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Getting upgrades on United. Everything you need to know from GPUs to miles and co-pays.

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Upgrading your ticket with United℠ Explorer Card can be a mind numbingly confusing process. No other U.S. airline offers a more complex combination of mileage, cash co-pays, and elite certificate options to upgrade your flight.

To help, we’ve compiled answers to questions that arise in these key parts of the upgrade process. Skip to what interests you, or read it all. And if that’s all still confusing, feel free to ask questions below. If you play it right, United can be quite rewarding for upgrades.

How to Check if Upgrade Space is Available

The fastest way to check whether upgrade space is available while shopping for flights is to use ‘Expert Mode’ on United.com.

‘Expert Mode’ lets you view the exact inventory for each United flight, which includes the number of seats currently available for upgrades.

To enable it, just follow this link. You’ll be asked to login to your account. Then, scroll down the page and you’ll see a check-box where you can enable Expert Mode and save it to your profile.

Once it’s enabled, you’ll be able to access the Expert feature whenever you search for flights while logged in. To see it, click on the ‘Fare Class’ label next to any flight search result.

Look for ‘R’ space to verify upgrade availability from Economy. Once you click ‘Fare Class’ a pop-up will appear with an alphabet soup of letters. For the purposes of upgrades from Economy Class, you want to look for the letter ‘R’.

Next to the letter ‘R’ will be a number, from 0 to 9. That number represents the number of seats available for an upgrade. If it’s ‘9’ it means 9 or more seats are available (it could be 12, 20, or more – any number higher than 9 is not displayed).

If it’s R0 you’re out of luck, there are no seats available for an upgrade. If it’s R1 or larger, then there are seats available for an upgrade right away if you decide to book your flight and use miles, a Regional upgrade, or a Global upgrade depending on the flight. You can process it while booking online, or call in and have an agent handle it for you.

If you’re looking for GlobalFirst class upgrades check for ‘O’ availability. If you’ve already paid for a Business Class ticket and want to upgrade to GlobalFirst class on an international flight, ‘O’ is the letter United uses for upgrade inventory.

The number of upgrade seats is NOT the same as the number of seats left on the flight. United wants to sell as many seats as it can for cash, so on most flights not all first or business class seats on the flight will be available for upgrades.

If you have connecting flights, check each flight individually. Let’s say you’re flying New York to Sydney via JFK – LAX – SYD, and want to upgrade.

If the shorter JFK – LAX segment has no upgrades available, but the LAX – SYD one does have them available, it’s possible Expert Mode will show ‘R0.’ Yet you can still lock in the upgrade for the long LAX – SYD flight and waitlist for the shorter upgrade.

So when searching for trips that have a connection, do a separate search for each individual leg. For example, look at the LAX – SYD flight alone to double check whether upgrades are open or not.

For complimentary ‘elite’ Premier upgrades this does not apply.  ‘Complimentary Premier Upgrades’  are done automatically by the computer system at certain intervals, and agents can’t process them manually. So you might sometimes see ‘R’ space available for your flight, but your upgrade hasn’t cleared.

The upgrade system will activate later, and if you are the very next person in line for an upgrade it will process it.

But there could also be people ahead of you with higher priority who will get the upgrade instead, or someone might buy a cash ticket, snapping up the seat. Unfortunately you’re out of luck in those situations and will have to wait your turn.

The exception is if you are a Premier on a full Y or B fare, or a Premier 1K on an ‘M’ fare which upgrades to a separate, broader inventory.

Maximizing Your Upgrade Chances

Of course, your best bet is to search long and hard for flights that have confirmable upgrade space already.

If you can’t find space, your best bet all else equal is to find flights that appear to have the most unsold Business or First Class seats.

Using Expert Mode, Business Class fare codes are J, C, D, Z, and P. The more of those that have ‘9s in front of them, especially close in to the flight, the more likely United hasn’t yet sold many seats.

J9 C9 D9 Z9 P9 is what you’re looking for, so the flight in the section above is a good example of one to consider (and it in fact already has an upgradeable seat open). Just beware it’s far from any guarantee you’ll be upgraded. People could buy up all the remaining seats before the flight departs and you could be out of luck. The only guarantee is once your upgrade has cleared.

The worst options are those that are nearly sold out already. For example the flight below that shows J2C2D0Z0P0 is a bad bet for upgrade chances. It means only 2 seats are left for sale in Business Class, and the discounted Business Class fares (Z, P) are not available as United is hoping for some big last minute fares. Miracles can happen, but don’t bet on them when so few seats are left.

Another datapoint. If all your choices are showing ‘9s’ (which is good), a final tie-breaker to consider is pulling up the seat map and counting the number of empty seats in the cabin you want to upgrade to.

This is not a reliable method, as lots of people don’t bother to assign a seat when they buy a ticket, but it’s another piece of information in your quest to find flights with the highest chance of scoring you an upgrade from the waitlist.

Also consider a higher fare. United prioritizes upgrades by the fare class you book. So if you want a better shot, consider booking a slightly higher fare than the lowest currently available. It may secure you a slot higher on the upgrade waitlist. The order of fare priority for upgrades from Economy is Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G, N.

United.com will let you specify one or more of those fare code letters to get an exact price and see whether the higher fare is a price you’re willing to pay. Just use the ‘Advanced Search’ link and you can enter the fare codes.

What we’ve talked about so far applies to upgrades to international Business Class (BusinessFirst). But the principles apply to other upgrades, just with different letter codes to watch. Here are the fare code letters to consider for other kinds of upgrades:

Domestic First Class: ‘F’ is the bucket that shows how many First Class seats are left – pay attention to that one. A, J, C, D, and P are the remaining fare buckets for domestic First Class, with P the cheapest.

GlobalFirst Class: For flights that have 3 cabins (GlobalFirst, BusinessFirst, and Economy) F and A are the fare buckets for GlobalFirst class, while ON represents GlobalFirst award space, and O represents space upgradable from BusinessFirst.

Types of Upgrades

Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs). These are the most valuable upgrades available, and they’re given to Premier 1K and Global Services members. You’ll earn 6 for reaching Premier 1K status in a calendar year, and another 2 for each 50,000 Premier Qualifying Miles or 60 segments you fly. You can use these upgrades anywhere United flies.

The catch is for flights to Europe, Asia, South America, the Middle East, Africa, and Australia you must buy a ‘W’ or higher Economy Class fare to be eligible to use the upgrade. If you’re looking to upgrade from Business Class to First Class, you must buy a ‘J,’ C’, or ‘D’ fare. Discount ‘Z’ and ‘P’ fares aren’t upgradable on long haul international flights. Award tickets are also not upgradable and you can apply these upgrades at any time.

Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs). Premier Platinum and higher members earn these, which upgrade you throughout North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. You get 2 for reaching Premier Platinum, another 2 for reaching Premier 1K, and another 2 for each additional 25,000 miles or 30 segments you fly.  You can apply these upgrades at any time and they work on special flights like P.S. service from JFK to LAX/SFO and Hawaii flights from Newark, Washington Dulles, and Houston to Honolulu.

MileagePlus® Upgrades. Any member can use miles to upgrade flights anywhere in the world, though often with a cash co-pay requirement.

Instant Premier Upgrades. If you are a Premier level flier and buy a full fare Y or B Economy ticket you can get an instant upgrade provided space is available. These are valid on flights that offer Complimentary Premier Upgrades (below). Premier 1K and Global Services members can also get Instant Upgrades on ‘M’ class fares.

Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs). These are ‘free’ upgrades available to all Premier members if space is available. They are available on routes within North America, Central America, and the Caribbean that don’t fly exclusively with a BusinessFirst lie flat front cabin. That means P.S. flights from JFK – LAX / SFO and Honolulu flights to Newark, Houston, and Washington Dulles that have a BusinessFirst cabin aren’t eligible for these upgrades.

A ‘buy up’ to the lowest First Class fare. United will let you pay the difference between your coach fare and the lowest First Class fare on your flight. Sometimes this can be quite reasonable, and lets you take advantage of First Class fares that are normally only offered with significant advance purchase restrictions. You will be credited with full mileage for the First Class fare. Check your reservation on United.com to see if this option is available.

A discounted cash upgrade. These usually appear within 24 hours of the flight, and are often the cheapest way to get into First Class. Many Premier members complain about them because they give non-Premier members an opportunity to buy their way into First Class on the cheap, reducing their free or instrument based upgrade chances. Use online check-in or an airport kiosk to check availability and pricing for your flight.

Waitlisting & Upgrade Priority

If an upgrade isn’t available on your flight, United will waitlist you and the computer system will put you in line with other passengers waiting for an upgrade.  When you’re next at the top of the list, it will attempt to clear you if upgrade space becomes available.

Flights that offer no ‘free’ upgrades

This includes all international flights with a lie-flat seat BusinessFirst cabin, as well as domestic routes that guarantee planes with a lie-flat BusinessFirst cabin like JFK-LAX/SFO and EWR-HNL.

The type of upgrade you use (miles, Global, or Regional) has no impact on where you fall on the list. It’s entirely based on your status level, the class of fare you paid (with more expensive getting priority), and finally the time you requested the upgrade. The order of fare priority for upgrades from Economy is Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G, N.

Here is the overall priority by Premier level:

1. Global Services

  • Cleared in order of fare class, then by time of request

2. Premier 1K

  • Cleared in order of fare class, then by time of request

3. Premier Platinum

  • Cleared in order of fare class, then by time of request

4. Premier Gold

  • Cleared in order of fare class, then by time of request

5. Premier Silver

  • Cleared in order of fare class, then by time of request

6. General Members

  • Cleared in order of fare class, then by time of request

If you have a connecting flight in your trip to a long international flight with a BusinessFirst cabin (for example, you are flying from Houston to Newark to Paris) and the upgrade for Houston to Newark clears, but the Newark to Paris doesn’t, your miles or upgrade instrument will be refunded in full.

Flights that offer ‘free’ Complimentary Premier Upgrades

These are the domestic routes and some international routes that don’t guarantee a lie-flat seat BusinessFirst cabin.

If you are a Premier member you are eligible to receive a free upgrade automatically if space is available, starting at upgrade windows up to 5 days before departure, depending on your Premier level.

Here is how the priority stacks up:

1. All Global Services Members

  • Cleared by fare class and time of request

2. ‘Instant Upgrade’ Y, B fares for Premier Members

  • Premier members who buy a full fare ‘Y’ or ‘B’ class ticket can get an ‘instant upgrade’ confirmed as soon as they buy a ticket, provided space is available. If it isn’t, they are waitlisted with near top priority.

3. M-fares for Premier 1K

  • Premier 1K members also get an instant upgrade on ‘M’ class Economy fares.

3. Any Mileage, Global Premier, or Regional Premier upgrades

  • Cleared in order of Premier level, fare class, then by time of request

4. Premier 1K complimentary upgrades

  • Cleared in order of fare class, time of request, then companions

5. Premier Platinum complimentary upgrades

  • Cleared in order of fare class, time of request, then companions

6. Premier Gold complimentary upgrades

  • Cleared in order of fare class, time of request, then companions

7. Premier Silver complimentary upgrades

  • Cleared in order of fare class, time of request, then companions

Changing a Flight With an Upgrade

If you decide to change your flight, the upgrade ‘R’ class must be available for you to reconfirm your upgrade if you use miles, a Regional, or Global upgrade.

For Complimentary upgrades you must wait for the computer system to re-process you, even if upgrade inventory is available.

For upgrades confirmed with miles, a Regional, or Global upgrade, if you encounter a delayed or cancelled flight you may have luck getting rebooked in First / Business Class even if upgrade space is not available as a courtesy.

Companion Upgrades

As a Premier if a companion is traveling on the same reservation as you, your companion will be eligible to be upgraded with the same priority as you, though the two of you will be below all other Premier members within your level.

So if you are Premier Platinum you will have priority below all solo Premier Platinums, but ahead of Premier Golds. You can choose to split up your reservation if you don’t want to be weighed down in the priority by your companion. This feature is available automatically when you check-in, or you can request it on the phone. Your companion will lose upgrade privileges if you do this.

You can also use your miles, Global Upgrades, or Regional upgrades to upgrade anyone you’d like. If they are traveling in your reservation they will have the same waitlist priority as you. If they are not, they will have waitlist priority according to their own status in the United Premier program. Though until April 15, 2015 they will get the benefit of your priority.

Upgrades with Miles

We rarely advocate using miles to upgrade, as it’s often a bad deal on United thanks to hefty cash co-pays on top of the miles required. You’re often better off booking a Saver level Business or First Class award ticket outright.

And even when Business or First Class award space isn’t available, United offers a little known, but clearly documented way to get top waitlist priority (ahead of all upgrades) that we talk about here. So upgrading with miles is even less attractive with that alternative.

That said, below are the prices for upgrading Economy Class tickets with miles one-way of travel. You can check the latest prices and region definitions on the United website.

Domestic flights

Premier members can upgrade most domestic flights with miles, and no dollar co-pay. Non-Premier members need to pay a cash co-pay on top of the miles required. Here are the prices for a one-way upgrade – these exclude P.S. Premium Service flights between JFK and LAX / SFO:

  • Y: 7,500 miles + $0
  • B: 10,000 miles + $0
  • J, C, D: 15,000 miles + $0
  • M, E, U, H, Q, Z, P: 15,000 miles + $75
  • V, W: 17,500 miles + $75
  • S, T, K, L, G: 20,000 miles + $75

Given United charges 25,000 miles one-way for a Saver First Class award outright, using 20,000 miles + $75 isn’t a great deal unless you really want to earn miles for the flight to qualify for Premier status.

P.S. flights

United’s P.S. flights from New York JFK to SFO and LAX and BOS to SFO operate with BusinessFirst lie-flat seats, and upgrades have an extra-high co-pay if you want to use miles. Premier members must pay the co-pay starting February 1, 2015. Here are one-way prices:

  • Y: 7,500 miles + $0
  • B: 10,000 miles + $0
  • M, E, U: 15,000 miles + $75
  • H, Q: 15,000 miles + $125
  • V: 17,500 miles + $175
  • W: 17,500 miles + $225
  • S, T, K, L, G: 20,000 miles + $250

Again, United’s Saver Business Class 25,000 mile award is a much better deal than using miles to upgrade these flights unless you are on one of the more expensive Economy Class fares.

Hawaii

Trips involving flights between Honolulu and Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Houston, Newark, and Washington Dulles.

These are priced higher because they offer a BusinessFirst cabin with lie-flat seats and Premier members must also pay the co-pay.

  • Y: 20,000 miles + $0
  • B: 30,000 miles + $0
  • M, E, U: 30,000 miles + $300
  • H, Q: 30,000 miles + $375
  • V: 30,000 miles + $425
  • W: 30,000 miles + $475
  • S, T, K, L, G: 30,000 miles + $500

Other Hawaii flights

Premier members do NOT have to pick up the co-pay for these flights.

  • Y: 10,000 miles + $0
  • B: 17,500 miles + $0
  • M, E, U: 17,500 miles + $125
  • H, Q: 20,000 miles + $125
  • V: 22,500 miles + $125
  • W: 25,000 miles + $125
  • S, T, K, L, G: 27,500 miles + $125

Europe

Most upgrades from Economy Class require a co-pay in cash that is not waived for Premier members.

  • Y: 15,000 miles + $0
  • B: 20,000 miles + $0
  • M, E, U: 20,000 miles + $300
  • H, Q: 20,000 miles + $425
  • V: 20,000 miles + $475
  • W, S, T, K, L, G: 20,000 miles + $550

For comparison, a one-way Saver Business Class award outright costs 57,500 miles in case you want to avoid paying $550 on the lowest fares. You can waitlist for Saver Business and First Class awards, even if they are not available, by using this method documented by United.

Central America, Caribbean, Northern South America

For Northern South America the co-pay is not waived for Premier members

  • Y: 10,000 miles + $0
  • B: 15,000 miles + $0
  • M, E, U: 15,000 miles + $125
  • H, Q: 17,500 miles + $125
  • V: 20,000 miles + $125
  • W: 22,500 miles + $125
  • S, T, K, L, G: 25,000 miles + $125

Southern South America

Premier members must pay the co-pay.

  • Y: 15,000 miles + $0
  • B: 25,000 miles + $0
  • M, E, U: 25,000 miles + $300
  • H, Q: 25,000 miles + $375
  • V: 25,000 miles + $425
  • W: 25,000 miles + $475
  • S, T, K, L, G: 25,000 miles + $500

North Asia, South Asia, Australia

Premier members must pay the co-pay.

  • Y: 20,000 miles + $0
  • B: 30,000 miles + $0
  • M, E, U: 30,000 miles + $350
  • H, Q: 30,000 miles + $450
  • V: 30,000 miles + $500
  • W: 30,000 miles + $550
  • S, T, K, L, G: 30,000 miles + $600

Central Asia, Middle East, Africa

Premier members must pay the co-pay.

  • Y: 25,000 miles + $0
  • B: 35,000 miles + $0
  • M, E, U: 35,000 miles + $350
  • H, Q: 35,000 miles + $450
  • V: 35,000 miles + $500
  • W: 35,000 miles + $550
  • S, T, K, L, G: 35,000 miles + $600

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