Answering reader email re: United upgrades

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.

Comments

  1. If you have any elite status and book a “Y” or “B” class fare, you get an auto upgrade.

  2. John,
    Technicially you are correct, but it never works that way. After not being upgraded on 3 times with my Y fare, I called the 1K desk and asked. They make you ask to be put on the upgrade list at the desk when it is under DM, which is often too late for the upgrade. Y fare is great for the 1.5% miles, but don’t count on the Y fare for your upgrade.

  3. John could you elaborate.

    Are you saying that anyone with status booking in B gets upgraded to F regardless of inventory?

  4. To clarify, on UA, Y and B fares within Region 1 you get complimentary upgrades which act the same way as 500 mile upgrades. You should still be able to clear at your upgrade window, but your chances are the same as if you were using 500’ers.

  5. My situation: booked T class round trip LAX-OGG-LAX for 10/2008 via unitedvacations.com and then logged into my OnePass acct, brought up itinerary, clicked Upgrade and used 30K miles to get First (NF) on outbound flight (2 pax). Didn’t have enough miles to do return (11/2008) so purchased some and repeated upgrade process a few days later but was “Waitlisted” for Flight & Upgrade. Not sure if I’m on PA or PB list (plain 1P member) but from your narrative it sounds like the first chance of getting Confirmed won’t be until 24 hrs before flight and then after DM takes over. Even if UAL website shows available First Seats on departure day, would you guess my chances of upgrade about that of a snowball on Waikaii Beach in July?

  6. I assume you mean Mileage Plus account and not OnePass account, or else you have a bigger problem.;) Actually you should have a decent shot at clearing beforehand. You’ll be on the PB list but there’s a chance some inventory will be released soon, in which case I’m betting there’s not too many others on the list yet. It really is pretty spontaneous, but I think you have a good shot. At the very worst, assuming you’ll clear, there’s a good chance it’ll happen within two weeks or so of the flight as opposed to the day of.

    Good luck!

  7. Thanks for your insight – it’ll give me something to look forward to over the coming weeks (besides a great time on Maui) and you’re right, of course I meant MP and not 1P – I tried to load http://www.united.com to verify the program name but their site was sluggish at the time.

  8. Thank you for this, it was very informative. If you have the time, I have some questions about upgrading when you have no elite status.
    I am currently just a general member using miles to be waitlisted for first class upgrade on an August flight from IAD to SFO. The plane has 24 first class seats and the United Plus rep said my chances should be pretty good on that flight at that time (I think the FC seats are just blocked for now, not sold). I am confirmed first class upgraded on the outbound SFO-ORD-PVD (using miles, fare status NF). Before the IAD to SFO waitlisted return flight, I am connecting from PVD to IAD on United Express. The ticket was purchased in April, and I believe the round trip ticket is close to full coach fare, but I am not sure (How can you tell?). My current seat assignment on the IAD to SFO flight is in Economy Plus, but I am waitlisted for first class and the fare status is U. Since I am only a lowly general member I assume I am on the PB list, and subject to being muscled aside by PA people or cash customers. Questions: Is there something I can do to increase my upgrade chances, and how and when can I find out if I have a confirmed first class seat? Will they contact me, or do I need to call United Mileage Plus? When should I do this? I doubt this is relevant, but I do have the United Plus Visa and I have paid cash for access to Economy Plus for the last three years. I also have a 1000 mile upgrade certificate. Thanks!

  9. Jon,
    Your fare class seems to be U, which is pretty high up there although not full fare. You will be on the PB waitlist, until your upgrade clears, if it does. Nothing you can really do to increase your chances. Just keep checking “My Itineraries” on united.com and you’ll see if/when the upgrade clears. You can also sign up for EasyUpdate and they should in theory call you or text you when your upgrade clears.
    Good luck!

  10. question about CR1s:

    do they upgrade entire direction of travel (LAX-DEN-IAD) or just a single segment (LAX-DEN or DEN-IAD)?

  11. I have a question about an upgrade i requested-
    I am a premier associate and i requested an upgrade for two passengers (the other is a general member) on a flight OGG-SFO on 8/11. My booking class was V and I used 30K miles to get the upgrade.
    When would i expect that upgrade to clear (currently about half the seat in F class are open), and if does not clear would I get my 30K miles back (they have already been deducted from my mileage summary). The last time I used miles to upgrade i wasn’t confirmed for one leg of the trip (LAX-OGG) untill a few minutes before boarding, but i requested the upgrade only 4 days before the flight…

    Thank You,
    David

  12. Hey David,

    If your upgrade doesn’t clear you’ll get all your miles back into your account instantly. As for when it clears, it really depends. It can be anywhere between now and the gate, like you experienced last time. It’s quite unpredictable, as it really depends on how inventory management feels about the flight. If upgrades happen, a majority of them tend to happen in the two week to three days prior to flight window, but like I said it really depends.

    Let me know if you have any other questions. 🙂

    Regards,
    Ben

  13. Thank You very much- i was really just concerned about getting my miles back if the upgrade doesn’t clear.

    Thank You!
    David

  14. Hello,

    I am flying RIC-IAD-ORD-HNL on 30 Oct 08. I am waitlisted for the ORD-HNL flight with a sponsored upgrade from a 1k member. I am currently a Premier Associate with United and was told I was on a priority waitlist. Does that mean i’m on the PA list?

    Also, I think I read that you if you your upgrade was sponsored by a 1k then you have his/her priority status? Does the fact that my upgrade was sponsored by a 1k help in anyway?

    Thanks,

    Brent

  15. Thanks for the info – very enlightening. I’ve requested the upgrade (via miles) for my upcoming SMF-SFO-HNL / KOA-LAX-SMF trip. I’m waitlisted for the transpacific flights, but the LAX-SMF leg has cleared. If the KOA-LAX leg doesn’t clear, does the LAX-SMF upgrade cancel itself? I’m not thrilled by the prospect of spending the miles to get only that one short leg. It’s my wedding/honeymoon – i’d love for something to go right!

  16. Hey Dave,

    First of all, congrats on getting married! As for the upgrades, nope, it wouldn’t cancel if the Hawaii segment didn’t clear. Assuming it didn’t clear you could downgrade at the gate for your shorter segment, and as long as there are seats left in coach, the miles would be refunded. Other than that no way to pay only a portion because the shorter segment cleared, etc.

    Good luck!

  17. Hi,
    I have a similar situation to Dave’s…Not the getting married part – just the travel.

    I fly about 5 or 6 times per year DSM – ORD – HKG and back. I have Premier Executive status, with H-class tickets. I want to upgrade the HKG-ORD segment to business using miles but was told I will be waitlisted. Naturally there are first class seats open ORD-DSM (45 minute flight). How can I get on the waiting list for the HKG-ORD leg without potentially wasting 30K miles on a ORD-DSM upgrade if the I never clear on the HKG-ORD leg?? This seems like a total rip-off from United. Can I at least get 1/2 my miles back if the HKG-ORD segment never clears?

    Also, if I decide to take a chance, would I go on the PA or PB waitlist?

    Thanks for the great info. I’m somewhat new to upgrading and it is totally confusing to me. Your advise is much appreciated.

    Doug

  18. Hi Doug:

    That’s something that can be fixed pretty easy, actually. When you first request the upgrade, only do so for the ORD-HKG leg (like, specifically tell the agent you want to stay in coach for DSM-ORD). Then when your ORD-HKG upgrade clears, you can call back and upgrade DSM-ORD without paying extra.

    Hope that helps.

  19. Thanks very much Lucky. I did as you suggested which worked perfectly and am now on the “priority” standby list for the HKG-ORD leg. There are 10 others on the list and presently 11 business class seats available, but there is still over a week before the flight, so I’m not holding my breath.

    Doug

  20. Hi.

    My party of 5 was booked together and we are all waitlisted on the outbound and return flights from SFO to HNL. We have four one way regional systemwide upgrades from a 1K member and enough miles to upgrade one leg of the trip. Currently, we are waitlisted for both the outbound and return flights. If we are confirmed for both flights and there are not enough miles in our account to process the upgrade, will our spots be held until we present the certificates when we check in? Also, when do miles get deducted from the account, upon confirmation or check in?

    Please advise

  21. @ Liz — The miles are typically deducted when the upgrade is requested (they’re basically held), and then are finally pulled when you check-in. I don’t think there’s any way to request a confirmable upgrade without having the required miles or upgrade instruments in your account.

  22. Hi Lucky,

    What happens to miles-based requests inside the e500 clearing window? I’m a 1P, and currently #2 on the waitlist for a 15k mile upgrade on a p.s. flight exactly one week from now. I would much rather use e500s than miles. When (if ever) should I call and switch my upgrade instrument from miles to e500, and what are the implications of doing this?

    Thanks,
    Amit

  23. @ Amit — The waitlist is prioritized the same way up until departure management. So inside the upgrade window for 1K’s on 500 mile upgrades, they would probably clear before you. If you called to switch to 500 milers you would be back at the end of the waitlist, which you probably don’t want, unless the load is light.

  24. Lucky, any chance you’ll be writing a new post explaining how parts of this will change under the UDU system starting next year? (I know you’ve blogged about UDUs, but I don’t think I’ve seen this sort of deatiled drill-down. Apologies if I’m overlooking something.)

  25. @ eck — Thanks for the interest! I’ll do my best to write a post regarding that as soon as possible. I’d like to get a few more facts straight before doing that, since there still are some things that are uncertain about the new upgrade program. As soon as I have the info, you can bet I will!

  26. Hey Lucky,

    I hope you are still there as ytou seem very knowledgable. I have a flight leaving Bismarck ND on December 2nd, 2010 going to Narita, Japan and then onto Bangkok Thailand. I was sponsored from a 1k member with SWUs. The longest leg of the flight, from the US to Narita has already been confirmed upgrade both ways. The departure and return flights from Narita to Bangkok are waitlisted. I have been with Delta my entire life and I am starting to travel with United so I currently have no status. I have gotten mixed responses from the 1k service desk on how these upgrades work in order of importance. A couple times I was told they are entirely based upon the status of the person traveling and have nothing to do with the person that sponsored me. Just yesterday I was told that they are based upon the person that sponsored’s status and only rely on my status the day of the flight? I’m confused. Also, I should already be on the PA list because of the 1k sponsorship. The departure flight has roughly half (25) business class seast open and the return flight has about the same as of today November 15. There are 19 people on the waitlist for the outgoing flight and 22 people on the waitlist for the return. I booked my flights back at the end of August. It is now roughly two week until the flight and I am still waitlisted. What do you think are my chances and does this really work? Thanks so much. It is for my honeymoon so I’m trying everything I can.

  27. @ Ryan — Congrats on the honeymoon. Unfortunately if you ask 20 different people about how upgrade priority on United works, you’ll get 20 different answers. My understanding is that the lists are sorted by status of the person traveling, then fare class, then time added to the waitlist. However, before departure management (which only kicks in about four hours before departure), there’s a PA waitlist and a PB waitlist. The PA waitlist is for those that are sponsored by 1K members or are themselves 1K members. The PB waitlist is for everyone else. So my understanding would be that you would be on the PA waitlist with your priority being your relative status compared to the other people on the waitlist.

    What are your chances of clearing? Probably 50/50 as of now, I would say. Good luck!

  28. Hey Lucky,

    thanks for your info on the upgrade process, I’m learning to know United and this is very useful. One question – is it possible to log onto united.com and see how many people are on the PA/PB waitlists for a given flight? When buying a ticket a few days before the flight day, this would be useful to pick a flight and optimize your chances for an upgrade. If I bought the ticket within 48 hours of the flight as a 2P (say), could I ask a United representative if an UDU is available even before buying the ticket?

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