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Upgrading your ticket on a United Airlines flight can be a challenging process because, aside from just buying one outright, you must navigate a complex combination of mileage, cash co-pays and elite certificate options.
But if you have a chance to sit in United’s new international Premium Plus, business or first class cabins — especially for a long-haul flight — it is definitely worth exploring ways to upgrade to avoid sitting in a dreaded coach seat.
To help, we’ve outlined all the ways to get an upgrade on United’s international and domestic flights and tips on how to increase your chances. If you’re patient and play it right, you can be rewarded with that highly-coveted upgrade.
In this article hide
Check if upgrade space is available
When booking your ticket, you’re given the option before you purchase or redeem miles to upgrade. Or, on the day you check-in online or at a kiosk, a screen may pop up and offer an upgrade option.
Before you book, the fastest way to check whether upgrade space is available while shopping for flights is to use the expert mode function 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 log in to your MileagePlus® account. 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 mode feature whenever you search for flights while logged in. Let’s say you want to go from Washington, D.C., to Paris in August. To see the expert feature, click on the ‘Details’ label next to any flight search result.
This is what pops up:
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 zero 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. However, it could be 12 or 20, or more – any number higher than 9 is not displayed. R0 means no seats are available for upgrades.
If the number is R1 or larger, then seats are available for an upgrade right away if you book your flight and use miles, a regional upgrade or a global upgrade (explained further below). You can process your upgrade request by either booking it online or calling the MileagePlus Service Center at 800-421-4655 (or your dedicated Premier customer service line) for help.
United® Premium Plus revenue tickets are sold as O, A or R fare classes. If you’re looking for upgrades to Premium Plus, check for ‘O’ availability, followed by A and R. ON is reserved for award travel, while RN class is reserved for all upgrade types to Premium Plus.
But be warned — the number of upgrade seats is not the same as the actual number of seats available on the flight. Remember, an R with a 9 means at least 9 seats are available for upgrades. Other steps below offer help in determining how many may be available. United wants to sell as many seats as it can for cash, so on most flights not all the premium seats on the flight will be available for upgrades.
For free elite Premier upgrades, the above doesn’t apply, since they are done automatically by the computer system at certain intervals. So you might sometimes see ‘R’ space available for your flight, but that doesn’t mean your upgrade has cleared. If you’re the next person in line for an upgrade, it will be processed. But know that there either may be people ahead of you with higher priority who will get the upgrade or someone might buy a cash ticket, snapping up that premium seat.
The exception to this is if you are a MileagePlus Premier elite member who bought a full-fare economy Y- or B-class ticket, or are a Premier 1K on an ‘M’ fare, since you may be eligible for instant upgrades as early as your time of ticketing.
Types of upgrades
Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs). These are the most valuable upgrades available and they’re only given to Premier 1K® members after meeting all qualification requirements — flying 100,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) or 120 Premier Qualifying Segments (PQSs) and spending $15,000 during a calendar year. You’ll earn six GPUs for reaching Premier 1K status in a calendar year, and another two GPUs for each 50,000 PQMs or 60 PQSs you fly. You can use these upgrades anywhere United flies.
These upgrades can be used on paid, published full United economy fare for Premium Plus or the Polaris business class cabins. Fare classes S, T, L, K and G may only be upgraded on flights to select regions. GPUs can’t be used for basic economy and economy fares that come with a first bag charge and no changes allowed.
Customers have the option of using one GPU for whichever cabin they choose a Premium Plus seat, a Polaris business class seat, or both. If they choose both, they’ll be upgraded to whichever seat becomes available first. A nice perk is if the first available seat is in Premium Plus and the customer also chose Polaris, United will continue to look for space in the higher cabin without taking a second GPU.
Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs). Members earn two RPUs after reaching MileagePlus Premier Platinum status, plus two more after reaching 1K status. You’ll receive two more RPUs for each 25,000 PQMs or 30 PQSs earned during the same calendar year you achieve 1K status.
Use your RPUs for upgrades on most United-, United Express- and Copa Airlines-operated flights in the following regions: Continental U.S.; Central America; Hawaii; the Caribbean; Alaska; South America (Copa flights only); Canada; Oceania; and Mexico. They can also be used on flights between the continental U.S. and Hawaii, as well as all premium transcontinental routes, covering flights between New York/Newark and Los Angeles or San Francisco, as well as flights between Boston and San Francisco.
The chart below offers full details on upgrade eligibility and fare restrictions with GPUs and RPUs.
- For regions with an asterisk, GPUs are not available on flights booked in fare classes S, T, K, L, G or N. Basic Economy fares and Economy (first bag charge/no changes allowed) fares are not eligible for any type of upgrade.
- United Premium Plus: For members traveling on upgrade-eligible fares, there will be no fare class restriction for members who purchase a United Economy seat and request a move to a United Premium Plus seat, and no fare class restriction for members who purchase a United Premium Plus seat and request an upgrade to the United Polaris business class cabin.
- For regions with a double asterisk, the co-pay is waived for Premier members.
When using upgrades for United’s Premium Plus cabin, MileagePlus members booked in economy can use one GPU request to move to a United Premium Plus seat or upgrade to the Polaris business class cabin. If you bought a Premium Plus upgrade-eligible fare, you’ll be able to ask for an upgrade to United Polaris using one GPU.
MileagePlus upgrades. These awards, based on availability, allow members to use miles to pay for upgrades on most paid tickets on United- and Copa-operated flights. If you’re using discounted booking codes, you’ll have to use miles and make a co-pay. The price is based on region of travel, seat type requested, fare class and the Premier status at the time of an upgrade request.
You can’t use these upgrade awards with Basic Economy or economy (first bag charge/no changes allowed) fares. The price is based on region of travel, fare class and the Premier status of the member when the upgrade is requested.
Instant Premier upgrades. If you have Premier status and buy a full-fare Y or B economy ticket, you can get an instant upgrade if space is available. These are valid on flights that offer Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs). Premier 1K and Global Services members can also get instant upgrades on ‘M’ class fares.
CPUs. These space-available upgrades on select United- and United Express-operated flights are available to Premier members and a companion traveling on the same reservation. The confirmation windows for CPUs by published Premier level are:
A discounted cash upgrade. These usually appear within 24 hours of a flight and are often the cheapest way to get into first class. Many Premier members complain about them because they give non-Premier members the chance to buy their way into first class on the cheap, reducing their upgrade chances. Use online check-in or an airport kiosk to check availability and pricing for your flight.
Boost your upgrade chances
Your best bet is to search for flights that have confirmable upgrade space using expert mode. If you can’t find space, your next-best option 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 closer to the departure date, the more likely United hasn’t yet sold those seats.
J9, C9, D9, Z9, and P9 are the fare classes you’re looking for, so the flight in the section above is a good example of one to consider. But understand that there’s no 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 that upgrade has cleared.
The worst options are those that are nearly sold out already. For example, the flight above shows J2, C2, D0, Z0, and P0; that’s a bad bet for upgrade chances. It means only two seats are left for sale in business class, and the discounted business class fares (Z, P) are not available, as United hopes for some big last-minute fares. Miracles can happen, but don’t bet on them when so few seats are left.
If all your choices are showing 9s (which is good), a final tie-breaker to consider is pulling up the seat map on your chosen flight and counting the number of empty seats in the cabin you want to upgrade to. After choosing a flight, click on ‘Seats’ to see what’s available.
Although the map shows 13 Polaris business seats available, this isn’t always a reliable method to depend on, since many passengers don’t bother to choose a seat when they buy a ticket. However, it is another piece of information in your quest to find flights with the highest chance of scoring an upgrade from the waitlist.
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 and G.
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. 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.
Waitlisting and 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. When you’re next at the top of the list, it will attempt to clear you if upgrade space becomes available.
If upgrade space isn’t available when requesting a MileagePlus upgrade award, RPUs or GPUs, travelers may be placed on a waitlist and prioritized according to their Premier status. If the request includes multiple travelers, then priority is based on the highest Premier status on the reservation.
Upgrade waitlists are processed in the following priority order:
- Premier status of the traveler — Global Services, Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, Premier Gold and Premier Silver.
- Fare class (O, A, R (for upgrades from United Premium Plus seats to the United Polaris business class cabin) and Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G (for upgrades from United Economy to the next higher class of service on all aircraft).
- United Club℠ Card and Presidential Plus cardholders.
- United Corporate Preferred participant
- United℠ Explorer Card holders with $25,000 annual spend who have also met the Premier Qualifying Dollar (PQD) waiver will receive upgrade priority.
- Time of request.
The bottom line
Now that we’ve explained your upgrade options, why wouldn’t you want to take the steps needed to get a seat upgrade to a United premium cabin?
If you’re willing to be patient and take the steps outlined above, you could find yourself nestled in a first class domestic seat. If the airline stars really align in your favor on international flights, you could find yourself in the Premium Plus or Polaris cabins.
Understand that United uses internal algorithms to make its upgrade determinations. So in a nutshell, the higher your MileagePlus status is, the more likely you’ll be sitting in a premium cabin on your next flight — but remember that nothing is guaranteed.
The information related to the United Club℠ Card and United MileagePlus Presidential PlusSM Card has been collected by CompareCards and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication. Terms apply to Chase credit card offers. See chase.com for more information.