What Is United MileagePlus Elite Status Worth: Seating and Upgrades

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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.

Here are the perks that are related to seating and upgrades on United.

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.

Most United elites can select Economy Plus seats at time of booking. 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 Gold, Platinum and 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 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 to Los Angeles. If you’re on a trans-Atlantic flight, something over the Pacific 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, Platinum and 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 Dulles to San Francisco), most economy plus seats will be taken by the 24-hour mark. If you’re a 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)
United Airlines Economy Plus
United Airlines Economy Plus. Image Credit: United.com.

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 seats are located in better areas of the economy class cabin, and can be selected by all United elite levels for free. Image Credit: United Airlines.

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!

  • Premier Silver: Eligible for complimentary upgrades
  • Premier Gold: Eligible for complimentary upgrades
  • Premier Platinum: Eligible for complimentary upgrades
  • Premier 1K: Eligible for complimentary upgrades

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 Fransisco)No
West Coast continental U.S. (Los Angeles and San Fransisco) 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 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 1K at 96 hours/4 days
  • Premier Platinum at 72 hours/3 days
  • Premier Gold at 48 hours/2 days
  • Premier Silver on the day of departure only

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 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
United business class features plush leather seats and complimentary meal service on select flights. MileagePlus elites can upgrade into business class for free within the United States. 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 were 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

Regional Premier Upgrades

  • Premier Silver: No regional upgrades
  • Premier Gold: No regional upgrades
  • Premier Platinum: Receive 2 Regional Premier Upgrades (RPU) after hitting status
  • Premier 1K: Receive an additional 2 RPUs (4 total), and then 2 RPUs for every 25,000 miles flown after hitting 1K status

Basically, an RPU is the U.S. form of a “systemwide upgrade” — where you can upgrade any United flight from coach to first on any continental U.S. flight, flight to Hawaii, or premium transcontinental flight.

Remember that you can’t receive a complimentary upgrade from Washington Dulles to Honolulu, for example, so you’d need to use an RPU. You could also use an RPU within Oceania — from Tokyo to Guam, for instance.

These certificates book into the 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 fare codes are eligible for an upgrade using an RPU. 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 RPUs can be used for friends or family, even if you aren’t traveling. So, you can essentially gift these certificates to others. If they’re traveling with you, they’ll carry your status — but if you’re traveling separately (or not at all), the certificate will be listed according to their own status (if any).

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

Here’s some additional value to consider: RPUs can be used on all United and United Express flights, as well as on all Copa-operated flights. If you plan on visiting South America or taking Copa, you can certainly maximize the use of these certificates. 

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

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 up-sell fee, or sit in the back with no chance of an upgrade.

Hot Tip: When using an RPU, 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 regional upgrades)
  • Premier Gold: $0 (Gold members do not get regional upgrades)
  • Premier Platinum: $200 per regional upgrade, for a total of $400
  • Premier 1K: $200 per regional upgrade, for a total of $800 (not counting any additional earned after elite qualification)

You can receive additional value at the Premier 1K level if you continue to fly in 25,000-mile increments above the 100,000 qualification mark. For every 25,000 miles you fly, you’ll receive another RPU — so if you’re looking to end the year at 124,000 miles, it may be worth it to book a last minute flight or mileage run to bump up above the 125,000 mark and receive 1 more RPU deposited to your account.

Using a Regional Premier Upgrade to United domestic first class can be a comfy way to travel on a long flight across the country. Image Credit: United Airlines.

Global Premier Upgrades

Think of a Global Premier Upgrade (GPU) as a systemwide upgrade that’s good for every flight in the network. This is one of the most coveted benefits of 1K status.

  • Premier Silver, Gold, & Platinum: No GPUs
  • Premier 1K: 6 GPUs upon earning/renewing status, plus an additional 1 GPU for every 25,000 miles flown (or 30 segments) after earning 1K

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Depending on where you’re flying, there are fare code restrictions that can force you into buying a higher fare in order to upgrade with a GPU. And keep in mind that just because you buy a higher economy class fare doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed an upgrade — it only means you then become eligible for one.

RouteGPU Fare Code Restrictions?
Continental U.S., including premium transcontinental routesNone
Flights to/from Hawaii, including long-haulNone
Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Central AmericaNone
South AmericaNot available on S, T, K, L, G or N fare codes
Europe, Middle East, AfricaNot available on S, T, K, L, G or N fare codes
Australia and New ZealandNot available on S, T, K, L, G or N fare codes
Asia and JapanNot available on S, T, K, L, G or N fare codes
Honolulu to GuamNot available on S, T, K, L, G or N fare codes
TahitiNot available on S, T, K, L, G or N fare codes

Regardless of which region you’re flying in, basic economy fares are never allowed to upgrade. Interestingly, if you’re upgrading from coach to premium economy or from premium economy to business/first, there are no fare code restrictions. Essentially, the fare restriction is only enforced from coach to business/first, not if upgrading to or from premium economy.

Regardless of fare restrictions, GPUs can be used to move you from coach to premium economy, from coach to business or from premium economy to business. If you are upgrading from coach and system finds space in premium economy, it can pull 1 GPU and you will be reseated there. Then, the system will continue to check for upgrade space into business class — if it finds that, it will again move you up to business without charging an additional upgrade.

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

Hot Tip: When looking to clear a GPU, 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 a GPU is that they can also be used on ANA and Lufthansa to upgrade to the next cabin. On ANA, you must be booking in C, D, J, Y, B, E, or G; on Lufthansa you must be booked in B, C, D, E, G, H, J, M, Q, U, or Y.

Keep in mind that GPUs 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 a GPU 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 1K flyers don’t use all their GPUs in a given year, which causes them to believe that 1K status isn’t as valuable. If you’re able to give those GPUs 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 $400 per GPU, since it requires a certain minimum fare code to be booked for each one. So, for 1K status, that is about $2,400 of value.

Using a Global Premier 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 Airlines.

Getting Your Upgrade to (Actually) Clear

To get more bang for your buck — and more value for your status — you have to ensure your upgrades actually clear. This can be a challenging task on any airline, but there are things you can do to improve your chances. 

First, save your upgrades for when they matter, and be strategic. RPUs and GPUs actually use 2 different methods to clear and be considered utilized. With an RPU, no matter the segment that ends up clearing, the upgrade is considered used. But with a GPU, if it only clears on a short domestic segment (instead of a long-haul international flight), then the upgrade is actually considered not utilized and will be re-deposited into your account.

Because of this, when using an RPU, you want to make sure it is applied to the longest or most important segment in your itinerary. Since RPUs are mostly for domestic usage, use it on the flight where you are least likely to clear, or when you want to be sure you sit up front.

Let’s say you’re flying Las Vegas to Los Angeles to Newark, and both cabins have first class. When applying your RPU, only apply it for the Los Angeles to Newark flight, since this is a premium transcontinental product. If you can clear the segment at booking, that is the best scenario — if you must waitlist it, you can do so by calling United and only asking for the Los Angeles to Newark portion to apply.

When using a GPU, this really doesn’t matter — just apply it to the itinerary and see what happens!

Of course, what aircraft you’re flying and what route you’re flying on are also important. 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 an RPU or GPU.

United Airlines Business Class
United Airlines business class. Image Credit: United.com

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 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):

  • Premier Silver: $2,035
  • Premier Gold: $4,250
  • Premier Platinum: $6,950
  • Premier 1K: $14,025

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!

Here’s a value range to give you some broader idea of what to expect with both low and high usage:

  • Premier Silver: $1,000-$3,000
  • Premier Gold: $3,000-$5,000
  • Premier Platinum: $5,500-$8,000
  • Premier 1K: $12,000-$16,000

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 their Star Alliance partners.


Featured Image Credit: United

FAQ

What elite status levels does United have?

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

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

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
  • Regional Premier Upgrades and Global Premier Upgrades
  • Complimentary same-day changes
  • Complimentary award changes and redeposits
  • Complimentary standby
  • Star Alliance Silver and Star Alliance Gold status
James Larounis

About James Larounis

Jamie first got his hook on miles and points during a high school choir trip to Europe, where he flew in Lufthansa First Class (thanks to his dad’s then US Airways miles) because economy was sold out.

Disclaimer: Any comments listed below are not from the bank advertiser, nor have they been reviewed or approved by them. No responsibility will be taken by the bank advertiser for these comments.

2 comments

  1. FRED LAIGO · June 9, 2019 · Reply

    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.

    • 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!

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