What Is United MileagePlus Elite Status Worth: Seating & Upgrades

United New Polaris
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In our previous coverage of what United elite status is worth, we talked about the benefits of ticketing, fee waivers, and at-the-airport benefits (including those with Star Alliance).

For this post, here’s a look at the perks and benefits surrounding seat selection, seating options, and upgrades.

By the end of this article, you’ll know:

  • What each benefit is and how it works
  • How you can maximize each perk to the fullest
  • How to determine the value of each benefit and what a typical valuation estimation is

With each benefit, we’ll discuss the valuation broken up by United status tier: Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, and Premier 1K.

Complimentary Access to Economy Plus

Economy Plus seats are extra legroom seats throughout the aircraft, primarily located in the first several rows of the economy cabin and in exit rows. On all aircraft, this includes both aisle, middle and window seats that have a little more room between your seat and the one in front of you.

There are no other benefits to these seats besides the seat itself, and the number of companions you can book into these seats varies by elite level.

United Economy Plus
United Economy Plus seats feature extra legroom between your seat and the seat in front of you. Image Credit: United

Access to these Economy Plus seats is as follows:

  • Premier Silver: At check-in
  • Premier Gold: At booking
  • Premier Platinum: At booking
  • Premier 1K: At booking

As you can see, the majority of the value lies in Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, and Premier 1K levels where you can reserve Economy Plus seats at booking, which is a tremendous value. Waiting until check-in means you’re going to get all the leftover seats — so if there’s any reason to go from Premier Silver to Premier Gold, it’s the fact that you can choose these extra legroom seats in advance for free.

These seats can be very expensive — sometimes up to $100 for a transcontinental flight from Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX). If you’re on a transatlantic or transpacific flight or another long-haul destination, the cost of such an Economy Plus upgrade can be almost as much as the ticket itself.

Here’s how many companions you can book into Economy Plus:

  • Premier Silver: 1 companion 
  • Premier Gold: 1 companion
  • Premier Platinum: 8 companions 
  • Premier 1K: 8 companions

This means that at booking, Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members can reserve Economy Plus seats for themselves and up to 8 other passengers. If it costs even just $50 for one of these extra legroom seats, that’s a $400 value when taking 8 companions with you (great for large families, or when traveling with multiple business associates).

Hot Tip: To snag Economy Plus seats at the last minute, monitor the upgrade list! When higher elites (who may be seated in Economy Plus) get upgraded to first or business, they’ll leave open seats you can select.

On high-traffic routes (especially hub-to-hub pairs such as Washington, D.C. (IAD) to San Francisco (SFO)), most Economy Plus seats will be taken by the 24-hour mark. If you’re a Premier Silver, it is very important to select the best-preferred seat you can and then monitor for Economy Plus seats that may get freed up as the departure time approaches and higher elites get their upgrades cleared.

Having access to Economy Plus seats is by far one of the most valuable perks of elite status on United — if your upgrade doesn’t clear and you’re stuck in coach, you might as well have a good seat. Especially on longer flights, having extra room to stretch out and relax or work is important, and it sure beats having to select a middle seat in the back.

The more Economy Plus seats you tend to sit in, the more value you will get out of your status. Overall, though, here’s our valuation of this benefit:

  • Premier Silver: $300 (Economy Plus seats will be more limited at check-in and you can only bring 1 companion)
  • Premier Gold: $600 (you can select Economy Plus at booking but still only take 1 companion)
  • Premier Platinum: $800 (you can select Economy Plus at booking and bring 8 companions)
  • Premier 1K: $1,000 (you can select Economy Plus at booking and bring 8 companions; we assume you’ll use this benefit more)

Hot Tip: Did you know that having the right credit card can help you earn airline elite status?

Access to Preferred Seating

Another benefit across all elite levels is access to preferred seating. To clarify, there are 2 types of “desirable” seats in the economy cabin: Economy Plus and preferred seats.

Economy Plus seats truly have extra legroom, while preferred seats are simply those seats that may be more desirable (but don’t necessarily have extra legroom). Think aisles and windows in the middle part of the cabin — seats you’d probably select if Economy Plus seats weren’t available.

All elite levels can select these preferred seats for no fee, as well as book up to 8 companions on their reservation into preferred seats for no additional charge. If you’re a Premier Gold, Platinum, or 1K, you can also split these companions up, putting some in Economy Plus and some in preferred seats, depending on what is available.

We value this perk lower than Economy Plus since you’ll likely be seated there instead of in preferred seating (and Economy Plus seats truly offer extra legroom). The value for each elite status level increases based on assumed additional usage.

  • Premier Silver: $100
  • Premier Gold: $150
  • Premier Platinum: $200
  • Premier 1K: $250
United Preferred Seat
United elites received complimentary preferred seating. Image Credit: United

Complimentary Premier Upgrades

All elites on United receive complimentary upgrades (unlike on carriers such as American, for example, where only the top 2 tiers receive complimentary upgrades). At United, it’s typical to see an upgrade list of 50 or even 100 people, since every elite on the plane is eligible to sit in the premium cabin. Rarely do people ever refuse to be added to the upgrade list!

All elite levels are also eligible for complimentary premier upgrades for a single companion on the same reservation. If there are 2 upgrade seats released, and both the MileagePlus elite and companion are next on the upgrade list, they will receive an upgrade at no additional cost.

Now, it’s important to differentiate which upgrades are complimentary and which aren’t so you can determine the value of your status. If routes you fly often aren’t eligible… well then you can pretty much discount this perk.

RouteEligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrade?
Continental U.S. flights (except premium transcontinental routes)Yes
Premium transcontinental routes (flights between Newark and Los Angeles, Newark and San Francisco, and Boston and San Francisco)No
West Coast continental U.S. (Los Angeles and San Francisco) to HawaiiYes
Long-haul Hawaii routes (any flight between Hawaii and Houston, Newark, Chicago, Denver, or Washington Dulles)No
Flights to Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, and Central AmericaYes
International flights to South America, Europe, Middle East, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and JapanNo
Flights within Oceania (except Tahiti) — including United’s famous Island Hopper routeYes

Upgrades for all United flights are done in the following order:

  1. Premier status of the passenger (Global Services, then 1K, then Platinum, then Gold, then Silver)
  2. Fare class, in this order: Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, and G
  3. Chase United MileagePlus Club cardholders and Presidential Plus cardholders
  4. United Corporate Preferred participants 
  5. Chase United MileagePlus cardholders with $25,000 annual spending
  6. Time of request

Here’s how far in advance upgrades are processed:

  • Premier Silver on the day of departure only
  • Premier Gold at 48 hours/2 days
  • Premier Platinum at 72 hours/3 days
  • Premier 1K at 96 hours/4 days

Bottom Line: The higher elite status you have, the further in advance you will potentially receive an upgrade, and the more value you’ll probably receive from your status.

Based on this information, here’s how we value this perk:

  • Premier Silver: $400, assuming you get an occasional upgrade
  • Premier Gold: $600, assuming you get several upgrades over the course of the year
  • Premier Platinum: $900, assuming about half your upgrades clear over the course of a year
  • Premier 1K: $1500, assuming at least 75% of your upgrades clear across a membership year

It’s really worth noting that in general, customers don’t appear to get upgraded on United as much as other airlines. United does a great job of selling remaining premium cabin seats for cheap, and may even sell them out from under elites who are on the waitlist.

In fact, if you’re an elite on the upgrade list, many times you won’t receive any offer to purchase an upgrade on the app, at the airport, or prior to your flight. Many elites report wanting to upgrade their seats in this fashion, but system limitations prevent it. Instead, buy-up offers are presented to non-elite customers who aren’t already waiting for an upgrade.

Hot Tip: The United app tells you how many first class seats are remaining, and where you fall on the waitlist. So if you’re #3 on the waitlist, and there’s only 1 seat remaining, you will see that in advance of the flight and may wish to buy up.

In general, United elites do have a much lower upgrade completion percentage than on American and Alaska, for example. United also has a higher number of Global Services members — because they receive higher priority for upgrades, it’s not uncommon for there to be no upgrade seats left for Premier 1K or Premier Platinum members on high-profile routes.

Bottom Line: The value you get from elite status within the U.S. is highly dependent on the percentage of time that you receive upgrades, so take this into account as you choose whether United elite status is worth it to you.

United Business Class
All elites on United are eligible to receive complimentary upgrades. Image Credit: United

Instant Upgrades

Premier members can receive an instant upgrade on tickets booked into Y or B classes — the 2 highest fare classes in United’s economy cabin (generally refundable and very expensive). If you’re a Premier 1K, you can get an instant upgrade from Y, B, or M fare classes.

Hot Tip: More often than not, a discounted business class or first class ticket will be cheaper than purchasing a Y, B, or M ticket. But some business people need additional flexibility, which is why they may purchase this costly ticket.

These upgrades are subject to capacity controls and book into the “PN” class (usually available on most flights). The PN class is also used for Global Services members when using any upgrade instrument since it’s more readily available.

This is actually a somewhat useful benefit — depending on the route, it might be worthwhile to both book a refundable economy ticket and have the benefit of sitting in the premium cabin. These instant upgrades aren’t protected, so if the flight was canceled, you’d be put back on the waitlist for the new flight.

  • Premier Silver: $200, assuming you use this perk once a year
  • Premier Gold: $200, assuming you use this perk once a year
  • Premier Platinum: $300, assuming you use this perk between 1-2 times a year
  • Premier 1K: $400, assuming you use this perk at least 2 times a year

PlusPoints (formerly Regional Premier Upgrades & Global Premier Upgrades)

In 2019, United replaced its Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) and Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) with PlusPoints — a form of a “systemwide upgrade” where you can upgrade paid United flights in select fare classes.

  • Premier Silver: No PlusPoints
  • Premier Gold: No PlusPoints
  • Premier Platinum: Receive 40 PlusPoints after hitting status
  • Premier 1K: Receive an additional 280 PlusPoints, and then an additional 20 PlusPoints for every 2,000 PQPs earned after hitting 15,000 PQPs

These certificates book into United’s R fare class, which allows you to confirm the upgrade ahead of time instead of waiting until departure hoping you might clear on a complimentary basis. All paid, upgrade-eligible fare codes are eligible for an upgrade using PlusPoints (regardless of which region you’re flying in, Basic Economy fares are never allowed to upgrade). If the upgrade cannot clear into R prior to coming to the airport, you’re then placed on a waitlist — the same order as discussed above for a complimentary upgrade.

What may provide additional value to you is that PlusPoints can be used for friends or family, even if you aren’t traveling. So, you can essentially gift these points to others. If they’re traveling with you, they’ll carry your status — but if you’re traveling separately (or not at all), the points will be listed according to their own status (if any).

Hot Tip: If for some reason these upgrades don’t clear, they’re automatically re-deposited to your account, so there’s no waste of your PlusPoints.

However, keep in mind — and this is a very important point when it comes to determining value — that United is known for upselling passengers to sit in first class at the last minute, including the day of departure. Because of this, there may be reduced inventory to use PlusPoints.

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

Fare BookedUpgrades ToPlusPoints Required
United EconomyUnited first or United business20
United EconomyUnited Premium Plus20
United Premium PlusUnited business10

It’s not uncommon for United to sell a first class seat for $50 more than coach. And because United displays how many passengers are on the upgrade list, where you fall on the list, and how many seats remain, it essentially forces many elites to make a decision: either pay the upsell fee or sit in the back with no chance of an upgrade.

PlusPoints can be used for long-haul 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

Hot Tip: When using PlusPoints to upgrade a United flight, remember you are looking for “R” inventory, which is used anytime you are upgrading with miles or a certificate. 

Here’s how we value this perk:

  • Premier Silver: $0 (Silver members do not get PlusPoints)
  • Premier Gold: $0 (Gold members do not get PlusPoints)
  • Premier Platinum: $400 (for 40 PlusPoints)
  • Premier 1K: $800 for 280 PlusPoints (not counting any additional earned after elite qualification)

You can receive additional value at the Premier 1K level if you continue to fly in 2,000 PQP increments above the 15,000 PQP qualification mark. For every 2,000 PQPs you spend, you’ll receive another 20 PlusPoints.

United Domestic First Class
Upgrading to first class provides a great place to work on flights. Image Credit: United

For Premier Platinums who receive 40 PlusPoints, here is what you can typically use them on:

  • (2) Short-haul United economy to United first
  • (1) Long-haul United economy to United Premium Plus
  • (1) Long-haul United economy to United Polaris
  • (1) Long-haul United Premium Plus to United Polaris

For Premier 1Ks who receive 280 PlusPoints (plus the 40 from hitting Premier Platinum), here is what you can typically use them on:

  • (16) Short-haul United economy to United first
  • (16) Long-haul United economy to United Premium Plus
  • (10) Long-haul United Premium Plus to United Polaris
  • (8) Long-haul United economy to United Polaris
  • (4) Long-haul discounted United economy to United Polaris

When using PlusPoints, the system will process requests from those seated in Premium Plus first — so to have an advantage, you should book Premium Plus whenever possible. After sweeping the Premium Plus cabin, it will look at the economy cabin for other requests.

Hot Tip: When looking to clear PlusPoints on a United reservation, search for R inventory — the same inventory involving miles and certificates and passengers who are not Global Services looking to do a complimentary upgrade.

One unique perk of using PlusPoints is that they can also be used on ANA, Copa, and Lufthansa to upgrade to the next cabin:

  • On ANA, you must be booking in C, D, J, Y, B, E, or G
  • On Copa, you must be booked in A, B, E, H, K, L, M, O, Q, S, T, U, V, W, or Y
  • On Lufthansa, you must be booked in B, C, D, E, G, H, J, M, Q, U, or Y

On partner airlines ANA, Copa, and Lufthansa, if you’re booked in an eligible fare class, the PlusPoints upgrades will cost you 40 PlusPoints per segment.

Keep in mind that PlusPoints can be used on companions, though companions or non-elites will be after all elites on the upgrade list. If you have a business traveler flying to Tokyo on a paid business class fare, then he or she could put their spouse on the upgrade list with PlusPoints from the business traveler’s account. That companion would then go on the waitlist to either potentially clear before the flight or at the gate.

The reason this should be noted is that some Premier 1K flyers don’t use all their PlusPoints in a given year, which can cause them to believe that Premier 1K status isn’t as valuable. If you’re able to give those PlusPoints away to a trusted companion, you’ll feel like you’re still getting value when you are able to upgrade them to a premium cabin.

We value this benefit at $3,200 for 280 PlusPoints.

United Polaris
Using PlusPoints to upgrade to the United Polaris cabin with lie-flat seats is one of the best ways to use your hard-earned upgrades as a United elite member. Image Credit: United

Getting Your Upgrade To (Actually) Clear

Of course, what aircraft you’re flying and what route you’re flying on are important to ensuring your upgrade clears. You’re much more likely to clear an upgrade on a premium-heavy 767 than an ordinary 737, for example. Make sure to look at the number of premium seats and how many of those seats are taken.

Routes can be hit or miss, too — the more premium the route or the more business travelers who will be flying, the fewer seats will be available for upgrade. Some notoriously difficult routes are San Francisco to Sydney, Newark to Hong Kong, or San Francisco to Delhi. To increase your upgrade chances, consider flights at off hours or heading to cities with multiple flights daily (such as London).

Consider the seasonality of flights, too. Australia isn’t as popular over the American summer (their winter), and Hong Kong isn’t the place to be during monsoon season (the end of American summer). You’ll also find more empty seats to Europe during winter for the same reason.

And again, remember that United is known for day-of-departure paid upgrades. They will use any opportunity to sell seats out from under an elite applying an upgrade instrument. It’s no secret that United would rather sell the seat — even if it’s for a lower price — than give it away for free to someone using PlusPoints.

United Airlines Business Class
United has recently installed new seats in its domestic first class/business class product. Image Credit: United

Hot Tip: Looking for even more information on upgrades? See our post on the best ways to get upgraded to business or first class on United Airlines.

Final Valuations

United’s MileagePlus program is one of the most valuable in the industry, with perks and benefits that many other airlines try to mimic.

Maximizing each of the perks is important so that you get the most out of your status — the more you fly and benefit from your status, the more you break even on what you spend.

Here’s how we value each individual elite level according to average usage across all benefits (not just those with seating and upgrades), along with a value range to give you a broader idea of what to expect with both low and high usage:

  • Premier Silver: $2,110 on average with a range of $1,000 to $3,000
  • Premier Gold: $4,250 on average with a range of $3,000 to $5,000
  • Premier Platinum: $6,800 on average with a range of $5,500 to $8,000
  • Premier 1K: $13,775 on average with a range of $12,000 to $16,000

Now, we’ve valued most everything at what we believe is an average usage, but there’s certainly a range to what you may experience from elite status. On the lower end, you may not use every benefit, or you may not take advantage of them on most flights. On the upper end, you may take advantage of benefits on nearly every flight, such as upgrades.

For example, if you get upgraded on every flight, you’re certainly going to value elite status far more than someone who doesn’t seem to ever get upgraded!

Regardless of where you believe you fall on the spectrum, the more you can work toward getting additional value, the better flying experience you are going to have on United and its Star Alliance partners.


Frequently asked questions

What elite status levels does United have?

United has 5 elite tiers: 4 of them are public and 1 is by invitation only:

  • Premier Silver
  • Premier Gold
  • Premier Platinum
  • Premier 1K
  • Global Servies (invite-only)

What are the biggest perks of United elite status?

In general, here are some of the perks you can expect with United elite status:

  • Complimentary domestic upgrades
  • PlusPoints (for Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members)
  • Complimentary same-day changes
  • Complimentary standby
  • Star Alliance Silver and Star Alliance Gold status

What is United elite status?

United elite status is the various tiers of the United MileagePlus program, providing benefits to members ranging from increased points earning, upgrades, lounge access, free checked bags, and more.

What is the highest status on United Airlines?

The highest status with United MileagePlus is Global Services, a tier that is not able to be earned based on a published set of criteria. The highest publicly earnable tier is Premier1K.

How long does United status last?

United status lasts from the time you earn it through the following year. If you earn status earlier in the year you will have the status for longer since you will enjoy the benefits from the current year through the following year.

James Larounis

About James Larounis

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2 comments

  1. FRED LAIGO June 9, 2019

    Hello,

    I have accumulated the following points:
    – 125000 Marriott Bonvoy
    – 70,000 IHG points
    – 3000 Citi ThankYou points

    I’m planning a trip from SFO to Singapore to Manila, back to SFO by January 2020 (low season). I would like to use my points to fly Business Class for my wife and I. What will be the best option to maximize the use of my points? I may not have enough points for two tickets, but can I use points and cash to fly business class? If I find bargain RT tickets from a website like Cheaptickets or Expedia, can I upgrade to business class using my points?
    Thanks for your help.

    Reply

    • Hi Fred,

      Unfortunately, you do not have enough miles/points to purchase to redeem a business class ticket between SFO and Singapore. However, it would be possible for you to purchase an economy ticket and upgrade with miles. To do this ANA would likely be your best option.

      In order to do so, you would need to purchase a ticket with ANA in fare codes G, E, Y, B, M, or U. These are the only ones that can be upgraded. You would also need to make sure there is space available in business class on the flight you purchase.
      In order to upgrade with points, you’ll need between 20,000-28,000 ANA miles, depending on the flight. You can transfer your Marriott points to ANA at a rate of 3:1 plus a 5,000 point bonus for transfers of 60,000 or more. So transferring 120,000 Marriott points would give you 50,000 ANA miles, this would likely be enough to upgrade two one-way tickets.

      With all of that said, I would recommend you wait and continue to save up your points, as this method would not be the most optimal use of your points.

      Thanks for reading!

      Reply

Any thoughts or questions? Comment below!

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