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How to upgrade on United Airlines

Redeem miles and fight your way to an available flight upgrade.

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If you’re tired of flying economy, you can put your spare United MileagePlan miles to use and redeem them on a flight upgrade. Maybe. United has a rather confusing and competitive priority system that determines who ultimately receives an available upgrade. These upgrades are limited, so here’s how to best position yourself for success.

How to get an upgrade on United Airlines

United Airlines flight upgrades are based on a priority system. Depending on a variety of factors, you can put yourself ahead of others when it comes to earning an available upgrade.

Becoming a MileagePlus member is free and your best path to start securing flight upgrades. Through the program, you can earn miles on United flights that can be redeemed for award upgrades. But more importantly, if you spend more than $25,000 on United flights annually, you can upgrade to Premier status, which comes with additional benefits and has higher priority when it comes to receiving available upgrades. Being a Premier member is one of the most impactful things you can do to improve your chances of earning flight upgrades. And the higher you climb in Premier status, the better your chances of United awarding you the upgrade.

United flight upgrade priorities

Here are the main factors that determine upgrade priority:

  • MileagePlus miles. MileagePlus members can upgrade using miles on most United or Copa flights. For discounted tickets, you may need to use miles and co-pay with money to upgrade. However, you may not upgrade for trans-Atlantic basic economy fare or economy.
  • Premier Elite status. If you’re a Premier Elite member, you’re eligible to receive a complimentary upgrade on certain flights if space allows.
  • PlusPoint upgrades. Premier Elite Platinum and 1K members earn a currency called PlusPoints. Members can redeem PlusPoints directly on United flight upgrades.
  • Instant upgrades. Premier members who purchase full fare Y economy or B fare may immediately receive a flight upgrade. Premier 1K members may also receive an upgrade when purchasing M fares.

Generally, you can request your upgrade while booking your flight or after that. To avoid the wait list, it’s usually best to upgrade during the booking process, if possible.

How to book a flight upgrade with miles on United

You can upgrade your flight before you pay for your ticket by using United’s search feature and toggling the filter to only show flights with immediate upgrades available. During checkout, you’ll be presented with any available upgrade options along with their miles cost and cash cost if necessary.

If you’ve already paid for your flight, you can still upgrade if you like. To do so, you’ll need to login to your account and click on Manage trips. You’ll see an option to upgrade your flight. If there is no immediate upgrade available, you might have the option to enter a waiting list. If you don’t make the list, United will refund any miles or cash you’ve spent on reserving your spot.

You can also choose to upgrade your flight at the airport by speaking with a United counter representative or gate agent, or by calling at least 24 hours before departure at 800-864-8331.

UPGRADE WITH MILES COMES WITH ADDITIONAL PERKS

When you use your miles to get an upgrade, you also get:

  • Free standard checked bag allowance.
  • Priority check-in, boarding, baggage handling and security line access.
  • Complimentary alcoholic drinks.

How to upgrade a flight with United Airline partners

You can redeem your MileagePlan miles for a flight upgrade with nearly all of the United Star Alliance partners. To do so, follow the same procedure as you would when upgrading a flight you’ve already purchased. Simply login to your account and click on “Manage trips” to start the upgrade process.

How to use miles to upgrade on a United Airlines partner flight

You can request your upgrade after you purchased your ticket, but it must be at least 24 hours before departure. To do so, log in to your MileagePlus account and find your reservation.

Keep in mind, upgrades last for one segment and one cabin on flights operated by participating Star Alliance members.

You can upgrade on business class C and D and economy class Y and B, and on:

  • Air Canada – O class
  • Air China – J and G class
  • Air New Zealand – E, U and O class
  • ANA – J, Z, E and G class
  • Ethiopian Airlines – G and S class
  • EVA Airways – K class
  • Lufthansa – J, E and G class
  • SAS – S class
  • Shenzhen Airlines – M and H class
  • Singapore Airlines – S, Z, J and U class
  • South African Airways – M class (domestic only)
  • SWISS – J class
  • Economy to business on airlines that offer only these two cabins on two-cabin aircraft
  • Economy to first on carriers that offer only these two cabins on two-cabin aircraft
  • Business to first on carriers that have three-cabin aircraft

How to use a credit card to get a United Airlines upgrade

A United Airlines cobranded credit card can help you earn more United miles, which can be redeemed for an award flight or cabin upgrade. Depending on your card, you can earn accelerated miles on dining and hotel stays, plus you can earn a solid signup bonus.

Perhaps more notably, having a United card while being a Premier member puts you in the bucket for complimentary upgrades on award flights. However, cardholders will still be lower on the priority list than even the lowest paid fare.

Our pick for a United credit card

United℠ Explorer Card

  • $0 first-year intro annual fee, then $95.
  • Signup bonus: 60,000 miles after you make $3,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening.
  • 2x miles on United purchases, hotel stays and restaurant purchases.
  • Credit every four years for your Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee.
  • 25% back as statement credit on United inflight purchases. Plus, priority boarding and your first checked bag free on United-operated flights.
  • 2 United Club one-time passes each card anniversary.
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Compare credit cards that can help earn an upgrade

You’ll want to progress as far as possible through the United elite ranks if you plan on reliably earning flight upgrades. Here are the credit cards that can help you climb those ranks while earning miles.

Name Product Welcome offer Rewards Annual fee Filter values
United℠ Explorer Card
60,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months
2x miles at restaurants, hotels and United and 1x miles on all other purchases
$0 intro annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
United Club℠ Infinite Card
100,000 miles after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months
4x miles on United purchases, 2x miles on travel and dining and 1x miles on all other purchases
$525
Get United Club membership with access for you and two guests at any United Club or Star Alliance lounge -- a value of up to $650 annually.
United℠ Business Card
60,000 miles once after spending $3,000 in your first 3 months
2x miles on United, transit and rideshares, and at gas stations, office supply stores and restaurants, and 1x miles on all other purchases
$0 intro annual fee for the first year ($99 thereafter)
Earn 60,000 miles once after spending $3,000 in your first 3 months.
CardMatch™ from creditcards.com
See terms
See terms
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Use the CardMatch tool to find cards you're likely to qualify for with your credit score, without a hard pull on your credit.
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Who gets upgraded?

Here is the priority list according to the United Airlines site as of this writing:

  1. PlusPoints upgrades and/or MileagePlus Upgrade Awards. Members who redeem their PlusPoints on an upgrade are given priority over MileagePlus Upgrade Awards.
  2. Premier status. Those with a higher Premier status get the upgrade before the lower-tier Premier members. For example, a Premier 1K member who spends 40 PlusPoints on an upgrade will likely take priority over a Premier Platinum member who spends the same number of PlusPoints.
  3. Fare class. The priority upgrade based on fare class goes in this order: O, A, R for upgrades from Premium Plus seats to Polaris business class; and Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W, S, T, L, K and G for upgrades from Economy up to the next class.
  4. Chase United MileagePlus® Club card cardholders. Credit card owners of the premium cobranded United MileagePlus® Club card fall here.
  5. United Corporate Preferred travelers. Select corporate clients that have partnered with United for their business travel are next in line for the upgrade.
  6. Chase United MileagePlus cardholders. All other United MileagePlus cardmembers who spend $25,000 annually.
  7. Time of request. This is typically used as a tie-breaker when two or more passengers fall in the same priority group.

This list isn’t strictly linear. These factors can combine in ways that simply don’t easily lend themselves to a top to bottom list. The best way to think about it is the more boxes you can check from this list at the utmost capacity, the better. For example, being a Premier 1K member, purchasing a priority fare with a Chase United MileagePlus Club card, and using PlusPoints on your upgrade.

MileagePlus Premier status offers perks on partner airlines

United Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance. By earning a United Airlines MileagePlus Premier status you get benefits with all alliance members, including Air Canada, Air China, Lufthansa and more.

Bottom line

It’s certainly possible to earn an upgrade on United Airlines without money. But know that you’re low on the totem pole if you don’t have Premier status and meet a variety of other requirements — and meeting those requirements can require an investment.

If you’re looking for a slightly less stressful airline program, consider other airline credit cards and compare your options to find one more user friendly.

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