United Upgrade Priority and How to Improve Your Chances

Mar 10, 2015

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One of the perks of airline elite status is getting bumped up to a premium cabin, but the upgrade process is complicated and it’s sometimes hard to predict when you’ll be accommodated. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen looks behind the curtain of upgrade priority on United.

Traveling in itself is a wonderful thing. Traveling in first or business class is even better. While most airlines offer upgrades, they don’t always make clear the exact process for upgrading flights to the next class of service. Now that the elite status year has reset (as of March 1st), many of you may be facing a new array of benefits (and restrictions). So today, I want to go through how United Airlines handles upgrades to help you know what to expect the next time you fly.

How can you ride up front on your next United flight?

Like many airlines, United offers a variety of ways for you to upgrade from economy to business or first class. Unfortunately, these options create an incredibly complex system that even a very frequent traveler may not fully comprehend. Which upgrade instrument gets priority over another? Does it matter when you check in? What about traveling with a companion?

To muddy the waters further, United actually has three different upgrade “buckets” that do not have a one-to-one correspondence:

  • ON is used for upgrades from business class to first class (on three-cabin aircraft).
  • PN is used for upgrades from Y/B/M fares to first/business class, plus all Global Services upgrades.
  • R is used for upgrades involving miles/certificates, and complimentary upgrades for all non-Global Services travelers.

Unfortunately, United pulled its upgrade inventory from ExpertFlyer back in 2013 (another example of its “Race to the Bottom” with Delta). However, there’s a trick that will allow you to search upgrade inventory on United.com. It’s called “Expert Mode,” and it’s a great way to find space for your desired route.

Here’s how to enable it:

  1. Go to United.com.
  2. Sign in to your MileagePlus account.
  3. Go to the My Account page.
  4. Click on Manage Profile at the bottom.
  5. Click on View All Flight Search Preferences at the bottom.
  6. Read the T&C of Expert Mode, check the box, and click Save.

Once this is enabled, you can actually see all fare class inventory (including upgrade space) for United-operated flights. Simply search for a paid flight and click on the Fare Class link from the results page. Here’s a quick example of how this looks for a one-way flight from Washington-Dulles to London-Heathrow next month:

UA IAD-LHR fare classes 2
Fare class inventory on United.com

According to these search results, there are multiple seats available in all three upgrade buckets for the 5:55 pm departure, but the morning flight (operated by a two-cabin aircraft) doesn’t have any upgrade inventory.

Today’s post will focus on the routes that are eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs), as all of the upgrade options are applicable to those routes. Here’s a quick table that shows which upgrades apply to which routes:

United upgrade options
Upgrades according to route

I’ll also separate out how upgrades are processed in advance and how they happen at the gate. Finally, I’ll go through the different tiebreakers that apply within the pecking order.

Here, in a nutshell, are the factors that impact your upgrade priority:

  • Type of upgrade requested
  • Status
  • Fare class
  • Time of ticketing

All of these categories have many overlapping segments and tiebreakers, and things can get quite complicated. To simplify it, here’s a table that shows the general methods United uses to determine whether you’ll be riding up front:

Type of Upgrade

Advance Window Airport Standby?
Full Fare Economy Ticket At or any time after booking


Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs)

At or any time after booking Yes
Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) At or any time after booking



At or any time after booking Yes
Global Services* 120 hours / 5 days before


Premier 1K

96 hours / 4 days before


Premier Platinum

72 hours / 3 days before


Premier Gold

48 hours / 3 days before


Premier Silver

Day of departure


*As an “unpublished” elite tier, upgrades for Global Services are handled a bit differently than other elites. We know that they have their own inventory (PN) and that they clear in advance before other elites. However, many reports indicate that ALL Global Services upgrades are processed prior to any other elite (including those on Y/B fares and those using miles or certificates).

If you’re already confused, you’re not alone! Hang on, as things are about to get a whole lot more complicated.

United Global First
You can snag an upgrade to United’s GlobalFirst cabin using miles or certificates, but only on certain fare classes.

Upgrading in Advance (Part 1)

There are three ways that you can upgrade more than a week before the flight:

  1. By upgrading a full-fare economy ticket (applies to Premier members only)
  2. With certificates (GPUs or RPUs)
  3. With miles

The first option is relatively straightforward; if you’re a Premier member and book a Y or B class ticket on a route eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs), then you’re eligible for an instant upgrade, as long as the flight has PN inventory. In addition, if you are a Premier 1K or Global Services member, you can also be upgraded instantly on M class tickets (again, if PN inventory is available). These upgrades are prioritized ahead of members trying to use certificates or miles (unlike Delta, which gives preference to upgrades requested with a certificate or miles).

United's p.s. service between JFK and LAX/SFO is a great route on which to use RPUs.
United’s p.s. service between JFK and LAX/SFO is a great route on which to use RPUs.

Another way you can score an advance upgrade is through certificates. Both Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs) and Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) are automatically deposited into your account based on status. You earn two RPUs for hitting Premier Platinum, another two for hitting Premier 1K, and an additional two for every 25,000 Premier qualifying miles or 30 Premier qualifying segments. These certificates are valid through the end of the following program year (in other words, they’re valid until the end of your newly-earned status).

GPUs work similarly, as you earn 6 of them for hitting 1K and another two for every additional 50,000 Premier qualifying miles or 60 Premier qualifying segments. These too are good until the end of the following program year.

If you’re looking to upgrade with these instruments, you’ll need the following inventory:

  • ON to upgrade from business to first class (on three-cabin flights)
  • PN for a Global Services upgrade
  • R for all other upgrades
United's online calculator shows you the fare classes eligible for mileage upgrades plus any required copays.
United’s online calculator shows you the fare classes eligible for mileage upgrades plus any required copays.

Keep in mind that mileage upgrades, GPUs and RPUs have several additional restrictions. You need to request these upgrades at least 24 hours ahead of your departure, and certain fare classes require a copay to upgrade with miles (though some regions waive the copay for Premier members). In addition, GPUs can’t be used on most long-haul routes in deeply discounted fare classes. For more details, check out United’s interactive award chart, as well as the GPU and RPU pages.

One final note about GPUs and RPUs — you can use them to “sponsor” a friend or family member even if you aren’t traveling together! Simply log in to your account, find the reservation (using the traveler’s confirmation number and last name), and select the Upgrade Reservation link. If you plan on doing this, pull the trigger now. Spots on the wait list are currently based on the Premier status of the sponsor, but if you request a sponsor upgrade on or after April 15, 2015, whoever you sponsor will be prioritized by his or her own status.

If your CPU clears in advance, you could enjoy a complimentary meal in first class.
If your CPU clears in advance, you could enjoy a complimentary meal in first class.

Upgrading in Advance (Part 2)

Once you’re within a week of departure, certificate and mileage upgrades will continue to clear (if applicable space opens up). This is also when Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs) begin to clear on applicable routes, depending on whether the flight has R availability. Status is the first component that impacts your Premier upgrade priority. Unless you’re traveling on a full-fare economy ticket, all Premier 1K members will clear ahead of all Premier Platinum members.

Within a given tier, the next tiebreaker is fare class. M class goes first (remember Global Services and Premier 1K members can instantly upgrade these fares), followed by E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K, G, and N. Once all of these paid tickets have cleared within a Premier level, award tickets come next. However, you can only upgrade award tickets if you hold a United credit card.

For example, if you’re a Premier Platinum member with the United MileagePlus Explorer card, you would be given priority over a Premier Gold member traveling on a (paid) M fare class ticket.

The final tiebreaker (when Premier level and fare class are the same) is time of ticketing.

In addition, as a United elite member, you’re allowed to upgrade one companion traveling on the same reservation. Unlike Delta (which drags you down to your companion’s status level), United will actually confer your priority to your companion, even on the day of departure. However, this only applies to paid tickets; even with a United credit card, companions on award tickets are ineligible for upgrades.

Playing the gate upgrade lottery is often a nerve-wracking experience!
Playing the gate upgrade lottery is often a nerve-wracking experience!

Upgrading at the gate

Within 24 hours of your flight, you can no longer make a new request for an upgrade using miles or certificates, and the wait list will “expire” (per United’s Upgrades Overview page). From there, the upgrades are processed “automatically” using the following priority:

  1. Premier members on eligible Y- and B-class fares, as well as Premier 1K members on M-class fares. Instant upgrades that weren’t confirmed in advance are prioritized by fare class, then Premier status.
  2. All travelers on waitlisted Global Premier Upgrades, Regional Premier Upgrades and MileagePlus Upgrade Awards. These are prioritized by Premier status of the redeeming account (until April 15, 2015), then fare class, and then time of request
  3. All remaining Premier members using Complimentary Premier Upgrades. These are prioritized by Premier status, then fare class, and then award travel (for credit cardholders).

As a result, here’s how the airport standby list should be prioritized:

  1. Global Services (the general thought is that all Global Services upgrade requests trump any other Premier member)
  2. Premier members on Y class tickets (1K, Platinum, Gold, then Silver)
  3. Premier members on B class tickets (1K, Platinum, Gold, then Silver)
  4. Premier members on M class tickets (1K)
  5. Travelers using GPUs/RPUs/miles
  6. Premier 1Ks (and companions) on paid tickets
  7. Premier 1K credit cardholders on award tickets
  8. Premier Platinums (and companions) on paid tickets
  9. Premier Platinum credit cardholders on award tickets
  10. Premier Golds (and companions) on paid tickets
  11. Premier Gold credit card holders on award tickets
  12. Premier Silvers (and companions) on paid tickets
  13. Premier Silver credit card holders on award tickets

Unfortunately, I’ve read several reports from regular United travelers that even this is inconsistent (despite the clear language online). Some have put forth the theory that within 24 hours, it no longer matters what method you’re using to upgrade, and that Premier status level and fare class override all other priority rules. In other words, a 1K using an RPU on a V class ticket would trump a 1K requesting a CPU on a Q class ticket in advance. However, at the gate, the 1K in Q class would appear above the 1K in V class.

You can still get upgraded on Copa Airlines, but things'll change in July.
You can still get upgraded on Copa Airlines, but things will change in July.

There are some other things to keep in mind with these upgrades:

  • Many United travelers report issues with upgrades being automatically processed from the wait list ahead of time.  Though it’s tedious, if you have a flight on which you desperately want the upgrade, periodically check United.com (using “Expert Mode”) to see if the applicable inventory is available. If it shows up (and your upgrade hasn’t processed), call customer service and ask them to manually confirm it.
  • Other reports indicate that within 24 hours, “time of request” is replaced by “time of check-in” for two Premier members in the same tier and on the same fare class. As a result, I recommend checking in as close to the 24 hour mark as possible.
  • Through June 30, 2015, all flights operated by Copa Airlines are eligible for GPUs, RPUs, and CPUs (including instant upgrades for all Premier members on Y/B/M tickets). However, Copa is launching its own loyalty program in July, after which you’ll only be able to upgrade these flights using GPUs or RPUs.

Bottom Line

United’s upgrade process is convoluted, and unfortunately, there are many reports of discrepancies between the published policies and the reality at the gate. However, at least having a general idea of where you fall on the upgrade list can help you avoid a nasty surprise when you arrive at the airport.

What are your experiences with upgrading on United?

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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