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The trick to get United First & Business awards at low Saver mile prices, even when not available

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United substantially raised the prices of many Business and First Class awards in 2014, especially on flights that involve partner airlines. The good news is, Saver award prices on United’s own flights are still very reasonable and good values, like 115,000 miles roundtrip for Business Class to Europe.

But there is a problem…

United’s own flights often have very little Saver level award availability in First and Business Class.

So are you stuck paying expensive partner or ‘Standard’ award prices that can be twice as much or more when Saver seats aren’t available?

Not if you’re savvy.

There is a method to get Business or First Class seats at the lowest Saver award prices on United flights that have no Saver award space available, even at the busiest peak times like the holidays and summer travel season. It’s also helpful for flights that almost never have Saver award seats available ahead of time like Newark to Delhi and Bombay, Newark to Tel Aviv, or many flights to Hawaii.

With this option you’ll get first priority for a Business or First Class seat at the airport, ahead of all upgrades and just behind full cash tickets. Basically unless the flight sells out with paying cash fares or mileage tickets at the very highest prices you’ll be sitting up front, which means your odds are very good.

The method involves an arcane, but easy to request wait list policy that United inherited from its merger with Continental Airlines. It’s an official policy of United listed on its website and in its computer systems (we’ll talk about the details below), so this isn’t a ‘bend the rules’ method. It’s a real benefit that takes some advance knowledge to execute.

Here’s how it works…

  1. Call up United and ask to reserve the Saver Economy space, but ticket it at the Saver First or Business Class price
  2. Then, have United wait list that Economy reservation for First or Business Class. If United opens up SaverBusiness Class award space before your flight, you’ll automatically clear into it.
  3. If United doesn’t open up Saver Business Class, you can be put on a wait list at the airport with the very highest priority – as if you paid for a Business or First Class ticket – and ahead of people using miles to upgrade paid tickets.

If you don’t clear into the front cabin you can call in to request that your miles be refunded, but again, since you will have priority over all upgrades the odds are good you will be sitting up front unless every seat is spoken for by tickets paid in cash or the highest mileage price.

You can’t book this online so it has to be done over the phone with an agent.

Here’s an example to help…

Let’s say you want to travel from San Francisco to Lihue, Hawaii.

Here, the flight you want has no ‘Saver’ Business Class seats available, and only ‘Standard’ Business Class for 90,000 miles.

United Saver award space Hawaii

But there is ‘Saver’ Economy Class available and you can use this to secure a wait list spot for the Business Class seat.

Call in to request ticketing yourself on the flight as a Business or First Class Saver award, but confirmed in Economy Class. Then ask to be wait listed for Business or First Class.

You’ll be charged 40,000 miles, much better than the 90,000 ‘Standard’ rate for Business Class and receive first priority for a Business Class seat.

This only works for United flights, but if you have an itinerary with both a United and partner flight you can still wait list the United flight.

Once you’ve done this, here’s how you can make sure it is ticketed correctly:

Make sure you were charged the Business or First Class Class mileage level. If your account wasn’t deducted the number of miles for Business Class, and only the economy amount was deducted, call back and get it properly ticketed. This will only work if the Business Class number of miles was used as the basis for your award so that’s your first check. You can also see the number of miles deducted at the bottom of your reservation on United.com.

United mileage price

Make sure the wait list displays. Your second and final check to see this was set up properly is to see a ‘wait listed’ designation on your reservation. Login to view your reservation at United.com and it will show “class requested” below the United Economy label. If either of the above two checks failed call up and try again with another agent.

United award wait list

If the agent you speak with doesn’t know about this tell him or her to look up “DRS reference page MPWAI – Line 37” in the computer system. That will provide all of the instructions needed to book your flight correctly. It would be nice if all United agents knew about this, but it’s not well publicized and generally agents from the old Continental are more familiar with it than those who came from the old United side of things.

Make sure you get on the ‘PR-1’ list within 24 hours of departure If you don’t clear into Business Class before the day of your flight, you’ll have to make sure you’re on the airport standby wait list. It’s supposed to be automatic, but don’t trust that it will be.

When checking your position on the wait list at United.com or on the United mobile app you should appear near the top.

If after you check in online you don’t see yourself on the first / business class upgrade list at United.com/info then call United to get it sorted out.

The phone agent may need to contact the internal ‘ATO’ airport desk to properly add you to the waitlist with priority as a ticket that has already paid the business class mileage. That desk handles ticketing issues within 24 hours of departure.

Unfortunately not all agents are familiar with this so it may take several tries before you show up on the waitlist. This can all be done on the phone, so it’s not necessary to ask to be added at the airport in person.

This is not an upgrade, and don’t use the word ‘upgrade’ or you will confuse the agents. You paid the Business or First Class price in miles, so you are entitled to the highest upgrade priority.

If an agent isn’t helpful, find another, or ask to get a supervisor. You can also ask them to call their internal rewards line to verify your ticket was charged as a Business Class ticket and that you’re eligible to be wait listed with ‘PR-1’ priority.

What’s the catch? The catch is there is a risk your wait list won’t clear because United is able to sell all of the seats in Business Class to cash paying customers. The good news though is you will be ahead of everyone in line trying to use miles to upgrade, even high level elite fliers, and you’ll get first dibs if ‘Saver’ level space opens up before your flight. Otherwise at the airport you’ll have the same priority as someone who bought a Business Class ticket and is waiting for a seat to open up.

If there are two of you traveling there is a chance you could be separated, where one of you gets the seat in Business Class and the other doesn’t at the airport. But you can always tell the agent at the airport to only clear if there are two seats available. But whatever you do, *don’t* call this an upgrade. It will only confuse agents into giving you lower priority, and it’s not true since you already paid  the Business Class rate for your ticket.

If your wait list doesn’t clear and you end up sitting in coach, you’ll need to manually request a refund of your miles. You can do it by calling United, though you’ll go through the same process you did when booking the ticket. Some agents will be familiar, and others wont, so prepared to be patient.

Finally, this is not a loophole in the system. It is a real, documented benefit. So don’t let an agent bully you into thinking you’re on an Economy Class ticket and don’t deserve wait list priority at or near the top of the list. In fact, here is the language from United’s website describing this process:

United MileagePlus rules

*This information may have changed. Be sure to check the current Offer Details.

It would be great if United automated this process entirely and let you wait list using the website. But like many things United you have to be ‘in the know’ of the system to make things work to your advantage, even if they are set in stone policies of the airline.

In this case though the benefit is so powerful it makes earning United miles for Business and First Class awards very compelling. American and Delta don’t offer a similar feature, and this is a great way to make sure you nearly always get really good value out of your United miles even in these times of stingy Saver award availability.

It makes business sense for United since it doesn’t like to sell Saver level seats if they will displace someone who wants to pay cash for a ticket. And there are a lot of us willing to use miles at the Saver level but not at the double price Standard level for awards. So this method encourages the usage of miles among us who have enough miles for a Saver Business Class award, while making sure the airline doesn’t lose out on any full price customers since you may not clear until right before departure.

It’s like a super-priority upgrade wait list.

And that’s a good thing to have in your back pocket.

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