It’s now easier than ever to upgrade your flight to Japan using United miles or certificates

May 5, 2020

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Editor’s note: At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information needed to make educated decisions about travel and rewards-earning strategy. This is not the best time to travel, domestically or internationally, as airlines have cut major parts of their route networks. But we are sharing this information to provide value for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided.

Though United used last week to make some negative adjustments to its MileagePlus program, today the carrier is back with a (small) positive update.

As a member of Star Alliance, you’ve long been able to redeem United miles for one-cabin upgrades on many Star Alliance partners. Also, if you’ve got some PlusPoints — United’s new upgrade currency — to spare, you could use them on three select partners — ANA, Copa or Lufthansa.

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Though there’s always been a bunch of terms and conditions associated with these upgrades, one of the most limiting was that you could only upgrade ANA flights within eight weeks of departure. No matter how much availability there was more than eight weeks before departure, you couldn’t use your United miles or PlusPoints to lock it in.

Fortunately, today that’s changed. United now allows upgrade requests on ANA-operated flights up to a full year before departure (until 24 hours before your flight). PlusPoints upgrades can be made 365 days before your flight, and mileage upgrades may be made 331 days before departure. United’s website has been updated to reflect this policy update.

ANA The Room business class.

Though availability is capacity controlled, you now have a much longer window through which to find the space. Pro tip: Use ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to set an alert.

Related: The best websites for searching Star Alliance award availability

In and of itself, this is great news. However, many of the remaining terms and conditions are still quite restrictive.

For one, you can only upgrade expensive economy, premium economy or business-class tickets. Specifically, this includes J, C or D class (business), G or E class (premium economy) or Y, B, M or U (economy) — though United could always opt to make this less restrictive in the future. These one-cabin upgrades are offered from coach to business and from business to first, but not from coach to premium economy. 

For example, a round-trip coach ticket from New York-JFK to Tokyo Haneda (HND) in U class would run you about $2,300. (For reference, the cheapest round-trip business-class ticket on these dates is $7,500).

If you’re looking to bump to business using miles, you’d be out 25,000 miles for the one-way. This could be a great use of United miles, especially if you’re sitting on a stockpile of transferable Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

Alternatively, if you’re a United Premier Platinum, 1K or Global Services member, you can use 40 PlusPoints for the bump from coach to business. Though the cost of the coach ticket is quite high, redeeming PlusPoints isn’t a terrible option.

Using United miles or PlusPoints to upgrade from business to first is a much worse deal. If you use miles, you’re going to be out 50,000 for the bump. (PlusPoints upgrades from business to first cost 40 points). But the real issue is the cost of a D-class business ticket, which can get as high as $13,000 for a round-trip from New York.

ANA The Room business class.

Fortunately, ANA’s brand-new business-class product, dubbed The Room, is remarkable. I flew it back in January and had no qualms about calling it the new gold standard for business class.

Related: Review of ANA’s The Room business class

While today’s update from United is certainly good news for those looking to upgrade their ANA flight, note that there are still other ways to get to Japan in style using miles and points.

One of the best values is by redeeming Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles for ANA flights. Alternatively, you can book an award ticket with Air Canada Aeroplan or Avianca LifeMiles.

But some people have many extra United miles or PlusPoints upgrades to spare. And if you’re looking to upgrade a flight to Japan, you’ll now have a full year in which to confirm the upgrade.

All photos by the author. 

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