the 787-9 Dreamliner. This is one of the longest routes in the world, clocking in at 15 hours and 50 minutes, so being able to upgrade from coach to business class makes a huge difference.

I did a random search in March, and found both outbound and return flights showing as “PZ9” meaning there are at least nine seats available to upgrade using Global Premier Upgrades or using your miles (plus a co-pay, depending on your fare class):

However, neither the lowest available economy fare (G) nor the listed flexible economy fare (K) are upgradeable using a GPU. This is where the Advanced Search comes in again. In the box to specify the fare class, put in W, the lowest class eligible for Polaris mileage upgrades. That changes the price of the ticket quite a bit:

However, if you have two GPUs at your disposal, you could pay an extra $765 for the round-trip flight and immediately confirm a spot in Polaris for both the outbound and the return. Note that you’d also take home an extra 1,915 miles for the higher price you pay, another $26.81 of value.

If you don’t have any GPUs, the PZ availability would allow you to confirm an upgrade immediately as well. Unfortunately, this would require not only miles but a hefty copay as well: 30,000 miles plus $600 each way for the lowest fare classes (S, T, L, K or G). As a result, your total out-of-pocket cost would jump to $2,062 plus 60,000 miles (worth $840).

Considering that paying for Polaris outright on this itinerary would set you back $5,837, either one of these options could still represent a phenomenal value.

Note that you could use the same type of search for award tickets as well to help determine if you should pull the trigger immediately or whether you have some time. For the above flight from LAX-SYD, you’ll see X9, indicating that United is making at least 9 economy award seats available. If you’re looking to book just one or two, you may not feel the urgency right then. However, if Expert Mode shows X3 or even X2, that’s a clear indication that you should finalize the tickets as soon as you can.

Bottom Line

Though United’s Expert Mode isn’t necessary for the majority of flyers just looking for a cheap fare, when it comes to finding award tickets and upgradable tickets, as well as looking at seat inventory and how likely your elite upgrade is to come through, being able to see the fare buckets available on specific flights can be invaluable.

For more information on United in general, check out these posts:

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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