The airline ticket upgrading process has become more complicated (and restrictive) on most airlines, but United’s upgrade process is often more 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 more impossible than ever to 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-branded 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 options earned as a Premier elite member, using miles to upgrade, qualifying for complimentary upgrades, or purchasing a full-fare economy ticket that upgrades instantly.
- MileagePlus 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
- PlusPoints Upgrades: Upgrades purchased with PlusPoints earned by Premier Platinum and Premier 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.
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 help 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 Premier 1K and Global Services members
- R/PZ: Business class or first-class domestic upgrade from economy
- RN: Business class instant upgrade for Y/B fare purchases by Premier Platinum, Gold, or Silver members
For a complete list of United Airlines’ revenue, award, and upgrade fare codes, CWSI’s project does a great job of deciphering these.
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 and whether you’re using earned PlusPoints, paying for upgrades, or using miles to upgrade.
United has several tiers of elite airline status with the following ranking order when it comes to upgrade determination:
- Global Services: Top status given to United’s best clients at United’s discretion
- United Premier 1K: 1K members earn 280 PlusPoints on qualification and additional points when exceeding qualification that can be used for upgrades; 1K members also receive complimentary upgrades when available
- United Premier Platinum: Platinum members earn 40 PlusPoints on qualification which can be used for upgrades and also receive 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 your upgrade cannot be confirmed 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/M-class fares that weren’t cleared before
- Travelers using PlusPoints: 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-branded credit card, you’ll want to sign in to your MileagePlus account before searching for flights, as elite members and cardholders receive expanded search access.
Bottom Line: Although Premier members holding United-branded credit cards qualify for complimentary upgrades on award tickets, these travelers will be prioritized after the lowest paid fare class.
The Value of a United-Branded Credit Card
Premier members who have a qualifying United-branded credit card from Chase qualify for complimentary upgrades on United award flights, while those who hold the United Club Infinite card can extend this benefit to their companions. That’s not the only flight benefit of having one of these cards, however.
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 Club Infinite card and United 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 card.
Another great travel perk is free checked bags. Most United-branded 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. Note that the United Gateway card does not offer upgrades or free checked bag benefits.
To learn more about the best credit cards for United flyers and the benefits offered, be sure to review our article on this topic.
Bottom Line: Having a qualifying United 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 positive that all fares can be upgraded with miles or miles with 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 & Co-Pay When Purchasing a Ticket
For a new reservation, search for flights using the Advanced Search option on the United.com homepage. Doing so will allow you to find fares that can be upgraded with miles and co-pays.
Once you have typed in your preferred departure, destination and dates, select the MileagePlus Upgrade Awards option from the drop-down box under Upgrades, certificates, and promotion codes.
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 $1,217 to purchase an economy seat on the flight. If you wanted to upgrade your flights to business class, you could do so with 25,000 miles plus a $125 co-pay each way.
Fortunately, 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.
However, you’ll want to make sure it is a good value option versus purchasing any available discounted business class. Discounted business class can be priced lower, and therefore a better value, than purchasing economy with an upgrade.
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.
To process the upgrade yourself online, 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 PlusPoints if you have these available, or have the option to use miles and co-pay for the upgrade.
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.
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 over 20 Star Alliance partners that 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.
10 Ways To Secure an Upgrade or Increase Your Chances of an Upgrade With United
With United Elite Status:
- Earn PlusPoints by achieving Premier Platinum or United Premier 1K elite status and use these for upgrades.
- 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 flyer 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.
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 and 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 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 available, if doing so is a good value compared to discounted business class.
The information regarding the United Club℠ Business Card, United℠ Presidential Plus℠ Card, and United℠ Presidential Plus℠ Business Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.