TPG’s Premier 1K staffers share their tips for getting United upgrades

If you speak with a United Airlines Premier member, they will likely tell you they’re receiving fewer upgrades this year.

With sudden surge in air travel demand from United customers — including some elite members who received pandemic status extensions — it’s been harder to get upgrades on United flights. From January to July, my Premier 1K status cleared just two Complimentary Premier Upgrades on 21 eligible flights.

So with a deficit in the upgrade department, TPG’s Premier 1K staffers weigh in to share tips on how to get upgrades on United flights.

Let’s dive in.

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In This Post

Ethan Klapper, senior aviation reporter

First class on a United Airbus A320. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Earlier this summer, I had a big upgrade win during what was a very busy summer for airlines — and transatlantic premium-cabin demand.

In mid-June, I flew from Oslo Airport (OSL) to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) via Munich Airport (MUC).

The itinerary had a leg on Lufthansa and a leg on United. The United flight was booked into M class, the third-highest economy fare class on United and Lufthansa, after Y and B. The fare? A pretty average of $1,188.97 — a superb deal for a transatlantic M-class booking.

That flight — United’s longest on the 767-300 — was operated by the two-class version of the aircraft, known internally at the airline as the 76A. That configuration will gradually disappear as United rolls out Premium Plus to its entire fleet.

Because this particular aircraft lacked Premium Plus, I took advantage of one of the best upgrade deals — a deal that owed itself to the two-class configuration: high upgrade priority. On United aircraft with a Premium Plus cabin, those booked into that premium economy section get waitlist priority over those who are in regular economy class, except those who hold United’s highest-tier Global Services status.

I used 40 PlusPoints to waitlist an upgrade, and it cleared exactly a week out on a regular economy fare. This is practically unheard of at United this summer. 

So, my tip is to book high-fare classes and try to snag international flights on the two-class 76A before it disappears.

This fall, that particular aircraft configuration will operate Polaris service on the following routes, according to Cirium (and subject to change):

IAH to Jorge Chavez International Airport (LIM) in Lima, Peru.
Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) to Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER).
EWR to Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD).

Related: What is United Airlines elite status worth?

Zach Griff, senior reporter

United still flies a dated 2-4-2 business-class configuration on some domestic Boeing 777-200s. KYLE OLSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Scoring a complimentary upgrade with United feels like it’s much harder these days. That said, like my colleagues, I’ve been very strategic about which flights I’m booking to maximize my shots at scoring a seat in the pointy end of the plane.

For one, I’ve tried to book premium economy fares on three-cabin aircraft to be higher on the upgrade list. United prioritizes Polaris business-class upgrades for those booked in Premium Plus above those booked in standard economy, even if you’ve purchased a full-fare Y-class coach ticket.

Domestically, I keep an eye on loads in the weeks leading up to a flight to see whether I have a shot at an upgrade. If I don’t, I may adjust my flights if my travel plans are flexible.

For instance, I’ll look at how full the first-class cabin is, as well as the fares that United is selling for the remaining seats.

Another indication of upgrade likelihood is how many other Premier elite members you’ll be competing with. While the upgrade list is only published about two days before a given flight, I look at how many Economy Plus seats in the weeks leading up to departure.

Premier Gold and higher can select Economy Plus seats for free, giving a rough estimate of how many elites are booked on the plane. The more seats available, the fewer top-tier Premiers are booked on a given flight, in general.

Related: How to survive basic economy on United Airlines

Kyle Olsen, points and miles reporter

The high-J Boeing 767-300ER has lots of premium seats. ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

In addition to booking higher fare classes and considering the load factors on United planes, I try to book flights with disproportionately large premium cabins (Premium Plus and Polaris) when possible. Here are some of those planes:

Airbus A319: 12 first-class seats, 114 coach seats: 9.5% premium seats.
Boeing 737-900: 20 first-class seats, 159 coach seats: 11.2% premium seats.
Boeing 757-300: 24 first-class seats, 210 coach seats: 10.2% premium seats.
Boeing 767-300ER (high-J): 46 Polaris business-class seats, 22 Premium Plus seats, 99 coach seats: 40.36% premium seats.
Boeing 777-200ER: 50 Polaris business-class seats, 24 Premium Plus seats, 202 coach seats: 26.8% premium seats.
Boeing 777-300ER: 60 Polaris business-class seats, 24 Premium Plus seats, 266 coach seats: 24% premium seats.
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner: 48 Polaris business-class seats, 21 Premium Plus seats, 188 coach seats: 26.8% premium seats.
Embraer E175: 12 first-class seats, 58 coach seats: 17.1% premium seats.

As you can see, some of United’s wide-body jets have north of a quarter of the cabin designated as premium seats. That can make a difference when getting cleared for an upgrade.

I also try to be as strategic as possible when redeeming PlusPoints. As I discussed in a recent article, I try to confirm upgrades by looking for the PZ fare class when booking a flight. Having flexibility in your travel dates can help confirm an upgrade.

While there’s no guarantee that this will happen on your flight, I’ve found that United will occasionally release a seat to the PZ fare about four hours before departure when there are more than three seats left in first class. That’s a great last-minute way to confirm an upgrade when it’s not looking good on the upgrade waitlist for a complimentary upgrade.

Related: United’s best-kept elite status secret: How to earn PQPs faster with partner flights

Bottom line

Even though summer travel mayhem is behind us, reduced Premier status requirements coupled with expensive air tickets have resulted in lots of United flyers earning Premier status this year.

That means upgrade waitlists are likely only going to get longer in the coming months and into 2023, so it’s important to know that there are several things that you can do to boost your odds of getting an upgrade on your next flight.

With any luck, by following some of these tips, you’ll find yourself with more time in the front of the plane.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.