I’ve dedicated a considerable amount of time on this blog to speculating about post-merger United, though I don’t think I’ve explicitly discussed the differences in how Continental and United process upgrades. To keep things simple, we’ll stick to domestic upgrades.
Let’s start with United, simply because I have a ton of firsthand experience with them and know their system inside out. United has (in my opinion) the simplest upgrade program. Upgrades are sorted by status, then fare class, then time added to the waitlist. It doesn’t matter how the upgrade is being requested (miles, systemwide upgrades, confirmed regional upgrades, or even complimentary upgrades), all that matters is status, fare class, and the time added to the waitlist.
The pros to this are obvious. Top tier elites do great on upgrades. At the same time, some would argue the system doesn’t make all that much sense. Outside of the “window” for complimentary upgrades, anyone can confirm an upgrade if there’s confirmable upgrade space. But within the upgrade “window,” it doesn’t matter how someone is supporting their upgrade. That makes it nice for us just wanting a complimentary upgrade, but does it really make sense to upgrade a 1K that’s requesting a complimentary upgrade ahead of a 1K that’s trying to use 15,000 miles for an upgrade, just because their fare class is slightly higher or they booked a day earlier?
United does sometimes sell upgrades for cash at the time of booking, though they’re fairly reasonable about it. The cost for an upgrade at the time of booking is fairly steep, usually over $50 per 500 miles, and it’s only offered if there’s confirmable upgrade space. In other words, if you’re offered a buy up, you could also use an upgrade instrument to confirm an upgrade at that time. For what it’s worth, 179 of my 180 United mainline upgrades have cleared this year. I’d say 99.4% is a fairly good upgrade percentage. Now, it’s a given that I’m smart about the flights I book, but this does include several Monday morning and Thursday afternoon hub-to-hub flights.
Then there’s Continental, God bless ’em. The first thing that’s different about them is that they offer instant upgrades to elites at the time of booking on full “Y” or “B” fares, and instant upgrades to Platinum members on “M” fares. This can make the price of first class relatively reasonable for someone that’s willing to pay a premium.
While upgrades are prioritized by status, all elites on a “Y” or “B” fare clear first. In other words, a Presidential Platinum on an “M” fare (third highest fare class) clears after a Silver on a “B” fare (second highest fare class). That’s great for low tier elites traveling on full fare tickets, but not great for everyone else.
Next, mileage upgrade requests (as far as I know, though someone correct me if I’m wrong) clear before complimentary upgrades. So a non-elite traveler on a discounted coach ticket that’s requesting an upgrade using miles would clear ahead of a Presidential Platinum member. That’s basically the exact opposite of United.
The last interesting thing to note about Continental’s upgrade system is what FlyerTalkers like to refer to as upgrades for “tens of dollars.” While United will only sell upgrades to first class when there’s confirmable upgrade space (and they charge quite a bit for it), Continental is fairly aggressive about trying to sell first class upgrades, even when people are on the upgrade list. Apparently this is often simply a buy-up to an “M” fare (which qualifies for an instant upgrade), though the practice as such is pretty unpopular.
A few interesting examples, since this is a practice United elites obviously aren’t familiar with. Take this Continental Platinum, who is traveling from Fort Lauderdale to Newark today, for example. Their upgrade to first class has not cleared, though at check-in they were offered a buy-up to first class for $39. Or this Continental Platinum, who witnessed someone buying an upgrade for $69 at the gate for a Houston to San Diego flight while there were people on the upgrade waitlist. Or, for those of you that are undoubtedly going to argue that this is the simple cost for a buy-up to an “M” fare, this FlyerTalker that was offered an upgrade to first class at check-in for a transcon for only $189, while there were people on the upgrade waitlist.
My conclusion about the upgrade programs of the two airlines? Continental cares about your value as a customer for any given trip, and United cares about your value as a customer in the long run. There is no perfect system, so hopefully the airlines can meet somewhere in the middle.