How To Use United PlusPoints To Upgrade Your Next Flight [2021]

United Polaris

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So you’ve done the work — whether you’ve legged it a few thousand miles in economy class or splurged for just a couple of expensive business class flights, you’ve finally earned yourself some United PlusPoints. Congrats! Now how do you use them?

Let’s take a look at what PlusPoints are, how to earn them, and the step-by-step method of applying them to your United flights.

What Are PlusPoints?

Airlines award their frequent customers with incentives that can range from increased bonus points earnings to lounge access to complimentary seat upgrades. United is no different, and while it will give its MileagePlus members free upgrades on domestic (and some international) flights, you’ll need PlusPoints in order to upgrade overseas. You can always use PlusPoints for domestic upgrades, as well, if you’re really jonesing for some free drinks, but long-haul flights with lie-flat seats provide superior value.

PlusPoints (formerly known as Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) and Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs)) are awarded to you once you reach Premier Platinum elite status, and you’ll earn additional PlusPoints as you fly more. Status is earned based on Premier Qualifying Points (PQP) and Premier Qualifying Flights (PQF) earned each year.

2022 StatusEarn Premier Qualifying Flights and Premier Qualifying Points …or Meet a Higher PQP Goal
Premier Silver83,0003,500
Premier Gold166,0007,000
Premier Platinum249,00010,000
Premier 1K3613,50015,000

Premier Platinum elite members receive 40 PlusPoints upon earning status.

Premier 1K elite members receive a total of 320 PlusPoints (40 from achieving Platinum and 280 from achieving 1K), with the ability to earn 20 more PlusPoints for every 2,000 PQPs they fly.

PlusPoints last for a little over a year after you’ve earned them. For flights taken in 2022 that earn elite status for 2023, this means that your points will expire on January 31, 2024.

How Many PlusPoints Do You Need?

The number of PlusPoints that will be required for your flight will vary based on the fare type you book and where you’re flying. You’ll pay different rates, for example, to upgrade a deeply discounted economy ticket to business class than if you had booked standard economy.

PlusPoints can be used for long-haul international United flights as shown below:

Fare BookedUpgrades ToPlusPoints Required
Discounted EconomyUnited Polaris business80
United EconomyUnited Polaris business40
United Premium PlusUnited Polaris business30
United EconomyUnited Premium Plus20

As you can see above, you don’t have to upgrade to business class when using your PlusPoints — you can pay half as much to fly Premium Plus — though you’ll be missing the free pajamas and hot fudge sundaes.

Here are the rates for short-haul flights, which include the U.S., Canada, Bogotá, Central America, Caribbean, Mexico, and Quito. It also includes flights between Guam and Honolulu and intra-Asia flights:

Fare Booked Upgrades ToPlusPoints Required
United EconomyUnited First or United Business20
United EconomyUnited Premium Plus20
United Premium PlusUnited Business10

Be aware that these rates and these flights specifically exclude United Polaris business class cabins.

Bottom Line: PlusPoints are a benefit given to Premier Platinum and Premier 1K elite members. They grant complimentary upgrades on United (and some partner-operated) flights. 

How To Use Your PlusPoints

So once you’ve earned those PlusPoints, how do you go about using them?

As we mentioned, these can be used for both domestic and international upgrades on United flights, much the same as those offered by both Delta and American. United even has a few partners — Copa, Lufthansa, and ANA — where you can apply your PlusPoints, which we’ve covered in a separate guide.

There are 2 main ways to use your PlusPoints: before and after booking. The best way to guarantee an upgrade is by finding available space before you book your flight. Fortunately for us, United has a robust search feature that’ll show upgrade space when searching, though on many occasions you may find yourself waitlisted.

Using Your PlusPoints When Booking Your Flight: Waitlisting

Understanding how and when to apply your PlusPoints is important when looking for upgrades. First, you’ll want to head to the United home page and log into your United MileagePlus account. From there, you’ll want to hit Advanced search.

United advanced search
Image Credit: United

Once on the Advanced search page, you’ll want to enter all your information, including destination and dates of travel. From there, you’ll scroll down to the section marked Upgrades, certificates, and promotion codes.

United upgrades
Image Credit: United

Expand the selection and then hit PlusPoints upgrades.

United PlusPoints Upgrades
Image Credit: United

With this selected, you can go ahead and hit the search button. United will then bring up your search results while showing you availability for upgrades. You can toggle whether you’d like to see flights with immediate availability, waitlist options, or both.

United waitlist PlusPoints 1
Image Credit: United

Selecting both will give you results that’ll show waitlisted upgrades as well as any available ones.

United flight waitlist
Image Credit: United

In the screenshot above, you can see that the nonstop flight can be had for $258 round-trip. There isn’t any immediate upgrade availability, though you can choose to put yourself on the waitlist. Once you’ve made your selections for both your outgoing and returning flights, you’ll be taken to the checkout page:

United PluPoints upgrade waitlist
Image Credit: United

If you’re choosing to put yourself on the waitlist, the cash for your flight will be due when you checkout. The PlusPoints, however, will only be withdrawn when the upgrade actually clears.

You don’t have to apply your PlusPoints to both legs on a round-trip flight; these can be picked individually. This can be especially helpful when you only have enough points for a one-way upgrade.

Using Your PlusPoints When Booking Your Flight: Immediate Upgrades

The procedure to apply your PlusPoints for an immediate upgrade is pretty much the same as we outlined for waitlisted upgrades. The only difference is that you’ll pick a flight with availability, as shown below:

United immediate upgrade
Image Credit: United

Once you hit the checkout screen, the PlusPoints will be automatically deducted from your account (note: you won’t be able to get the upgrades if you don’t currently have enough PlusPoints in your account).

United PlusPoints TLV ORD
Image Credit: United

You will then be immediately confirmed into the cabin you’ve booked!

Bottom Line: Using United’s search engine to find flights where you can use your PlusPoints is simple. The best way to guarantee an upgrade, however, is by finding upgrade availability before booking your tickets. 

Upgrading After Booking

It’s still possible to upgrade your flight with PlusPoints after booking. Why would you want to do this? Perhaps you’d requested an upgrade elsewhere and it fell through. Maybe you’ve earned additional PlusPoints since booking that you want to use. Regardless of the reason, there are a couple of ways to do this: online and by phone.

By phone, you can call your dedicated line and have the customer service representative apply your PlusPoints.

You can also opt to upgrade using your PlusPoints online. It’s easy to do; first, you’ll need to log in to your account. You’ll then want to select My trips.

United my trips
Image Credit: United

You’ll then be presented with information on your existing trips. You’ll want to select Manage trip in the bottom right:

United manage trip 1
Image Credit: United

You’ll be taken to your trip page, where you can select seats, pay for bags, and upgrade your cabin. Select Upgrade cabin.

United upgrade cabin
Image Credit: United

From there, you’ll be presented with the different options available for upgrading your trip, including money, miles, and PlusPoints:

United upgrade PlusPoints
Image Credit: United

Once you select PlusPoints, you’ll be taken to the upgrade availability for each leg of your flight:

United PlusPoints waitlist
Image Credit: United

You’ll then be able to select which flights you’d like to upgrade. As you can see in the above example, there is no current upgrade availability for these flights, but we’re still able to put ourselves on the waitlist.

Once you’ve selected your upgrade preferences for each leg of your flight, you’ll scroll down and hit Continue to proceed to the checkout page:

United PlusPoints continue
Image Credit: United

Once you’ve cleared the checkout page, you’ll either be confirmed immediately or be put on the waitlist for your flight. That’s it!

Bottom Line: It’s possible to upgrade your flight with PlusPoints after booking, though there’s no guarantee that upgrade space will be available; you may instead be placed on the waitlist. 

Finding Upgrade Availability

United’s advanced search engine does a pretty good job when looking for PlusPoints eligible flights. Sometimes, however, you may want to find out if there’s upgrade availability outside the parameters that United gives you. A good example of this is when you’ve got an existing flight without any upgrade space. If you can find a different flight on the same day that has space available, it may make sense to change your flight in order to apply your PlusPoints and get that upgrade.

Hot Tip: United has eliminated change fees, which means that changing your flight won’t incur a fee. Be aware, however, that there may be differences in fare costs that you’ll need to accommodate. 

Unlocking United’s Expert Mode

Fortunately, there’s another way to determine whether or not there are seats available on the flight you want. This will take some work, but it’s worth it. First, you’ll need to enable United’s expert mode, which unlocks a suite of additional features during your search.

In order to do so, you’ll need to log into your account and navigate to your account’s home page. From there, select the Profile & Preferences drop-down, and then Preferences & settings:

United preferences
Image Credit: United

Scroll down to Special preferences & accommodations and expand the box:

United special preferences
Image Credit: United

Here you’ll see all types of settings you can alter, including your meal preferences, home airport, and more. You’ll want to scroll all the way down to the bottom to the little box marked Enable expert mode:

United enable expert mode
Image Credit: United

Make sure you check that box, then hit Save.

Using United’s Expert Mode To Find Upgrade Availability

So, what, exactly, does United’s expert mode do? Basically, it allows you to view all the available fare classes and types available for any flight that you search. Here’s what a search without expert mode will look like:

United standard search
Image Credit: United

And here’s the difference when using expert mode:

United expert mode search
Image Credit: United

As you can see, we’ve highlighted the additional information shown when expert mode is enabled.

Seeing which fare classes are available is all well and good, but what do they mean, and how do they apply to upgrades using your PlusPoints? We’re glad you asked.

United uses 3 separate fare codes to identify upgrade availability:

  • PN — Business and first class upgrades available exclusively to United’s top-tier Global Services elite members
  • PZ — Business and first class upgrades available for PlusPoints upgrades from Premier Platinum and Premier 1K elite members, as well as any mileage upgrade awards (MUAs)
  • RN — Premium Plus upgrades available for anyone, including both PlusPoints and MUAs

Depending on how you’d like to use your PlusPoints, you can easily determine whether upgrade space is available. You can also see how many seats are left in that fare class. In the above example, there are 9 seats available for upgrade using your PlusPoints, which means you, your spouse, and all your friends can snag business class seats.

So, let’s say that you’ve booked your flight and already placed yourself on the waitlist for an upgrade using your PlusPoints. However, this is a special vacation and you’d love to surprise your spouse with an upgrade. You can search your existing departure dates and airport to find other flights departing on that day. Although your exact flight may not have availability, others might. Expert mode will be able to display that information for you in a single search, thereby giving you the ability to change your flight to one with immediate upgrade availability.

Bottom Line: United’s expert mode allows you to view all available fare classes for a flight, including upgrade space for both business and premium economy. 

Using Award Availability To Find Upgrade Space

This last option is last for a reason. It’s not 100% perfect, but can be helpful when looking to narrow down likely upgrade availability, especially when you have flexible dates. Although United doesn’t necessarily correlate upgrade space with saver award availability, you can use award availability calendars to spot likely dates for upgrade availability. There are a few different ways to effectively check award seats with United.

Using United’s Flexible Search

United actually has a fairly robust award search system that is both intuitive and easy to use. When searching via flexible dates, United will present you with a month-by-month calendar that’ll display both economy and premium saver award space.

In order to find this, you’ll first want to log in to your United account. Then you’ll need to navigate to United’s home page. On this page, you’ll see the search box for flights. Here, you’ll want to input your information, including departure airport, destination, and dates of travel. You’ll also want to ensure that Book with miles and Flexible dates are both selected. Finally, make sure to set your search to business class flights.

United flexible search
Image Credit: United

Once you hit Find flights, United will pull up its monthly calendar for you:

United award calendar
Image Credit: United

This search function will bring up the award availability calendar for the entire year, making this a quick and easy way to spot possible upgrade space. You can also opt to search exclusively for nonstop flights, as we’ve highlighted above. From this calendar, you can pick specific dates that feature Saver Awards for premium cabins.

Note that United doesn’t differentiate partner-operated flights versus its own metal on these results, so you’ll need to check individually to ensure the flight you want to upgrade is available.

United premium saver award
Image Credit: United

Once you’ve found an eligible United flight with Saver Award seats available, you can then go back and search that exact date and flight for upgrade space.

United PZ1 upgrade space
Image Credit: United

As we can see in the above screenshot, there is indeed 1 seat available for immediate upgrade using your PlusPoints.

Using SeatSpy

SeatSpy is another option for those looking to search for award availability with United. Although this service isn’t free (for business class searches, though you can search economy class seats for free), it can save you some serious time and effort when it comes down to looking for flights.

Why? Because it’ll display for you the number of miles you’ll need to redeem for your award flight. United charges different amounts for its own flights versus partner-operated flights, which makes using SeatSpy an excellent way to filter out flights that are ineligible for PlusPoints.

SeatSpy will cost you $3.99 per month, but it delivers an entire year’s worth of results in 1 search. It also allows you to set up alerts in case any award seats open up.

Once you’ve logged in to your SeatSpy account, you’ll want to conduct a search for the route you need, including your departure airport, destination, and class of service. Here, you’ll want to make sure you check the BusinessFirst cabin:

SeatSpy United search
Image Credit: SeatSpy

Depending on whether you’re looking at one-way or round-trip flights, SeatSpy will then generate a calendar for you:

SeatSpy United awards search
Image Credit: SeatSpy

As you can see, there are business or first class Saver Award seats available throughout October. By hovering over the dates, SeatSpy will show you how many miles each ticket costs:

United SFO HND SeatSpy
Image Credit: SeatSpy

United is charging 70,000 miles for this one-way ticket from Tokyo (HND) to San Francisco (SFO). This is in line with the standard Saver Award rate for United-operated flights to/from Tokyo. Clicking on SeatSpy’s link will take you to United’s website with the available flight results:

United HND SFO award
Image Credit: United

And then searching that flight in cash will give you this:

United HND SFO cash cost
Image Credit: United

According to the search results, there are 3 seats available for an upgrade with your PlusPoints.

Hot Tip: Be aware that SeatSpy doesn’t show seats that are available exclusively to United MileagePlus Premier members.

Where SeatSpy really shines, as we mentioned above, is by showing you when flights are operated by partners and thus aren’t eligible for PlusPoints redemptions (with the exception of a few partner airlines):

SeatSpy ANA
Image Credit: SeatSpy

Seatspy is showing us that the cost for this award seat is 88,000 United miles. This is the rate that United will typically charge for Saver Awards on partner airlines to and from Tokyo. And it’s true — this is a flight operated by ANA:

United ANA
Image Credit: United

Because we can search an entire year at once and see the mileage cost by simply hovering over results, we can quickly and easily sift United-operated flights from partner-operated flights.

Bottom Line: Although searching available award space isn’t a foolproof method to finding upgrade space availability, doing so can help you narrow down possible dates when using your PlusPoints for immediate upgrades. 

When To Use Your PlusPoints

Do you always want to use your PlusPoints for an upgrade? No, not really. There are plenty of good uses of PlusPoints and several terrible ones. You’ll only earn a certain amount of PlusPoints when you gain elite status, and although you can always earn more by flying, the cost to do so really adds up. Let’s take a look at some good and bad examples of using your PlusPoints.

Good Use: Long-Haul International Flights

The best use of your PlusPoints is going to be on long-haul international flights. This is because United is going to charge you 40 PlusPoints to upgrade to business whether you’re on a 7-hour journey from New York (EWR) to London (LHR), or a 14-hour trek from San Francisco (SFO) to Tel Aviv (TLV).

Good Use: New Polaris Seats

Not all business class seats are created equal, and nowhere is this more true than United’s Polaris business class. Introduced a few years ago, the new Polaris seats are configured in a 1-2-1 formation that guarantees total privacy:

United 1x2x1 seats
Image Credit: United

United’s old seats, meanwhile, are still advertised as Polaris. You won’t be told this when you’re booking — and using your PlusPoints — so you’ll need to check the seat map for yourself. The old United seats are in a 2-2-2 configuration whose window seats don’t allow direct aisle access:

United 2x2x2 seats
Image Credit: United

You’re going to pay the same price whether you’re in the better seats or not. Do yourself a favor and save those PlusPoints for the updated Polaris pods.

Bad Use: When You’re Already Eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs)

Elite members are eligible for complimentary upgrades on tons of different United flights, including those throughout the continental U.S. (excluding premium transcontinental routes), between the West Coast and Hawaii, to Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Central America, and Oceania (excluding Tahiti). Using PlusPoints on flights where you may already be upgraded — for free — isn’t a great use. The only time this makes sense is if you’re trying to guarantee an upgrade before you’re flying.

Premier 1K elite members can expect to see their CPUs clearing up to 96 hours before their flight, while Premier Platinum will begin clearing 72 hours prior to departure.

Bad Use: Skip the Waitlist

United also features the option to skip the waitlist on specific routes. Unfortunately, to do so is expensive. As we showed above, the standard cost to upgrade looks like this:

  • Discount Economy to Polaris: 80 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Polaris: 40 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Premium Plus: 20 PlusPoints

Skip the waitlist, however, looks like this:

  • Economy to Polaris: 110 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Premium Plus: 70 PlusPoints

In this case, you’re paying nearly 3 times the amount of PlusPoints in order to guarantee your upgrade to Polaris — and don’t even get us started on those Premium Economy upgrades.

Bad Use: Deep Discount Economy to Polaris

We showed you above that there are 2 different rates you’ll pay to upgrade to Polaris depending on which fare class you book.

  • Discounted Economy: (S, T, L, K, G) 80 PlusPoints
  • Economy: (Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W) 40 PlusPoints

It’s double the cost to use PlusPoints when upgrading from discounted economy versus regular economy. At first, booking the cheapest economy ticket available may be appealing, but if you’re looking to use your PlusPoints to upgrade, consider spending the extra couple hundred dollars on a more expensive economy fare and saving yourself those PlusPoints. It’s the difference between scoring 1 long-haul international business class upgrade or 2.

Final Thoughts

United’s PlusPoints program is fairly easy to use, though there are plenty of ways to scour the system for the best chances of upgrades. Whether you’re looking to guarantee an upgrade before your flight or want to change your tickets to apply your PlusPoints, take advantage of these techniques so that you can enjoy that Champagne and those sweet, sweet pajamas.


Frequently asked questions

What is United PlusPoints?

PlusPoints are the flexible upgrade currency United awards its top-tier elite members. They can be used to upgrade from economy or premium economy to business or first class.

How do I earn PlusPoints on United?

PlusPoints are automatically granted to elite members when they earn their status. Premier Platinum members receive 40 PlusPoints, while Premier 1K members get an additional 280 points (320 points total). You can also earn additional PlusPoints by flying more.

How can I get a free upgrade on United?

Those who have any level of elite status with United, including Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, and Premier 1K, are eligible for complimentary upgrades. PlusPoints, however, are only given to Premier Platinum members and above.

Do United PlusPoints expire?

Yes, PlusPoints expire at the same time that your elite status expires.

Carissa Rawson

About Carissa Rawson

Carissa is a native Californian whose taste for travel began during her seven years in the US Air Force. A former Arabic translator, her first serious journey overseas was to Jordan, where a six month deployment taught her a lot about people and a little about award travel. What started as a curiosity quickly became an obsession, and soon she had launched her own website teaching others how to travel for free.

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