Details regarding United’s new unlimited complimentary upgrades

I posted yesterday that United would start offering all elite members unlimited complimentary upgrades starting next year, as opposed to the current system of supporting upgrades with “instruments.” Well, I was right for the most part. You can find all the details here.

First let’s start with the good news. United will be offering “unlimited complimentary” upgrades on flights from the lower 48 to Hawaii. Take that, Continental and Delta. United will also be offering “unlimited complimentary” companion upgrades for all elite members. Take that, American.

And that’s about it. Now let’s go with the bad news. No “complimentary” upgrades on Premium Service (between New York and Los Angeles/San Francisco), both from coach to business and business to first. You’d have to use systemwide upgrades in that case. Furthermore, no more confirmed regional upgrades and no more 500 mile upgrades, although they can be used until they expire.

The FAQ’s seem to indicate that upgrades will be processed by status, then fare paid, and then time of booking, although it doesn’t clarify if that’s the case before departure management kicks in on the day of the flight. If that will always be the case this is a change of policy, so expect upgrades to get harder for all elites on lower fares (which I can’t blame United for).

So overall I’m very disappointed in the changes. I’ve always loved United’s upgrade system, so this change is for all of you that were complaining.

That being said, I think it was a smart move. United’s system was far too complicated for the average traveler, and a lot of people were put off by the fact that they’d “only” earn a limited number of upgrade instruments and were lured in by other carriers when they’re promised “unlimited complimentary upgrades.”

The only truly surprising news is that Premium Service is excluded. I would start writing your complaint letters about that now, as I think it has the potential to change, or at least for there to be some compromise. United didn’t think that one through carefully, in my opinion. As it is, there are tons of operational upgrades from coach to business and business to first on Premium Service because the coach cabin is so small. A good number of travelers upgrade on Premium Service, and I’d say well over 75% of them won’t anymore, given that they’d have to use a systemwide upgrade or pay a co-pay and use miles. Instead the premium cabins will now have empty seats and they’ll have to op-up more people to business and first class since coach is always oversold. No one wins.

Filed Under: United
  1. Lucky,

    Do you think it would be a good idea to hoard CR-1s now so that they can be used next year, and use miles now before the co-pay kicks in next year? If so, how do you change a confirmed upgrade instrument from a CR-1 to 15,000 miles if the upgrade has already cleared and no upgrade space is currently available?

  2. @Lucky – Since I always buy L or at most T fares when on my own dime, I’ll see you in E+ starting in April.

  3. Continental allows unlimited upgrades to hawaii now. Just not the n/s to ewr and iah. But that may change. I agree with your point regarding ps service.

  4. I’m now convinced that AA EXP is better than 1K.

    8 eVIPs valid on more fares than UA’s 6 SWUs.

    If you want to upgrade to Asia, United is better of course, American just doesn’t have enough flights. Travel patterns of course still matter. And where you’re based (eg DEN vs DFW).

    But for the traveler with a choice, for whom Asia upgrades aren’t key, I’d say American is now the better top-tier elite offering.

  5. This new system is bull crap, my flying pattern on UA consists of about 50% international 50% domestic, which means i have enough instruments to upgrades myself 100% of the time, and lots to spare to upgrade friends and families (which includes using cr1s to upgrade people who aren’t even flying with me). Why would UA make a change that hurts the benefits to customers who on average have a higher profit margin>

  6. @ Gary
    Yeah, the only thing keeping me from switching to AA is UA’s promise of the SFO-CAN flight.

    @ Lucky
    Are you going to write something about UA’s comparison chart?

  7. “A good number of travelers upgrade on Premium Service, and I’d say well over 75% of them won’t anymore, given that they’d have to use a systemwide upgrade or pay a co-pay and use miles.”

    But don’t you think bunches of stupid people (or people who just never travel internationally) will waste SWUs on those flights? And isn’t that what United wants?

    And I’ll remind you again… there’s still plenty of time left in the DBEQM promotion (and some cheap transcon fares) to hit EXP on AA this year. 😉

  8. @ HunterSFO

    I agree. As someone who always buy “L” or “T”, I will probably be stuck in E+ from now on. Maybe I should start flying UX on routes that have fewer elites. 😛

  9. Although aa exp is the best . Their planes are slightly better than usair . Sameday confirmed exists but with a charge and the admirals clubs serves pet food like trail mix for free and masquerades as a for fee snack bar but god forbid I bring outside food.

    I do think this might push dl into allowing plats and diamonds upgraded from cheaper fare classes to biz with the pmus.

  10. I guess mileage running patterns could be shifted. Maybe instead of doing my runs on p.s. i should now use W fares on SFO-FRA and burn a SWU? I’ll have to crunch some numebrs and see if that works out.

  11. @HunterSFO — I had the same thought about using SWUs for mileage runs in order to avoid getting stuck in coach on some transcon mileage runs. I had decided to select 25,000 miles over 2 extra SWUs as my 125k Elite Choice Year End Reward, but now I will have to review that decision.

  12. My suspicion was wrong about CR1s.

    Now I’m really glad to be 1K next year, but not looking forward to having to make 1K every year.

  13. I too like the program like it is now. The combination of small UA airbus F cabins will make it darn near impossible to upgrade for anyone but 1Ks..and even then more than a few 1Ks will find themselves in steerage. The lack of CR1s is also disappointing. Premier Execs better like E+ because you’ll be spending a lot of time there. The comparison chart that UA has published comparing the different programs is very misleading.

  14. I am guessing PS will become an op-up fest until the economy recovers.

    Several times, I flew F on PS on as a 1K on an S fare in the last year… They will sell those C seats in the back and it will default into complimentary upgrades…

  15. For the first time this year, I am *considering* a switch to the dAArkside.

    This will be a tough choice. I have so many UA vouchers though, I don’t know if it would be worth it.

  16. As a pre-DL NW Plat & UA 1K, I always preferred NW’s system over having to worry about how many instruments I have in the bank. My NW UG success rate was ~90% (on K fares). Not sure if I like UA changing though, esp the ability to sponsor friend/family on separate itins.

  17. There are far too many elites and far too few F seats to upgrade into for this to be anything other than frustrating for most elites, especially 1K’s. The p.s. routes being excluded is just silly.

  18. A completely unfriendly move by UA. Now 1ks cant confirm in advance on flights they care about, no elites can save instruments they care about, and get “in return” upgrades on flights they dont care about (likely going to be <2 hr flights with no meal service). Excluding p.s. is a slap in the face.
    UA just wants you to worry about being beaten by a GM paying 15kmiles+$30, as to now try to get you into paying the same

  19. I’ve said it before: 100% upgrade success rate on AA — including JFK-SFO and JFK-LAX “premium service” routes. No certs. Always upgraded. EXP.

    While I recognize the various points made for and against this above, overall it is a good thing for 1K members. If you fly dinky routes, you’ll get upgraded. If you fly longer routes, you’ll get upgraded. If you fly to Hawaii, you’ll get upgraded. No complicated cert payment system involved. And if you’re flying them premium service transcons — three options: 1) make yourself a stopover somewhere, or 2) shell out the cash, or 3) or choose to fly AA direct (and get upgraded). Since, of course, the grand majority of the 1K’s complaining **should** be able to make 1K AND EXP on both airlines year after year.

    Just hope there ain’t too many elites next year due to all the DEQM crapola to make all this worthless in the first place, ya?

  20. This is a very bad for any non-GS based at an elite heavy airport. It is difficult enough out of SFO to use CR1s on the SFO-IAD route, I will seriously be looking to give my business on that and similar route to Jet Blue, since I’ll be sitting in economy anyway and they have similar seating, with DirecTV and most often lower fares.

  21. Laaaame. Now I’m going to take the 2 SWU @ 125k to top off at 14 for the year so I can use them as CR’s.

  22. @sjs,

    At least as a GS, you will “almost” be guaranteed to be upgraded on every flight you take. We, the 1Ks, are the one that get screwed royally.

  23. Here’s the system that works well for European carriers with regards to upgrades:

    You sit in the cabin you paid for. End of.

    It works well, and avoids disappointment of elites who expect upgrades and then don’t get them. The only upgrades are rare op-ups. Perhaps it’s time for ALL the American carriers to completely rethink upgrades…

  24. This majorly sucks. Between this, and my experience with ‘net blocking this week I’m about to defect back to Miles & More. Flying under 100k miles a year, there is no reason to stay with UA anymore.

  25. I would love to see an honest comparison between UA and AA. I’d consider switching, but one factor for me is my 700k lifetime with UA (almost to 1m) and the fact I generally like UA…….

  26. Thanks for all the thoughts, folks. Just a few comments above I wanted to address, and one general thought — unless you live in NY and frequently fly PS, the sky is *NOT* falling. If you do, well, my condolences. The fact is, upgrades will continue to clear, and if you don’t fly on peak days your upgrade percentages might actually improve.

    @ Gene — Assuming you would otherwise use miles for domestic upgrades, I would say yes. If you’re like me and don’t use miles to upgrade domestically otherwise, I’d go with no. Switching the instruments should be possible at check-in, since both CR1’s and miles are “confirmable” upgrade currencies.

    @ HunterSFO — Hopefully only on A319’s!

    @ Sam — The system was just too complicated for many, so I really can’t blame United. In fairness, they can’t win. So many people were bitching about the lack of “complimentary unlimited upgrades” under the old system, and now we just have to live with what so many people wanted.

    @ Josh — Not sure about “bunches.” The premium cabins on PS are huge, and in the past you had all elite levels upgrading to business class, not just 1K’s. Some 1K’s will definitely use SWU’s, but certainly not enough (in my opinion).

    @ Paul — I’ll work on a fair comparison between the two. Since you’re relatively close to MM, I would actually stick to UA for a few more years. If nothing else, unlimited domestic upgrades (theoretically) aren’t bad when down the road you choose to fly United once or twice a year.

  27. @Lewis – The problem with your logic is that there is a huge difference between European and American carriers: Nowhere near enough people are willing to PAY for upgrades on American carriers. This creates empty seats which would be more economical for the airline to fill with upgraders than to leave empty. This is a result of abysmal First Class products on American carriers and ridiculous prices for said product (except for Continental who does sell many F seats.)

  28. *correction should have said “willing to PAY for First Class” rather than “willing to PAY for upgrades”

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