united polaris business class cabin

United Airlines competes in one of the most cutthroat markets, against two of the most profitable airlines in the world: Delta and American. At every juncture, each US based airline looks to poach valuable customers, and one reliable tactic is always a good ole upgrade. The US frequent flyer market remains one of the few to offer unlimited complimentary upgrades on domestic flights, and today, United announced sweeping changes to how elite frequent flyers actually land these coveted seats both domestically and internationally.

For the most part, the changes are fantastic, genuinely!

united polaris business class cabinUnited Upgrade Certificates Become PlusPoints

Currently, United awards Platinum and 1K frequent flyers with a set of certificates upon reaching their elite status. There’s certificates for domestic upgrades (RPU’s), and others for international flights (GPU’s), and come December 4th, those upgrade certificates will be converted to “PlusPoints”, which are entirely different to redeemable miles that you earn

  • All regional (domestic) upgrades will become 20 points.
  • All international upgrades will become 40 points.

a screenshot of a screenshot of a flight schedule

Coincidentally, these numbers represent the exact number of points you need to use each one, but the genius here is that someone who would typically just have two regional upgrades could instead pool the points together to create one international upgrade, rather than just being stuck with two domestic certificates.

Basically, United has created flexibility so that MileagePlus elite status is actually more valuable, where you can achieve a really great result, like an international upgrade, without having to go all the way to the top. Come December 4th, someone qualifying for Premier Platinum will receive 40 points instead of two regional upgrades, and a Premier 1K will receive 280 points instead of 6 international upgrades and 2 regional upgrades.

Playing devils advocate, sure, that means more people with lower status will be competing for international upgrades, but that’s only 1 shot a year, so it shouldn’t be a big deal. Plus…

polaris united seatMore Flexibility For Waitlists, Fares And Skipping Queue

United has gone a step further, and one that I’d rate highly. The airline has increased the number of fares from which you can upgrade, added unlimited upgrade waitlisting and also made it possible for select members to skip the upgrade waitlist, for a premium…

  • You no longer need to book at least “W” to upgrade. Discount fares are now eligible, but you’ll pay double the “PlusPoints” to upgrade from these discounted fares.
  • Premier 1K members will be able to skip upgrade/availability issues on a selective basis, via opportunity to use more points to instantly upgrade and skip the queue, according to information obtained by VFTW.
  • You can waitlist for more flights, because points are only deducted when upgrades clear.

United will continue to allow these upgrade requests and confirmations to be managed via their mobile app, which is handy for those who do not have the time to call and listen to jazz music before speaking to someone who does, or does not, want to help.

headphones on a chairYou Can Still Upgrade To Premium Economy If Nothing Else

The biggest fear amongst frequent flyers is the increasing wedge being driven between economy and business class, in the form of Premium Economy. In the event that upgrades to business class aren’t available, premium economy is still an option, and rather than burning a full 20 or 40 points on one of these inferior upgrades, they will require fewer points.

In short: you’re not obligated to premium, and you’re welcome to stay where you are sitting, but you have the option to use some PlusPoint upgrade points to upgrade, but not as many as you’d need for a business class upgrade. The way upgrade certificates presently exist at United, there’s absolutely no distinction between upgrades to premium or business – you pay the same upgrade certificate either way – so this is a huge improvement.

In My Opinion, United Got This One Very Right

When airlines market “flexibility” it’s often at a cost to the customer, but United seems to have avoided these pitfalls in excellent fashion. Nothing about United’s new upgrade system is particularly devalued, and if anything there are just lots of great new ways to redeem them.

When customers pass 25,000 mile incremental milestones, they’ll be awarded additional PlusPoints and the system will continue to offer more perks, such as occasional skip the line privileges to 1K’s to keep the race for top tier status alive.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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