Cushy seats, hot towels and mimosas… Don’t we all want to be pampered on a flight? The reality is we can’t all afford it, and that’s why economy class exists in the first place. However, getting an upgrade isn’t just a figment of your imagination. It’s attainable for more people than you think.

If you’re looking to get upgraded on a United Airlines flight, learn the types of upgrades available and pick the best option that gives you a better chance of scoring that sexy seat.

With complimentary upgrades and PointsPlus, MileagePlus Premier members have the most options of enhancing a flight experience, but any regular Joe can fly upfront using credit-card rewards. Once you learn the ins and outs of the program, you too can enjoy cushy seats and cocktails in the sky.

How Does the Upgrade List Work on United?

Upgrading a United flight can be confusing especially if you’re not familiar with the MileagePlus program. You can do so in multiple ways, as an elite flyer and as a regular member, but you have to know what’s actually possible.

You can upgrade a United flight by using the following methods:

  • Complimentary Premier Upgrades
  • PlusPoints
  • MileagePlus Upgrade Awards
  • Star Alliance Upgrade Awards (for flights operated by other Star Alliance airlines)

Of course, to incentivize participation in the loyalty program, MileagePlus offers its elites more opportunities to get upgraded on United flights, so therefore Premier members have access to more upgrade options than regular program members.

Here are the types of upgrades available to United MileagePlus flyers.

Upgrade typeMemberPremier SilverPremier GoldPremier PlatinumPremier 1K
MileagePlus Upgrade AwardsYesYesYesYesYes
Star Alliance Upgrade AwardsYesYesYesYesYes

How to Get Complimentary Premier Upgrades on United Flights

Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs) are free upgrades on select United and United Express flights for MileagePlus Premier members.

When you book a paid United flight as a Premier elite member, a CPU for first class is automatically requested on select flight segments.

How to Get Complimentary Premier Upgrades on United Flights

If you’re traveling with a companion on the same reservation, then you both qualify for an upgrade based on the primary flyer’s status level. The higher your status level in the MileagePlus program, the sooner before scheduled takeoff your upgrade clears.

Here’s when you can expect a CPU to clear if you have MileagePlus Premier status.

MileagePlus Premier LevelUpgrade confirmation before departure
Premier 1KUp to 96 hours
Premier PlatinumUp to 72 hours
Premier GoldUp to 48 hours
Premier SilverDay of departure

However, some fare classes are upgraded instantly. If you book fare classes Y or B as a Premier Silver, Gold or Platinum member or fare classes Y, B or M as a Premier 1K member, then your economy ticket gets an upgrade to the premium cabin at booking.

It’s worth mentioning that not every ticket you purchase is eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades. When you fly on the following routes and to some regions serviced by United, don’t be surprised if you didn’t get upgraded.

  • Premium transcontinental routes, such as New York (JFK/EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO)
  • Long-haul flights to Hawaii from Chicago (ORD), Denver (DEN), Houston (IAH), Newark (EWR) or Washington (IAD)
  • Honolulu (HNL) to Guam (GUM)
  • Asia, Japan
  • Australia, New Zealand
  • Europe, Middle East, Africa
  • South America
  • Tahiti

Keep in mind that basic-economy fares aren’t eligible for CPUs, either, so if you’re trying to save money, you have to pass on that upgrade potential.

As you probably guessed, Complimentary Premier Upgrades on United aren’t guaranteed to all elites. The number of seats in the first-class cabin is limited, and flyers with the highest elite status receive priority on the upgrade distribution list. If you’re a low-level elite, don’t heavily rely on CPUs to clear.

Finally, award flights typically aren’t CPU eligible unless you’re an elite member and hold one of the following co-branded United credit cards:

  • United Club℠ Business Card
  • United Club℠ Infinite Card
  • United Explorer℠ Business Card
  • United℠ Business Card
  • United℠ Explorer Card
  • United℠ Presidential Plus℠ Business Card (not available to new applicants)
  • United℠ Presidential Plus℠ Card (not available to new applicants)

How to Apply United PlusPoints to Receive Upgrades on United Airlines Flights

PlusPoints are available to Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members to upgrade a flight anywhere United flies. These upgrades are based on availability, and you get on a waitlist once you request one online or in the mobile app.

How to Earn PlusPoints

MileagePlus Premier members receive 40 PlusPoints upon reaching Platinum status and an additional 280 PlusPoints upon earning 1K status—for a total of 320 points.

It’s possible to keep earning PlusPoints after qualifying for the highest status level with the MileagePlus program. You will receive 20 PointsPlus for every 2,000 Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) you earn after reaching Premier 1K status.

How PlusPoints Work

PlusPoints can be used to upgrade flights on the following airlines: All Nippon Airways (ANA), Copa, Lufthansa and United.

PlusPoints necessary for short-haul upgrades:

  • Premium Plus to business – 10
  • Economy to Premium Plus – 20
  • Economy to first class – 20

PlusPoints necessary for long-haul upgrades:

  • Economy to Premium Plus – 20
  • Premium Plus to Polaris business – 30
  • Economy to Polaris business – 40
  • Discounted economy to Polaris business – 80

Basic-economy tickets aren’t eligible for PlusPoints upgrades.

If you’re a Premier 1K member, your 320 PlusPoints can be applied toward eight upgrades from economy to Polaris business class on transatlantic or transpacific itineraries. If your upgrade doesn’t clear, the points go back into your account.

Just so you’re aware, PlusPoints upgrades are prioritized over Complimentary Premier Upgrades for elite members. So, if there’s limited premium space, PlusPoints trump CPUs.

Also, Premier 1K members have an opportunity to redeem additional PlusPoints to skip the waitlist and receive a confirmed upgrade on select long-haul international flights even if upgrade inventory is closed. If you really need to secure a flight in the higher class of service, this is a way to do it.

PlusPoints have an expiration date, so if you have ’em, use ’em before they disappear.

It’s allowed to use PlusPoints to upgrade another person’s reservation even if you’re not traveling with them, so that’s another way to make sure those points get used before their expiration date.

How to Upgrade United Flights with MileagePlus Upgrade Awards

If you don’t have status with United, you have options to upgrade your flight using MileagePlus miles. Depending on the fare class you book, your Premier level and your flight route, you might be asked to pay a cash portion on top of the miles used.

If you booked a ticket in fare classes B, O or Y, then a co-pay isn’t required. If you booked any other class, prepare to open your wallet.

So, here’s how to request a MileagePlus Upgrade Award on your upcoming United flight.

Log in to your MileagePlus account and click on “My Trips.” Select the trip you want to enhance and click on “Upgrade cabin” from the dashboard.

How to Upgrade United Flights with MileagePlus Upgrade Awards

You should then see two options for an upgrade: with money or with miles. Select “Miles” and check your options.

For example, I have a trip to Europe coming up, and here’s how much the website quoted me for an upgrade: 20,000 miles + a $412 co-pay for the one-way leg from Salt Lake City (SLC) to Brussels (BRU). This includes an upgrade to first class on the domestic flight segment and an upgrade to Polaris business on the transatlantic segment.

How to Upgrade United Flights with MileagePlus Upgrade Awards

The final cost of an upgrade using United miles is calculated based on where you’re traveling, the seat type requested, the fare class of the original ticket booked and your Premier status. To check how many miles you need to upgrade a ticket with a specific fare class, click here.

There are no restrictions on MileagePlus Upgrade Awards, so it’s possible to request mileage upgrades on all United flights and all routes, including transcontinental flights and flights overseas.

Keep in mind that these types of upgrades aren’t guaranteed. You get on the waitlist and hope it clears. If not, miles and co-pay are refunded.

How to Upgrade United Flights with Cash

Similar to applying miles and a small co-pay to existing United flights booked with cash, you can upgrade revenue flights using money only, only your co-pay is going to be much higher. You can book a higher class of service upon booking or upgrade your flight afterward if you decide that flying in economy class isn’t going to be comfortable on a particular route.

Select the flight you wish to upgrade and make sure to check “Money” this time to view how much cash upgrades cost.

How to Upgrade United Flights with Cash

In this case, you’re free to upgrade each individual segment of your trip separately. For example, you can keep the domestic leg from Salt Lake City to Chicago (ORD) in economy and upgrade only the long-haul leg from Chicago to Brussels.

The price of an upgrade is going to vary based on your specific flight, so you’ll have to decide whether the price is right for you.

Use MileagePlus Miles to Book Star Alliance Upgrade Awards

United MileagePlus members are able to redeem their miles to request a one-cabin upgrade on select carriers in the Star Alliance (based on availability).

Star Alliance Upgrade Awards are valid for one nonstop flight only, so the longer the better, and the redemption rate varies based on your origin and destination regions.

For example, upgrading a Star Alliance flight from the United States to Europe will cost you 25,000 miles to move from economy class to business and 40,000 miles to move from business class to first.

For award pricing on specific routes, click here and check the “Star Alliance operated” circle.

Not all airlines participate in the upgrade program, and you have to pay attention to the fare class in which the ticket you want to upgrade is booked. Generally, full-fare economy tickets in classes Y or B (read, expensive) are eligible for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards.

For more eligible booking classes and participating airlines, visit this page.

Likewise, you can upgrade a United flight using another Star Alliance airline’s miles if you have access to other frequent-flyer programs.

Skip the Games and Book a United Award Ticket with Miles

So, as a MileagePlus Premier member you can either hope for a Complimentary Premier Upgrade on certain flight segments or apply PointsPlus if your elite tier is Platinum or higher.

As a non-elite member, you can redeem MileagePlus miles to upgrade a cash flight and hope that the upgrade clears behind all the elites vying for the same premium spots.

So what is there to do for the rest of us? Telling a check-in agent that you’re embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon journey around the world or simply dressing nice isn’t going to fly in your upgrade efforts. These are myths. Seriously, who even believes this stuff anymore?

The best way to secure a spot in the premium cabin is to pay for it. The second best is to redeem frequent-flyer miles. Actually, scratch that. When available, using miles is the preferred option because it saves you money, and that’s the ultimate goal.

United Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance, the largest airline alliance in the world, which opens the door for you to use miles and fly on the following airlines:

Aegean AirlinesEthiopian Airlines
Air CanadaEVA Air
Air ChinaLOT Polish Airlines
Air IndiaLufthansa
Air New ZealandScandinavian Airlines (SAS)
All Nippon AirwaysShenzhen Airlines
Asiana AirlinesSingapore Airlines
Austrian AirlinesSouth African Airways
AviancaSwiss International Air Lines
Brussels AirlinesTAP Air Portugal
Copa AirlinesThai Airways
Croatia AirlinesTurkish Airlines
EgyptAirUnited Airlines

You can use either of these loyalty programs’ rewards to book United flights or use MileagePlus miles to book flights on any of these carriers in business class, as long as award space is available. Without paying for it with cash, this method is the only one that guarantees your seat in a premium cabin.

Study the programs and run award searches in your free time to determine which of these airlines has the best frequent-flyer program that fits your travel patterns.

Should You Upgrade a United Airlines Flight?

To upgrade or not to upgrade? That is the question. And the answer is entirely up to you.

If you’re a Premier Platinum or a Premier 1K member with PlusPoints to burn before they’re gone, then yes, you should totally go for it and redeem them for an upgrade to a better cabin. Even more reason to do it if you have a long-haul international flight on the calendar.

However, paying more cash or miles for a premium seat isn’t necessarily the best way to go for all flyers. You have to weigh all the pros and cons and ask yourself whether that upgrade is going to be worth it.

Are you going on a special celebration trip? Do you rarely travel because of little paid time off? Have you collected more points and miles than you know what to do with? Or perhaps you have a lengthy journey with long layovers and can benefit from airport lounge access? These are all good reasons to redeem a boatload of credit-card rewards and ball out in the air.

However, if your schedule allows you to travel toe to toe with Carmen Sandiego and you don’t accumulate redeemable points as fast as you’d like, then think about whether you really need that upgrade. You have to decide between more trips in economy class and fewer trips in business class.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I upgrade to first class on United for free?

When you book a paid United flight as a MileagePlus Premier elite member, a Complimentary Premier Upgrade (CPU) is automatically requested on select flight segments. CPUs are free upgrades on select United and United Express flights for MileagePlus Premier members. These upgrades are not guaranteed and are subject to availability.

When does the United Upgrade waitlist clear?

The United Upgrade waitlist clears at different times depending on your MileagePlus Premier status level. Some fare classes may be upgraded instantly at the time of booking, depending on your Premier status level and the fare class you book.

How can I get upgraded to business class on United?

If you’re a United MileagePlus Premier member, you might score a free business class upgrade via Complimentary Premier Upgrades (CPUs). Other ways to upgrade are paid via MileagePlus miles or cash.

Final Thoughts

We can all agree that arriving at your destination well-fed and well-rested after a long flight is a great start to your trip, whether it’s a vacation or a business trip. The good news is getting upgraded on United Airlines is within reach for most passengers, Premier members or not.

MileagePlus elite flyers have CPUs and PlusPoints for those with the highest status tiers. Regular members have MileagePlus Upgrade Awards and United miles to book a seat in a higher class or service.

Whichever upgrade method you choose, you’re sure to enjoy your time in the sky on your next flight.