How to Get Upgraded on United Airlines (2021)

How to Get Upgraded on United Airlines (2021)

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There's no better feeling than being upgraded to first or business class as you board an airplane, and that's especially true if you can snag that upgrade using miles. Not only does an upgrade mean you won't have to battle for overhead space, but you can board the plane earlier and score a roomier seat. You also receive enhanced dining options and free drinks in most cases, and the flight attendants are much more likely to cater to your needs.

Unfortunately, the process of receiving a United Airlines seat upgrade isn't as simple as it used to be. There are multiple ways travelers can become eligible for an upgrade, and the airline has rules in place to prioritize who receives upgrades first. In other words, simply hoping for an upgrade on United isn't enough — you'll need to have a plan.

Our comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about setting yourself up for an United upgrade with miles, or even getting a complimentary boost to a premium cabin.

United Airlines: Types of upgrades

There are several ways you can get an upgrade through United Airlines. Below is a full list of upgrade types and how to get them.

How to check if United has upgrades available

Before taking a deep dive into how to get upgraded on United, it makes sense to check whether upgrades are available on your flight. The easiest way to do this is by enabling United's Expert Mode, which allows experienced travelers to check fare class availability.

Here are the steps you'll need to follow to enable United's Expert Mode:

  • Log in to your United MileagePlus account on United's website.
  • Click "View account" located near your name.
  • Click "Profile & preferences" located under "My Account."
  • Scroll to the bottom of the page and click "View all flight search preferences."
  • Read about the Expert Mode and enable the feature.
How to check if United has upgrades available

Once Expert Mode has been enabled, enter your reservation details. You'll notice that now when you click "Details" on the booking page, you'll be able to see the available fare classes.

How to check if United has upgrades available

In the image above, you'll see numbers next to various fare classes. These indicate the number of upgrades that are available. For example, R7 would mean there are seven available upgrades from economy to business or first class on domestic flights. If there's a "0" or no number next to the fare class, that means there aren't any upgrades available.

United Airlines upgrade chart

Generally speaking, United divides upgrades into four separate groups (or fare classes):

Fare Class
ONUpgrades from business class to first class
PNUpgrades from full fare Y, B or M fare class tickets to first or business class, plus all Global Services upgrades
R/PZUpgrades from economy to business class or first class on domestic flights
RNUpgrades from Y or B fare class tickets to business class by Platinum, Gold or Silver Premier members

A word of caution: Although upgrades may be available, you might not get one, as there's a priority order to how upgrades are allocated.

Furthermore, it's in United's best interest to sell paid tickets when they can. So while it's possible for you to be upgraded, a purchased ticket will take precedence if you haven't been confirmed for an upgrade by the time your flight departs.

One other issue worth noting: Users have reported not being able to see fare classes despite activating Expert Mode. You may have success by simply switching your internet browser — as an example, we've had success using Google Chrome.

Complimentary United Airlines upgrades

MileagePlus Premier members have access to upgrades on select United flights, but complimentary upgrades can be granted on a space-available basis. While these types of upgrades do occur, you shouldn't rely on them due to their limited availability.

How do you become a MileagePlus Premier member?

In order to become a MileagePlus Premier member and become eligible for complimentary upgrades, you must reach the required number of combined Premier qualifying points (PQPs) and Premier qualifying flights (PQFs), or a higher requirement of only Premier qualifying points (PQPs).

United's Premier status program has four separate levels, all of which are based on your activity in the prior calendar year (from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31). We lay out current program requirements for 2021 below, which help you qualify for elite status through Jan. 31, 2023.

PQP and PQF requirement
Higher PQP requirement
Premier Silver8 PQFs and 3,000 PQPs3,500 PQPs
Premier Gold16 PQFs and 6,000 PQPs7,000 PQPs
Premier Platinum24 PQFs and 9,000 PQPs10,000 PQPs
Premier 1K36 PQFs and 13,500 PQPs15,000 PQPs

Here are a few more details to note about United's 2021 Premier status requirements:

  • Unlike some other airline loyalty programs, the United Premier status program does not have any distance requirements.
  • United Airlines says they will "automatically add PQPs to your MileagePlus account based on the 2021 Premier status you hold at the end of 2020 to give you a head start on qualifying all the way through Jan. 31, 2023."
  • PQPs earned with a United MileagePlus credit card (including the United℠ Explorer Card) will count toward Premier 1K status.

You can read our detailed guide on United Airlines status here, which goes into detail about each Premier level and their respective requirements.

Who gets upgraded first on United Airlines?

While anyone with United Premier status is eligible for an upgrade, it's easy to understand why higher status will give you a better chance at getting a complimentary upgrade — or any upgrade, for that matter. The windows to confirm a complimentary upgrade are listed below by Premier status.

Premier status
Upgrade confirmation
Premier SilverDay of departure
Premier Gold2 days
Premier Platinum3 days
Premier 1K4 days

That said, United can't just upgrade people based on status — even travelers with a high status level can be skipped over for an upgrade depending on who's requested one. That's because there are many ways to upgrade, which complicates the entire process.

United Airlines reports the following upgrade waitlist priority for all flights:

  1. PlusPoints upgrades and MileagePlus Upgrade Awards.
  2. Upgrades based on the elite status of the traveler.
  3. Upgrades based on fare class.
  4. Upgrades for Chase United Club℠ Card and United MileagePlus® Presidential PlusSM Cardholders.
  5. Upgrades for United Corporate Preferred participants.
  6. Upgrades for United Chase cardmembers with $25,000 in annual credit card spending.
  7. Upgrades based on the date and time of request.

Does having a United Airlines credit card matter?

United Airlines currently offers several different consumer and business credit cards. Premier members who are also United Chase cardmembers may be eligible for complimentary Premier Upgrades when traveling on an award ticket on a United flight. Cardmembers may also be eligible with an annual spend of $25,000.

Card
Sign-up bonus
Annual fee
United℠ Explorer CardEarn 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 25,000 bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months$0 Intro for the First Year, then $95
United Gateway℠ CardEarn 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open$0
United℠ Business CardEarn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, $0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99.$0 For 12 months, then $99
United Club℠ Infinite CardEarn 75,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening$525
United Club℠ Business Card50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of card membership$450

Just keep in mind that, as noted in the waitlist order above, Club-level cardholders with Premier status are eligible for upgrades after PlusPoints upgrades and MileagePlus Upgrade Awards, upgrades based on elite status and upgrades based on fare class. This means you're unlikely to get an upgrade based on having a Club-level United Airlines credit card alone.

Non-elite members can also get on the upgrade waitlist with at least $25,000 in annual spending on any Chase United credit card. However, this method of qualification is so far down on the list based on that criteria that you shouldn't count on it.

PlusPoints upgrades

According to United Airlines, PlusPoints are a new "innovative benefit" that gives members more flexibility when it comes to upgrading. With PlusPoints, you can request upgrades on United.com or the United mobile app, for seats including United Premium Plus or United Polaris business class on domestic and international flights.

More information on PlusPoints:

  • You can use PlusPoints on flights operated by United, United Express, Copa, Lufthansa or All Nippon Airways.
  • It's possible to upgrade multiple segments of a single itinerary.
  • United won't deduct PlusPoints from your account until your upgrade is confirmed.
  • You can request a PlusPoints upgrade as early as the time of ticketing.

Once you join the United MileagePlus program, you'll earn PlusPoints based on the level of elite status you achieve:

  • When you become a Platinum member, you receive 40 PlusPoints.
  • When you become a Platinum 1k member, you receive 280 PlusPoints (in addition to the 40 you received for reaching Platinum status).

Platinum 1K members can also receive an additional 20 PlusPoints for every 2,000 in PQPs they earn beyond the 15,000 PQP required to reach this elite status level.

The charts below show how many PlusPoints you'll need for different types of United flights and upgrades:

Short-haul flights:

Upgrade from:
Upgrade to:
PlusPoints required
EconomyFirst or United Business20
EconomyPremium Plus20
Premium PlusBusiness10

Long-haul flights:

Upgrade from:
Upgrade to:
PlusPoints required
Discounted EconomyPolaris business80
EconomyPolaris business40
Premium PlusPolaris business30
EconomyPremium Plus20

Upgrade using United miles

If you've decided you want to upgrade using miles, you have two options — you can either upgrade at the time of booking or you can add an upgrade to an existing reservation. Regardless of which route you take, you'll have the option to book using just miles or a combination of miles and cash. Below, we cover how to upgrade at the point of sale along with upgrading existing reservations.

How to upgrade on United Airlines when booking

How to upgrade on United Airlines when booking

If you're interested in using miles when booking your trip, use United's advanced search feature from the home page. It's located on the bottom left corner of the search feature. After clicking "Advanced Search," users should navigate to fare preferences.

How to upgrade on United Airlines when booking

Once the upgrade type is selected, users can execute the search and see upgrade options in their search results (if available). Depending on the route you're flying, you should see an option to upgrade with miles or with a mix of miles and cash.

United also notes that, if none of the flights you're looking at have upgrade availability listed, you can request the upgrade after you book.

How to upgrade an existing booking with United Airlines

If you've already purchased an airline ticket, you have three options to upgrade your existing booking:

  • Upgrade online via United's site.
  • Upgrade by calling United Airlines.
  • Upgrade at the gate.

To upgrade online, simply sign in to your MileagePlus account and navigate to your existing reservation. Once you're signed in, you should see an option to redeem an upgrade. You'll be presented with various options, like buying an upgrade or using miles to get an upgrade. If you'd rather call United, you can dial 800-864-8331.

While you also have the option to upgrade at the gate when you arrive at the airport, we don't recommend doing so. By the time the date of the flight arrives, other customers will likely have upgraded their own seats, leaving little to no availability.

Is it worth it to upgrade with United miles?

Upgrading with United miles could easily be worth it, but that all depends on how much you paid for your original flight, how much an upgraded seat would cost in the first place, what the upgrade is worth to you personally and other factors.

As an example, consider this flight below from Indianapolis (IND) to Cancun, Mexico (CUN).

Is it worth it to upgrade with United miles?

You can see that a round-trip flight is set at $531 in economy class, but that you can pay $531 plus 25,000 miles and a $125 copay each-way to upgrade to business class.

Considering the fact that United miles are worth around 1.1 cents each, that makes the total cost of this upgraded business class flight approximately $1,056 ($531 for the economy ticket, $275 in airline miles and $250 in copays).

If you search for the cash price of this ticket, however, you'll find the cash price of this business class flight is set at $1,188. In this case, redeeming miles for an upgrade can provide savings over paying cash. Instead of paying $1,188 for your business class ticket, you would've paid $781 plus 25,000 United miles.

Is it worth it to upgrade with United miles?

United Star Alliance upgrades

Star Alliance Upgrade Awards are available for one-cabin upgrades, as well as for nonstop flight segments. Note that upgrades are never guaranteed, and they may not be available on all itineraries.

The following United partners that extend upgrades to Star Alliance members are:

Aegean
Air Canada
Air China
Air India
Air New Zealand
ANAAsiana AirlinesAustrianAviancaBrussels Airlines
Copa AirlinesCroatia AirlinesEgyptAirEthiopian AirlinesEVA Airways
LOTLufthansaSASShenzhen AirlinesSingapore Airlines
South African AirwaysSWISSTHAITAPTurkish Airlines

including waitlist functionality

Generally speaking, upgrades can be made after you purchase a ticket on an United partner flight, but they must be made at least 24 hours before your flight departs. You can request a Star Alliance Upgrade Award online starting at 331 days before you depart with most carriers.

Star Alliance Upgrade Awards can be redeemed for up to four people on the same itinerary; members don't have to travel on that itinerary to request upgrades for other passengers.

How to get on the United upgrade list

We've already explained all the different ways you can score a United Airlines seat upgrade, but we wanted to summarize with a list of action items. If your goal is securing a United upgrade with miles or any other method, the following tips can help:

  • Climb the elite status ladder with United. Not only can MileagePlus Premier status help you secure complimentary upgrades, but the level of status you achieve can help you lock in upgrades before anyone else. Remember that Premier 1K members get upgrades approved 96 hours before departure, whereas Silver members are only eligible for upgrades on the day of departure, if there are any left.
  • Earn PlusPoints with United. Pursuing elite status can also help you rack up PlusPoints, which can be redeemed for upgrades on United and eligible partners.
  • Sign up for a United Club-level credit card. Having a United Club℠ Card, United Club℠ Infinite Card or United MileagePlus® Presidential PlusSM Card moves you up the waitlist order for upgrades. This means that just having an elite United card can help you secure more upgrades over time.
  • Spend with your United credit card. All United credit cards also let you earn generous sign-up bonuses and ongoing miles for each dollar you spend. You can even move onto the upgrade waitlist just for having spent $25,000 on your United credit card within a calendar year.
  • Do not book Basic Economy. Make sure you don't book a United basic economy fare if you're looking to secure an upgrade for your flight. With basic economy, you won't be eligible for any type of upgrade for your flight, including paid upgrades. You will also have to pay for a carry-on bag on most routes, and you'll give up your chance to select your seat. Basic economy fares are also ineligible for changes or cancellations

The information related to United Club℠ Business Card has been independently collected by ValuePenguin and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Holly Johnson is a personal finance writer who has been covering credit cards, loan products, debt, and budgeting for nine years. The founder of ClubThrifty.com, Johnson is also the author of "Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You'll Love," which is available on Amazon.

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How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).