Comparing the upgrade policies at Continental and United

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.


  1. I’m flying CO from LAX-EWR tomorrow. It’s past the 120 hr window, and I’m still on the wait-list, and CO doesn’t upgrade you and your mate, they need to separate your itinerary so that your mate has a (small) chance in getting an upgrade at the terminal, unlike United where two will clear at the highest elite level of the party. It’s so confusing. I also got an upgrade offer for $1055/leg… fail.

  2. The United approach does appear to value long term loyalty more highly. Let’s hope that CO sees merit to that, and not just to try to get an extra $39 for a 1000 mile flight.

    For 2011 another big issue is the differing priority that members get when traveling on UA vs. CO metal. Especially as cross-fleeting is implemented, it becomes more aggravating to have such wildly different upgrade priorities depending on who the operating carrier is. DL showed how to do this by integrating the lists quickly.

  3. Great summary, Ben. Selfishly, I hope they inherit United’s model, but if I were on the board, I’d vote to integrate Continental’s model into the formula, but increase the buy-up rates. It would be scary if the upgrade for, say, BOS-SFO on United were only $189 like the CO example you mention.

  4. I have a B fare from EWR-SFO on Sunday, booked 3 weeks ago. At the time of booking, half the F seats were available. I did not get an upgrade offer online, so I called CO and they said that to upgrade a B they have to have ZX fares in F, and there were none. That sounded strange so I did the call again and ask a different agent. Same answer 3 times.

    Steve (CO-Gold)

  5. If United did adopt CO’s upgrade policy, I’d seriously have to consider my airline of choice. I fly alot and direct a fair amount of $$$ to United, which results in an upgrade percentage a little less than Lucky. The 5-6 times a year I fly for pleasure, United treats me well and the service is seamless for both business and pleasure. I’d be a bit ticked if I’m upgraded every time for business (Y fare) yet don’t have a chance when I’m towards one of the lower tiers on my personal trips. What’s next-Hotel lounge access for top level status if your room costs more than $180 a night otherwise no joy?

  6. If someone always buys the lowest fares and uses DEQM to qualify, should they get upgraded before someone who purchased a far more valuable fare? The longterm loyalty of such a customer is probably not very valuable.

  7. CO hardly ever has DEQM offers.

    So far, in the last 10 years – CO has had only 1. (last year).

    The time before that was right after 9/11.

    While everyone else had STL, PIT, RDU run possiblities, folks that fly CO have to earn it the hard way

  8. Might want to check into this, but I am sure that an M class fare is only upgradeable if you are a Platinum. Therefore, non-Plats would be buying up to Y or B fares.

    Nonetheless, this is a major issue right now among CO FF’s. Your last point about CO not looking out for their premium customers in the long run is right on and the recently-introduced buy-ups are not helping. Even as a Presidential Platinum, I’ve lost faith in the EUA system, and just find myself buying Y, B and Ms at the time of ticketing to get a guaranteed seat in F…which often means just buying full Y for, as Steve notes above, M and B fares are actually capacity controlled, so they don’t guarantee an F seat either!

  9. I recently became Platinum on CO via a status comp. So far I’m 9 out of 11 on the upgradable CO segments I’ve flown. That was on a mix of G, K, T, and U fares. On the two segments where I didn’t get an upgrade, I had an exit row window seat, and was lucky enough to have the middle seat open each time.

    On the other hand, of the two UA flights I took — admittedly between SFO and LAX — not only was I not upgraded (22nd on the standby list on a 757 for one of the flights), but I ended up in a middle seat in E+ both times. I appreciate the extra leg room, but I really need some shoulder room.

    I’m flying from SFO to SEA next week on UA, and it’s not looking any better. When I booked, only middle E+ seats were available on the outbound; now coach is showing Y8 and first is already almost half full. The return is a CR7; I was able to get an E+, but there’s only F1 availability so basically no hope of an upgrade there either.

    So, from the point of view of a Continental Platinum, I’m not all that thrilled on my upgrade prospects on United out of SFO. Fact is, with AA’s recent capacity cuts for SFO, I’m not all that thrilled on my upgrade prospects on any carrier out of SFO these days, but I seem to be doing best on CO metal.

  10. Huh, so it definitely seems like CO holds more seats until the day of departure than United. I’m a 1K and have a flight (G fare) on Sunday which I have cleared and there are now about 6 seats left. I also have a flight on Saturday (E fare) which I have not cleared and there are also 6 seats left. Will be very interested to see if I get offered an upgrade for cash Saturday. Hopefully this doesn’t become the new UA policy. I clear about 95% of the time on UA, but I have noticed that booking cheap fares close in on UA seems to hurt your chances of upgrading. There is definitely still some sort of FIFO queuing happening at the clearance windows.

  11. So as a 1K, do I get instant upgrades on M fares on CO like a Platinum, just on Y and B fares, or none of the above? Any place where all these rules are listed for UA elites on CO? Thanks

  12. Does anyone know whether a Continental silver elite who buys a B fare for himself/herself and a non-elite companion can get both parties instantly upgraded? Huge thanks in advance

  13. Do you know for a fact the upgrade instrument is irrelevant on United? I’m very curious. I have seen anecdotical evidence that an upgrade certificate gives you an edge over UDU. United has not disclosed or documented their rules beyond “status first, fare class next.” It doesn’t mean that within the same bucket, they don’t further prioritize customers. I’d love to get clarification on this.

  14. @ Brendan — I believe the instant upgrade only applies for the member, and not for a companion.

    @ Pat+ — Yes, I do know for a fact… 🙂

  15. I am a 1K…does anyone know— if I am booked in the same class of service as another 1k, how does UAL determine who will get the upgrade if available? Is it by 1K term of date or by amount of miles flown?

    Side bar — I have traveled as a 1 k with coworkers that are Premier Exec’s and on several occasions they have gotten the Upgrade and not me. There are flaws with the system that tick me off.

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