How to Upgrade to Business/First Class on United Airlines Flights

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The airline ticket upgrading process has become more complicated (and restrictive) on most airlines, but United’s upgrade process is often convoluted than most others.

There are multiple types of upgrades, a confusing maze of fare classes, priority hierarchy, and assorted rules for different planes and routes to sort through. For those who don’t have elite status with the airline, it may seem impossible to ever secure a seat in the front of the plane.

While we can’t guarantee you an upgraded seat on United Airlines, we can help you understand the upgrade process and increase your chances of securing a premium seat.

Our guide explains United upgrade types, availability, how the upgrade waitlist works, and the role of elite status in the upgrade process.

We’ll also cover the benefits of having a United MileagePlus® credit card with some bottom line ways to make that upgrade happen.

Types of Upgrades

United Airlines has several options for securing an upgrade, including earning upgrade certificates as a Premier Elite member, using miles to upgrade, qualifying for complimentary upgrades, or purchasing a full-fare economy ticket that upgrades instantly.

  • MilagePlus® Upgrade Awards: Upgrades using miles on any United or Copa Airlines-operated flights.
  • Complimentary Upgrades: Upgrades for Premier Elite members on a space-available basis on select United-operated domestic flights.
  • Regional Premier Upgrades: Upgrades earned by Premier Elite Platinum and 1K members that can be used on select United and Copa flights operated within certain regions.
  • Global Premier Upgrades: Upgrades earned by Premier Elite 1K members that can be used on United and specific United global partner airlines.
  • Star Alliance Upgrade Awards: Upgrades using miles on select flights with Star Alliance® network partners.
  • Instant Upgrades: Upgrades granted at the time of ticketing on full fare Y economy and B fares for Premier members. Premier 1K members may receive instant upgrades when purchasing M fares. Subject to availability.

We’ll cover more on how priority order works for these upgrades shortly, but first, let’s find out how to determine if there is upgrade space available.

How to Find Out if Upgrade Space is Available

The best way to see if there are seats available for an upgrade is to search for tickets using United’s expert mode. To activate expert mode on your account, start at the United.com home page and sign in to your MileagePlus account.

Select the option to go to your profile, then select search preferences. Under search preferences, you’ll find the expert mode option. Just click that you acknowledge the considerations, save, and it will be activated.

When searching for a flight in expert mode, you’ll be able to see the fare class you’re purchasing and the available fare classes for that flight by clicking on the details tab.

In expert mode, you’ll be able to see the fare classes listed under the details tab. The fare class you purchase will determine the possible upgrade options.

The fare classes available on this flight from highest to lowest are J, C, D, Z, P (business) and Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G (economy). In expert mode, you can see how many seats are available in each class to determine your chances for an upgrade.

The number next to the fare class represents the number of seats available for purchase, mileage awards, or upgrades in that fare class bucket. The number 9 is the highest and represents that 9 or more seats are available.

Although United doesn’t publish a list of what each fare code represents, the availability for upgrades is generally found in these classes:

  • ON: First-class upgrade from business class
  • PN: Business-class instant upgrade from Y/B/M fare purchase by 1K and Global Services members
  • R: Business-class or first-class domestic upgrade from economy
  • RN: Business-class instant upgrade for Y/B fare purchases by Platinum, Gold, or Silver Premier members

For a complete list of United Airline’s revenue, award, and upgrade fare codes, CWSI’s project does a great job of deciphering airline fare codes.

Hot Tip: Each flight will have different availability for upgrade potential, so check each flight individually. 

Upgrade Priority: Who Gets the Upgrade First?

The Importance of Elite Status

Getting upgraded from economy to a premium seat will depend on the level of elite status you have with the airline, whether you’re using upgrade certificates, paying for upgrades, or using miles to upgrade.

United has several tiers of elite airline status with the following ranking order:

  • Global Services: Status given to United’s best clients at United’s discretion.
  • United Premier 1K: Receive Global Premier Upgrades and Regional Premier Upgrade certificates that can be redeemed for upgrades on specific flights and fare classes.
  • United Premier Platinum: Receive Regional Premier Upgrades and complimentary upgrades when available.
  • United Premier Gold: Complimentary upgrades when available.
  • United Premier Silver: Complimentary upgrades when available.

Whether you have elite status or not, you’ll be placed on a waitlist with other travelers who have requested an upgrade if you can’t be confirmed for an upgrade immediately.

The computer system will automatically clear the person who is at the top of the list for their upgrade up until 3 hours before departure when the gate agents take over and manage the upgrade list. The priority list for upgrades is as follows:

  • Premier 1K travelers on Y-, B- and M-class fares that weren’t cleared before
  • Travelers using upgrade awards: Global or Regional Premier Upgrades and Mileage Plus Upgrade Awards prioritized first by status, then fare class, then the time of request.
  • Remaining Premier members: Prioritized first by status, then fare class, and then those traveling on award tickets.

MileagePlus® Premier members are eligible for complimentary Premier Upgrades when traveling on a United-operated flight. Primary cardholders of the following cards who are also Premier members qualify for this type of upgrade on award tickets:

If you have a United MileagePlus® credit card, you’ll want to sign into your MileagePlus account before searching for flights, as elite members and cardholders have expanded search access.

Bottom Line: Although Premier members holding MileagePlus® credit cards qualify for complimentary upgrades on award tickets, these travelers will be prioritized after the lowest paid fare class.

United Business Class
Having a United MileagePlus credit card increases your chances of an upgrade. Image courtesy of United Airlines.

The Value of a United MileagePlus® Credit Card

Premier members who have a MileagePlus® credit card qualify for complimentary upgrades on United flights but that’s not the only flight benefit of having a Chase United MileagePlus® credit card.

MileagePlus® Credit CardFlight benefits
United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
United MileagePlus® Explorer Business Card
  • Priority boarding for cardholder and companions
  • Free checked bag for cardholder + 1 companion
  • 2 United Club lounge passes/year
  • Premier upgrades on award tickets for primary cardholder who is also a Premier member
United MileagePlus® Club Card
United MileagePlus® Club Business Card
  • United Club/Star Alliance lounge access worldwide for primary cardholder and travel companions.
  • 2 free checked bags for cardholder + 1 companion.
  • Priority check-in, security screening, boarding and baggage handling privileges for cardholder.
  • Premier upgrades on award tickets for primary cardholder who is also a Premier member

If securing an upgrade on your United flight is important to you, you may also enjoy the premium benefit of lounge access. Both the United MileagePlus® Club Card and MileagePlus® Club Business Card come with United Club and Star Alliance lounge access worldwide for you and your travel companions.

A 1 year United Club lounge membership alone starts at $550 per year, more than the annual fee on either MileagePlus® Club card.

Another great travel perk is free checked bags. The MileagePlus Explorer cards offer a free checked bag for you and your traveling companion, resulting in savings that can easily offset the $95 annual fee in the second year and beyond.

Bottom Line: Having a Chase United MileagePlus® credit card makes you eligible for a flight upgrade on United flights and provides additional flight perks that more than offset the annual fees on the cards. 

Upgrading With Miles

It is possible to upgrade your flight using United MileagePlus® frequent flyer miles either while you’re purchasing a ticket or on an existing reservation, but it is not always the best value. However, it is a positive that all fares can be upgraded with miles or miles and a co-pay.

Here’s how to find out how much an upgrade will cost using miles and whether using the miles and co-pay option is worth it. Be sure to sign in to your MileagePlus account before your search to receive better search results.

How to Upgrade With Miles and Co-pay When Purchasing a Ticket

For a new reservation, search for flights using all search options on the United.com homepage. Doing so will allow you to find fares that can be upgraded with miles and co-pays.

Then select the MileagePlus Upgrade Awards option from the drop-down box under fare preferences.

You’ll find several options for upgrading your flight if seats are available. You may be able to upgrade with just miles, or there may be a co-pay if you do not have Premier Elite status. You can select to upgrade from economy to business or from business to first class. Here’s an example of the results when selecting an upgrade from economy:

In this example, it would cost $1,218 to purchase a business-class seat on the first listed flight, or 20,000 miles plus a $125 co-pay each way to upgrade from the lowest economy fare.

However, if you look closely at the second option on the list, you can purchase a discounted business-class ticket for $652, which is a far better deal.

The good news is, you don’t have to be a United Premier elite member to upgrade an economy ticket to business class using miles and a co-pay. You’ll want to make sure it is a good value option versus purchasing any available discounted business class.

Hot Tip: Purchasing discounted business-class fares can cost less than buying an economy fare and upgrading with miles, so be sure to check those fares first. 

How to Upgrade an Existing Reservation With Miles

If you’ve already purchased your ticket and want to upgrade that ticket to a premium cabin, you can process the upgrade yourself within your existing reservation, call United to request the upgrade, or request an upgrade at the airport.

  • Sign in to your MileagePlus account and access your existing reservation. Select redeem upgrade to view your options. You will see the option to buy up to a premium cabin, use a Regional or Global upgrade if you have these upgrades available, or have the option to use miles and co-pay for the upgrade.
  • Request a MileagePlus upgrade by calling United.
  • Request a MileagePlus upgrade at the airport.

Need more miles? You might be interested in our in-depth article on how to earn lots of United MileagePlus miles.

Bottom Line: Any traveler can use the “upgrade with miles” option when booking a flight or upgrading an existing reservation. However, Premier members do not incur a co-pay for flights on select routes, making it an option to consider if the discounted business-class fare is not attractive.  

Air Canada Boeing 787-9
MileagePlus members can upgrade with miles on Star Alliance partner airlines – Image courtesy of Air Canada

Upgrading on Partner Airlines

MileagePlus members can request upgrades on United partner Star Alliance airlines from economy to business or first class (on 2 class planes) and business class to first class depending on the partner airline’s seat availability.

United has 26 Star Alliance partners who participate in mileage upgrades, and upgrades for most partner airlines may be requested up to 331 days before departure for up to 4 travelers on the same reservation.

To request a Star Alliance upgrade with miles, you must first book your ticket, access the reservation on United.com, then request the upgrade under redeem upgrade as you would with a normal United reservation.

For complete rules, terms, and conditions for upgrades on Star Alliance partner airlines, visit the United Airlines website.

Eleven Ways to Secure an Upgrade or Increase Your Chances of an Upgrade With United

With United Elite Status:

  • Earn Global Premier Upgrades by achieving United Premier 1K Elite status and purchasing a ticket with a fare class of W or higher to use your GPU.
  • Earn Regional Premier Upgrades by qualifying for United Premier Platinum and using them to upgrade your eligible flight.
  • Purchase a Y fare class ticket or a discounted full-fare economy B fare and receive an instant upgrade on select flights. Premier 1K members can purchase an M fare and receive an immediate upgrade. Upgrades are subject to availability.
  • Check for discounted business-class fares before applying upgrades or using miles to upgrade an economy ticket.
  • Select an upgrade-eligible flight at booking using the advanced search tool and selecting the MUA option to find flights that can be upgraded using miles.
  • Purchasing a higher fare ticket will not guarantee you an upgrade, but it will increase your chances of securing the upgrade over other Premier members with the same status when you’re redeeming upgrades. You’ll have to decide if it’s worth the extra dollars.
  • Use United MileagePlus miles to secure a business or first-class ticket.
  • Request the upgrade early. One of the last tie-breakers for upgrade priority is the time of the upgrade request, so be sure to request the upgrade as early as possible.

Without United Elite Status

  • Check the price for all classes of service and compare. It may seem obvious, but occasionally, business- and first-class fares can be a deal. Consider the example earlier in this article where discounted business- and first-class fares are less expensive than economy.
  • Purchase an upgrade-eligible ticket. If you have United MileagePlus frequent flier miles, you can purchase an upgrade-eligible ticket and use miles and co-pay to secure a business- or first-class ticket instantly if seats are available. You can find this type of ticket by selecting the MileagePlus upgrade award option (MUA) from the drop-down menu on the advanced search page.
  • Use United MileagePlus miles to secure a business or first-class ticket.

Final Thoughts

Scoring an upgrade is complicated, and not just because there are so many factors involved in the process.

It’s also because the system doesn’t always work as planned. You can be dropped off the upgrade waitlist for no apparent reason, or experience other anomalies that can complicate the process further. Understanding that anomalies happen regardless of the airline, knowing how the process works can provide you with the leverage to secure the upgrades you deserve.

The bottom line to securing any complimentary upgrades with United is that Premier Elite status. Otherwise, if it’s essential to fly in business or first class, you should consider purchasing tickets in these classes or upgrading with miles if it’s available and a good value compared to discounted business class.

FAQ

How do I know if my upgraded ticket allows a free checked bag?

You can find out if the ticket you purchased, an upgraded ticket, or an award ticket will result in checked baggage fees by utilizing United's checked baggage service fee calculator.

The calculator allows you to enter a flight, your status level (if applicable), whether you're military, and other criteria that determine whether you'll pay to check a bag.

Why does the upgrade standby list keep changing?

There are several reasons the upgrade list can change, including the addition of travelers who have just checked in for their flight.

Once checked in, travelers may end up high on the standby list based on their elite status above those travelers with lower status.

The upgrade standby list can also change when a traveler has missed a connection, decided to take an earlier flight, or declined an upgrade, perhaps to sit with a colleague/family member in economy.

How can I get upgraded on an international ticket if I don't have status with United?

There are no complimentary upgrades when traveling on an international ticket. However, you may be able to upgrade using the miles and co-pay option if there is space available.

Follow the instructions for upgrading an existing reservation in this article, or you can call United reservations for an immediate answer regarding your specific international itinerary.

Can I upgrade an award ticket I purchased with miles?

No, you can't upgrade an award ticket. However, if you're traveling on an award ticket and are a MileagePlus Premier member or hold a United Airlines-branded credit card, you may receive a complimentary upgrade when flying on a domestic award ticket.

Complimentary upgrades are based on availability and are cleared based on status first then United credit card holders next in line.

You may also have an opportunity to purchase an upgrade at the gate on the day of departure.

When will the miles be deducted and the co-pay charged for an upgrade request?

When you request the upgrade, the miles will be deducted from your United MileagePlus frequent flier account and your credit card will be charged the co-pay amount.

If the upgrade you requested does not clear, the miles will be redeposited and the co-pay will be refunded to your credit card.

Which fare class should I buy to make sure I get an upgrade?

The only way to guarantee you'll be sitting up front is to purchase a business- or first-class fare or redeem miles for a business or first class award ticket.

Other fare classes can be upgraded with miles, miles and co-pays, or qualify for instant upgrades if you have Premier status, purchase an applicable fare, and if seats are available.

You may also upgrade a flight if you've earned Global Premier or Regional Upgrades if the flight qualifies and seats are available.

All other tickets will be prioritized for upgrades based on the criteria stated in the article which include Premier status, fare class, and time of upgrade request.

What is the difference between economy and economy plus seats?

The biggest difference between an Economy seat and an Economy Plus seat is the extra legroom. You'll also be sitting closer to the front of the plane because the Economy Plus section is located in front of the main Economy section of the plane.

You can purchase Economy Plus seating anytime you're selecting seats for your flight. You can't purchase Economy Plus seats if you have a Basic Economy fare.

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2 comments

  1. When searching in expert mode, available fare classes doesn’t show up when I click on details.

    • Christine Krzyszton · June 27, 2018 · Reply

      Sorry you are having trouble. First, be sure you are signed in to your United MileagePlus account before searching. If you are not signed in, expert mode will not be available. Second, try a different browser and third, if this doesn’t work, call United at 1-800-864-8331 and asked to be transferred to their web support or email their web tech support at eservice@united.com.

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