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My last-minute trick for confirming United first class upgrades

Oct. 27, 2022
5 min read
United Airlines Polaris business class on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
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Editor's Note

This post has been updated with additional context.

With infinitely long upgrade waitlists and fewer upgrades clearing, United elites are spending more time in economy class, especially on hub-to-hub routes.

As a Premier 1K member, just 10% of my eligible flights this year have received Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs) to first class. I've long thought CPUs were the best benefit of Premier 1K status, but with complimentary upgrades being few and far between, I've considered revisiting my elite status strategy.

However, hope is not lost. Nowadays, I rely more on day-of-departure PlusPoints and mileage upgrades to confirm a seat at the front of the plane. Let's take a closer look at my upgrade process.

How to leverage United's Expert Mode for last-minute upgrades

NICOLAS ECONOMOU/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

One quick disclaimer — I'm sharing this tip merely from my own experiences and observations, having traveled with United. There's no guarantee that this will work for you, and we haven't tested this tip across MileagePlus accounts. Remember this tip the next time it looks like you won't be getting a complimentary upgrade on the day of your flight, but don't bank on it always panning out.

Now, with that out of the way, let's look at the process.

At the most rudimentary level, there are two variables at hand as the departure time for your flight approaches: First, the number of empty seats in first class; and second, waitlisted passengers for first class.

As the departure time approaches, United tends to open lower first-class fare classes, including the "PZ" fare, which means that an upgrade to first class is confirmable using PlusPoints or miles. However, the airline can only do this if there are open first class seats on the flight.

For example, let's look at a flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Kahului Airport (OGG) in United's Expert Mode. Expert Mode in the United mobile app shows the fare classes available on a given flight — check out our full guide for more information.

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Three days ago, there were six seats available in first class (indicated by "J6"). However, upgrades to first class were not confirmable (indicated by "PZ0") when I first checked the flight.

This screenshot was taken three days ago. UNITED APP

Now, let's look at the same flight two hours from departure.

UNITED APP

Even though there are just two seats now in first class (indicated by "J2"), there is now one seat available to confirm an upgrade to (indicated by "PZ1"). Because PZ space is open, I can now upgrade my ticket by applying either PlusPoints or confirming a mileage upgrade.

Note that you're not skipping the line for complimentary upgrades; you're simply changing the method by which you're upgrading (using PlusPoints or miles) when seats are released at the last minute.

So, in short: Keep an eye on your flight with United Expert Mode. If you see open "PZ" fares, you can confirm an upgrade using PlusPoints or miles. It's common to find these fares hours before departure when the first class cabin has open seats.

Related: Why Premium Plus and higher fare classes are the secret to United upgrades

This strategy also works for upgrading award tickets

By traveling in first class, you will likely have an additional baggage allowance. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

This tip can also be used on award tickets if seats are released — but the process is a little different.

If you're currently booked on an economy United award ticket, monitor your flight in United Expert Mode on the days (and hours) leading up to your flight. Look for the "I" fare class (business saver). Then, if one opens up, simply rebook your award ticket to the business class cabin, paying the extra miles in the process.

Here's an example of a flight with open "I" space, denoted by the "I1" marker:

UNITED APP

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on United Airlines

Bottom line

As the departure time of my flight approaches, I regularly refresh the available fare classes and the upgrade waitlist to see if I can snag a first-class seat using my PlusPoints. If you don't have PlusPoints, you can use miles to confirm an upgrade when the "PZ" fare is available on a paid ticket.

I often use this strategy when my position on the upgrade waitlist clearly shows that I won't be getting upgraded.

By using this tip, I've been able to lock in upgrades on the following flights this year:

  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole (KOA).
  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Kahului Airport (OGG).
  • Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) to Denver International Airport (DEN).
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD).
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL).
  • Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
  • Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
  • Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) to Dulles International Airport (IAD).

The next time it looks like you're not going to get upgraded, try this tip and see if you can snag a seat up front.

Featured image by KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY
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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Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
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    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees