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How a $199 Upgrade to United's Premium Plus (and a GPU) Landed Me in Lie-Flat Business Class

April 17, 2019
10 min read
United Polaris 787-10
How a $199 Upgrade to United's Premium Plus (and a GPU) Landed Me in Lie-Flat Business Class
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"Mr. Riva, Alberto," the United Airlines agent called out. "Please come forward."

Standing in a packed crowd at Newark's gate C110, I was very happy to hear my name. And when I got to the desk, the agent had in her hand exactly what I was hoping she'd give me: a boarding pass for Polaris. "Seat 10F okay? Aisle," she asked. Kind of moot, really — every seat is an aisle seat in Polaris. (The real Polaris, which this was.) It was okay indeed, and I wasn't going to nitpick anyway; I had just been upgraded to United's long-haul business class, in a lie-flat seat. I took my boarding pass, waltzed aboard the 787-10 Dreamliner waiting outside, and eight hours later I deplaned in Frankfurt fresh as a daisy, well-fed and well-rested after sleeping in a lie-flat seat.

All this for less than $200.

And to think that only 24 hours before boarding I was booked in seat 46A way behind the wing, in the back section of coach class. And that I have no elite status whatsoever on United, or the Star Alliance it's part of.

Yet, all it took to fly Polaris across the Atlantic was a $605.83 economy-class return ticket Berlin - New York - Frankfurt, plus $199 to upgrade from economy to Premium Plus, the new premium economy class United has just rolled out. Pretty crazy when you think that the cheapest round-trip in Polaris from EWR to FRA is more than three times as much, and usually much more.

I had booked the United ticket in January as part of an itinerary to and from Europe for a flight review on Air Italy, paying with cash rather than points, since the cash fare was attractive enough.

Then, a few days before my flight, a generous reader reached out to offer up his expiring United Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) to the team, which we applied to my flight, waitlisting my economy leg from Newark to Frankfurt to Premium Plus, since my "K" fare wasn't eligible for a business-class upgrade. The waitlisted upgrade never cleared.

You can replicate my unusual path to a Polaris upgrade if you apply an upgrade certificate to move from economy to Premium Plus, and, assuming the cabin bump doesn't clear in advance, when you purchase an upgrade during check-in you may ultimately find yourself high up on the Polaris waitlist just before boarding.

24 hours before departure, I checked in online for my economy-class flight, and noticed that the site was telling me I could move up to an extra-legroom economy seat for $137. Not bad, but I wasn't really interested; EWR to FRA is a short hop, and with strong winter winds at our back, we could make it in under seven hours. That's when TPG editor-at-large Zach Honig, a noted United maven and million miler, noted that for just $199, I could move up to actual premium economy, a whole separate class of service, with 38 inches of legroom — about the same as domestic first class in the US. The United site didn't have that option for me; it only appeared in the United app on Zach's phone. The only class-upgrade option I could see on the United site was Polaris for $899, which Zach's app listed for $2,969, below.

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We agreed that $900 for Polaris — much less a whopping three grand, one way! — wasn't quite worth it, but $199 for Premium Plus sounded good. So Zach got the upgrade for me. After applying that $199 upgrade, my seat assignment changed to 20L, a right-side window seat in the first row of Premium Plus. (In the screen shots, we have blanked out the other passengers' last names.)

Good news, but there was better coming. Zach messaged me shortly after upgrading me with a very interesting development: upgrading to Premium Plus had unexpectedly put me in the running for the Holy Grail of United upgrades, a bump to Polaris. My flight was now booked in "R" class, which, unlike "K," is upgrade-eligible. But not only that! As Zach explained:

Higher than a super-elite flyer with Global Services status on a full-fare economy ticket? Now you're talking! The theory was great, but in practice I didn't have a lot of reasons for optimism. The United app told me 43 seats were booked in Polaris out of 44 available, and I was number three on the upgrade list for that one remaining seat. With the heavy business traffic from Newark to Frankfurt, my chances of scoring Polaris on my first ride on a 787-10 looked slim.

But then, a little more than one hour before departure, two booked seats turned to available, and my prospects improved greatly. One passenger ahead of me got upgraded to seat 6D in Polaris, and I was third in line with three seats left. "Looks like someone's flying biz!" Zach texted me, adding the screenshot below.

Just before 7pm, my upgrade came in as I waited at the gate. The United app updated my seat assignment to 10F on my mobile boarding pass at about the same time I got called to the podium to get a paper one.

I had made it in as number four out of seven passengers who got upgraded to Polaris that evening on United 960. Not bad for someone with no status and a coach-class ticket upgraded for cheap to Premium Plus. Walking down the jetway under a dull rainy sky, I thanked silently the double-stretched 787-10, the biggest of the Dreamliners, and its big Polaris cabin with 44 seats. More upgrade chances for everybody!

I walked onboard after most of biz class had already taken their seats, as two flight attendants were walking the aisle with trays of welcome drinks.

My freshly upgraded 10F looked sweet, with Saks Fifth Avenue bedding and two pillows waiting for me. I was even happy to break my window-seat-only rule for a flight to Europe this way in exchange for a grand total of $800.

Polaris, by the way, did not disappoint me. I had flown the new Polaris once before, on a 777-300ER from Newark to San Francisco, and loved the seat but found that it deserved service to match. (It was, incidentally, the flight where our social media editor Samantha Rosen had her business-class baptism.) And a recent experience on the old business class rebranded as Polaris, on a 767 from Europe, had left me cold: so-so food, indifferent service, lie-flat but ho-hum seat. This, though, was a different animal.

Dinner — excellent smoked duck, a crisp salad with a fresh pomegranate açai vinaigrette, ravioli and a cheese plate — was at the top end for a premium-class meal on a US carrier across the Atlantic. The crew serving it was efficient and warm — maybe a bit on the informal side, but never in overly jokey or familiar ways.

I watched one of 215 movies available on a sharp, responsive screen; or I could have chosen one of 140 TV shows. In both cases a way bigger selection than on Delta, my airline of choice. I slept very well with the seat in flat-bed mode, under the fluffy Saks blanket. I woke up to a breakfast omelette that would have been very good even on the ground.

And this for $805 all told, the bargain of all time for transatlantic lie-flat. On a brand spanking new Dreamliner, no less: this was, according to flight-tracking sites, only its fourth crossing of the Atlantic.

As for my mileage earnings for this flight, they were based not on the upgraded Premium Plus class, but on the original K-class fare, or discount coach.

I emailed United to ask whether, per its own earnings chart, I should have received 150 percent of miles flown, not 100 percent, as Premier Qualifying Miles, since my are had been rebooked in "R" class. The reply was a simple no: "Please be advised that when you're offered to upgrade your economy class flight to business or first class (day of departure upgrade or Premium cabin upgrade), you're paying a fee to be upgraded at a much lower price than the fare you would pay if you were to actually purchase the business or first class fare, " a customer-service rep wrote. "If your ticket shows the amount you paid for your upgrade as a “fee”, you're not eligible for extra Premier qualifying miles or the additional Premier qualifying dollars. Credit will be given for the fare paid on the original ticket, not the upgraded class."

Okay, fine. No big. I wasn't chasing United status, anyway.

I'm generally a Delta guy, with Platinum Medallion status, but on my airline of choice I got an upgrade from coach to biz exactly once in dozens of transatlantic runs. I didn't mind at all ditching my SkyTeam loyalty for a brief, pleasant dalliance with the competition. And I would be glad to do it again for another spin in the Real Polaris.

All photos by the author.