Can you explain how the “clearing” process works for upgrades? I know after I book a flight I have the option of requesting an upgrade. Is this the same as asking the day of the flight if there are any upgrades? I assume in both cases, they cost miles?
A reader emailed me this question, and I feel kind of bad for not having addressed this question in the past, since it’s a pretty important one. Let me do my best to tackle United’s upgrade system head on, in hopes that it can help someone out.
First let’s talk a little bit about the different types of upgrades United offers, because unlike other carriers, United doesn’t offer “complimentary upgrades,” but rather makes you support your upgrade with an upgrade “instrument,” even if there are open first class seats.
Premier, Premier Executive, and 1K members earn 500 mile upgrades. They earn four of these for every 10,000 miles (including the 500 mile minimum, although that won’t be the case anymore starting July 1) they fly on United, Ted, and United Express. 500 milers can also be purchased in packs of four for $200 for elite members and $325 for general members. The upgrade “counter” resets on January 1, so if you end the year with 9,999 miles towards 500 milers, you’re out of luck, as you’ll have to fly another 10,000 in the following year to earn any upgrade instruments. 500 milers clear at the upgrade windows of the respective elite levels. For Global Services it’s 120 hours before the flight, for 1K’s it’s 100 hours, for Premier Executives it’s 72 hours, for Premiers it’s 48 hours, for Premier Associates it’s 36 hours, and for general members it’s 24 hours before the flight.
The other type of upgrade instruments which 1K’s can earn are confirmed regional upgrades (CR1’s) and systemwide upgrades (SWU’s). 1K’s earn two confirmed regional upgrades for every quarter in which they fly 10,000 miles on United, Ted, and United Express, with a maximum of two per quarter. That means 1K’s can earn eight of these upgrades per year. The nice thing about these is that they can, as the name suggests, be used to confirm an upgrade at the time of booking. Upgrade inventory must be available, but if it is there’s no waiting, which is great. They can be used for any published fare within region one, which includes the US (including Alaska and Hawaii), Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, for one direction of travel.
1K’s also earn six systemwide upgrades a year just for earning 1K. They are technically deposited on January 1, but in past years United has allowed the early deposit of four of them in November. They can upgrade one direction of travel to and from anywhere in the world on United, with the major restriction being that you must book W class or higher, which is often not the cheapest but usually isn’t too much more expensive. 1K’s can also earn two more systemwide upgrades for every 50,000 EQM’s they earn over 100,000EQM’s, so if you fly 150,000 EQM’s you earn a total of eight (six for making 1K and two for flying 50,000EQM’s extra) SWU’s.
Next, miles can be used to upgrade itineraries, and they are also confirmable upgrade instruments so if there’s upgrade inventory available they can be used to confirm the upgrade at the time of booking. Lastly, United sometimes offers upgrades for cash at the time of check-in, which can range anywhere from $50 to $600+ for a longhaul international flight.
Now let’s get to the fun part, the actual upgrade process. There are two types of upgrade waitlists, the PA & PB list. The PA list is the Priority A list, which is the first one cleared, followed by the PB, or Priority B list, which is the second one cleared. When a 1K uses his/her upgrade instruments they are put on the PA waitlist, including when they give their SWU’s/CR1’s to others, meaning even a general member with a 1K’s SWU goes on the PA list.
s stated earlier, confirmable upgrade instruments, such as CR1’s, SWU’s, and miles can clear at any time. This means that if I apply for an upgrade today from coach to first on a two class flight (upgraded F is NF), and NF is available, I can immediately be confirmed into First Class. The same is true for an upgrade to Business (NC).
As soon as there is no more confirmable upgrade space you get “waitlisted.” Like I said above, those with the right credentials get added to the PA waitlist, and others to the PB waitlist. The PA waitlist is sorted on a first-on first-off basis, meaning that the first person on the PA list will be the first person to get the upgrade. The PA list is totally cleared before the PB list is touched. That means that if upgrade space becomes available tomorrow and I add myself with a CR1 as a 1K today, I would trump a 1P that has been on the PB list for 10 months. Of course this is technically how it works, and sometimes there may be some mistakes.
The list continues as such, except for 500 mile upgrades, which can only clear within the windows stated above. It’s very possible that your upgrade won’t clear at your window, even if the seats are available, mainly because United is hoping to either sell those seats or save them for the airport and possibly a last minute full fare coach passenger that wants to upgrade.
This whole process changes as soon as the flight is under “departure management,” or DM. This is usually four hours before the flight. Under DM upgrades are cleared first by status, then by fare basis, and lastly by the time added to the DM list.
That’s a pretty basic explanation of the workings of inventory management as I understand it. If anyone has anything to add, feel free to chime in, and otherwise if anyone else has a question on the subject, feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to answer.