How To Waitlist United MileagePlus Awards

Filed Under: Awards, United

Here’s a trick that can save you a lot of miles, but it also requires a bit of effort.

United MileagePlus lets you waitlist awards

Airline award space is heavily capacity controlled, but there’s a trick that can sometimes help you get around that — specifically, waitlisting awards. It’s probably easiest to explain this concept in the form of an example.

I was looking at booking a specific United flight from Frankfurt to Denver in the coming weeks:

  • There was saver level economy award space at the cost of 30,000 miles one-way
  • There was no saver level business class award space (which would ordinarily cost 60,000 miles one-way more than 30 days in advance), but rather there was only “everyday” award space, at the cost of 155,000 miles one-way

The thing is, transatlantic flights are so empty nowadays due to travel restrictions, and I suspect the flight will have maybe a few dozen passengers on it.

I noticed, however, that United wasn’t making any saver level business class award seats available between Frankfurt and Denver, even in the days leading up to flights:

  • On the one hand, you’d think United would make award seats available, since these flights are empty
  • On the other hand, United probably assumes that demand for transatlantic travel is fairly inelastic at the moment, so the airline at least wants a decent yield for those who are flying

That’s where award waitlisting comes into play. The idea is that:

  • You pay the saver level business class award cost now, but only get booked in economy (if there’s award availability)
  • You get waitlisted for business class, and as long as a business class seat is available you’ll get it (even if there’s no saver level award space)

That’s right, you’re not subjected to award capacity controls, but rather are limited by the actual capacity of the plane. This is a little known trick that many people aren’t aware of (and for anyone doubting me, you can see references to it on United’s website here).

You can save a lot of miles by waitlisting

When can you waitlist MileagePlus award tickets?

In order to waitlist MileagePlus award seats:

  • You need to have a confirmed award booking for travel on United (for example, you confirm a saver economy award, and waitlist for a saver business class award)
  • You can waitlist either for the same flight you’re confirmed on, or you can waitlist for a different routing (for example, you could confirm a Frankfurt to Chicago to Denver itinerary on United, and waitlist for a nonstop Frankfurt to Denver itinerary)
  • Only award segments on United can be waitlisted, and not award segments on partner airlines
  • You need to pay the miles upfront for the award class you’re waitlisting for, and then you’ll be refunded the difference if your waitlist doesn’t clear (in the above case a saver level economy award cost 30,000 miles, but I paid 60,000 miles for the saver level business class award seat, even though it wasn’t available)

Score business class awards at the saver level by waitlisting

When do waitlisted MileagePlus awards clear?

In the event that you waitlist a MileagePlus award, when will it actually clear? Well, it could clear anytime between when you make the booking and your travel date:

  • United waitlist requests are reviewed, and they could clear well before departure even if there’s not saver level award space
  • On the day of departure you’d be on the waitlist with a high priority for the cabin you “paid” for, and you’d clear as long as a seat is available

What are the downsides to waitlisting MileagePlus awards?

Before I share my (overall) positive experience, let me note the potential downsides here:

  • This needs to be done by phone, and most phone agents don’t actually know how to do this
  • If you don’t clear your waitlist before the day of departure, some airport agents may not know how to correctly waitlist you on the departure list
  • This fundamentally relies on the belief that there will be empty seats in the cabin you want on the day of departure; I feel 99% confident about that on transatlantic flights right now, while I wouldn’t at all feel confident if I were booking a pre-Christmas flight from Newark to Palm Beach or San Francisco to Honolulu, for example
  • Right now this is low risk since change fees are waived, but if you’re not happy with the results, you could also find yourself in a situation where you have to pay a redeposit fee to cancel your ticket, or end up in coach

You may end up in economy if a waitlist is unsuccessful

My experience waitlisting a MileagePlus award

I went through the process of trying to waitlist a MileagePlus award from Frankfurt to Denver, confirming economy and then waitlisting for business class. It took three separate interactions with United for this to be done correctly, so here’s how that went:

Attempt #1: economy confirmed, but nothing more

I phoned up United MileagePlus, and explained to the agent what I was trying to do. I don’t find United’s outsourced agents to be particularly well trained, and I could tell this was going to be an issue.

Nonetheless I proceeded with the booking in economy. United has no redeposit fees right now, so there was no downside. The agent claimed the award would be waitlisted, but she was also only deducting the mileage required for economy, when I knew she should be deducting the mileage required for business class.

Oh well, at least I had something to work with.

Attempt #2: business class waitlisted, but not really

United has a texting service for reservations, so I figured I’d give that a try. I hate being on the phone, so at least if I was going to be disappointed again, I wouldn’t have to talk to a human. 😉

So I messaged the following:

I just made a MileagePlus award reservation with the confirmation number XXXXXX, though I think it may not have been done correctly. The flight I’m booked on only has “X” award space as of now, but I was trying to waitlist for “I” award space. Is that something you could help with?

The agent responded:

In order to waitlist for Business I will need to contact a supervisor and they will deduct the additional miles from your account for the waitlist. Is this ok?

The agent confirmed the additional amount would be 30,000 miles (as expected), and after waiting for about 30 minutes, it was confirmed that the reservation was all set.

Okay, clearly we were on the track here, and I saw miles had been pulled, redeposited, etc., so that’s a good sign.

But then I logged into the reservation summary on united.com, and still didn’t see a waitlisted segment.

Attempt #3: Twitter to the rescue

Generally airlines have good customer service on Twitter, so at this point I reached out to United on Twitter via DM:

I just booked a MileagePlus award in “X” class but waitlisted it for “I” class (so I already paid the business class price). Would you be able to confirm it’s waitlisted correctly, because I don’t see the waitlist reflected in the itinerary online?

The representative checked with the reservations team, and about 30 minutes later claimed it was all set. Sure enough, when I logged in online the award now showed business class as being waitlisted.

Wow: business class cleared less than 24 hours later

I was fully expecting that the waitlist would only clear at the airport, since I didn’t think waitlisting awards actually got you any sort of additional award space.

However, to my surprise less than 24 hours later I received an email confirming that the business class waitlist had cleared.

Just to be clear, there were no other award seats available in business class on the flight.

That suggests to me that this really is a way to have a manual review (or some sort of system review) of award space, and then they’ll be cleared on a case-by-case basis.

While it took a bit of effort, confirming a seat for nearly 100,000 miles off less than 24 hours after booking is a pretty great opportunity.

Bottom line

United MileagePlus lets you waitlist awards. This can be a great way to score business class award seats at the saver cost on flights that don’t have reasonably priced awards.

Waitlisting awards takes some effort and also comes with some risk, but as you can see above, there are situations where it works great.

While the process was a bit of a pain, ultimately I was thrilled with the end result, which was a confirmed business class award at the price I wanted to pay on my preferred flight less than 24 hours after booking. Not bad, eh?

Just make sure you understand the nuances and risks of this before trying something similar.

If you’ve ever waitlisted an award ticket, what was your experience like?

Comments
  1. Does this need any sort of United status?

    Also, does waitlisting count as a “change” if not done at the original booking with a change fee applied post-covid?

  2. @ Noa — Nope, no status required. I would imagine when change fees are reinstated a change in mileage after ticketing would count as a change, but you could always book economy and then within 24 hours call to “fix” it, since there’s at least that grace period.

  3. This brings back good memories! I remember reading about this trick years ago and it worked for me a couple of times (for the whole family from Sydney to LAX!). I think you can only waitlist by segment (we were in economy from LAX to ORD from memory).

    This waitlist also prioritizes you over all other upgrades I believe!

    When I used to call in to do it Id have the page of the manual ready for the agent to refer to.

  4. Is there a chance only one of you would be confirmed off of the waitlist? Or would they always keep everyone on the reservation together?

  5. @ Peter — When it’s the same PNR, either everyone or no one clears. So there’s no risk of being split up.

  6. What sort of confidence would you have trying to waitlist on some of the other UA international flights that are operating now? Such as SFO – Papeete?

  7. This is really great info. Let’s say I needed a domestic leg on UA as well, say AUS-IAH-FRA. If I space was available on AUS-IAH, couldn’t I book that segment in I and the other segment in X, then be charged the same 60K, then only waitlist the TATL segment?

  8. This is awesome info Ben! I am a United 1K but had no idea about the waitlisting feature. I have a ton of United miles and the flights I often take have very little space on United metal so this is very helpful. Thank you!

  9. This may not work if you have a connecting itinerary that is a mixed class booking. A couple of months ago I had SFO-IAH-LHR booked as a business award (I) IAH-LHR with SFO-IAH in XN. After 4 HUCA’s trying to get SFO-IAH waitlisted for “I” class and being told it was not possible because their system could not “price it”, I gave up. I was told I could book non-stop economy SFO-LHR in X and waitist for I class on that flight but they would make me give up the confirmed IAH-LHR business booking to do it. Pitiful. So it sounds like their current system may only support this on non-stop itins? Fortunately I have since been able to replace the booking with BA F but United left me disgruntled. I have been able to upgrade waitlist United connecting awards in the past so this new restriction is a devaluation.

  10. @ Drew — United is great about publishing how full flights are through the flight status feature within 24 hours of departure. Personally I’d monitor that to get a sense of loads — see how many business class seats are empty, how many people are on the waitlist, etc.

  11. Wow! Had no idea this was possible – thank you, Ben!

    So what is the easiest path to book this without a HUCA marathon? Book economy award online and then send a DM on Twitter?

  12. Great idea. When I asked United agent on the phone for upgrade possibility with miles on an award ticket, the answer was a firm no and United website also confirmed. However this trick is essentially yielding the same outcome, I love it. Thanks!

  13. So, another Plan B tutorial…? At least be open about the real name of this and that it’s been around for years…

  14. Being told NO by United no matter how many times I HUCA. I guess I will create a twitter account and try there!

  15. This is a procedure that Continental had before the merger and it survived the move into United. As noted above as ‘plan B’, the times I called to do it and the rep knew how right off the bat, I would ask if they were formerly with Continental. The answer was ‘yes’ 100% of the time. I experienced all the other detours and misinformation that Ben did when I was connected to a non-Continental rep

  16. Be aware that this doesn’t always work: I did this for an EWR-FRA flight last year, and the day of the flight they still hadn’t cleared me despite multiple seats in business class, and they told me I would not get upgraded at that point. (Apparently I wasn’t on the waitlist? Or all seats would clear first?) When I asked them to change the flight to a Lufthansa one (with J seats available) they put me on hold and cleared me after a 10 minute hold.

  17. Over the years, I have waitlisted I class numerous times and always cleared eventually. Usually, (before this modification you are speaking of, Lucky), I would book I class on any day available even though I would never fly it, and waitlist I class for the flight/date I wanted. It always cleared and sometimes, I would check and see that a a seat had just popped up on the flight I wanted so I called and grabbed it. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I am a Lifetime 1K which should in itself increase availability and eliminate change/redeposit fees..

  18. Just successfully waitlisted for SFO-HNL I class. I have PDX-SFO in F and HNL-GUM in I class already but just need the HNL segment… we’ll see.
    All done over Twitter really quick and easy. I’d known about Plan B for years but never tried it. Thanks for the reminder Ben.

  19. @Peter I always break up 2 Pax into 2 PNR’s because UA can let loose with an upgrade seat at a time and it’s always easier to get more seat than two (unless you both have different elite status levels as once the PNR is divided, it can not be put back together again..

    Hint: It saves work and errors if you book both together and then divide the PNR’s so they are identical.

  20. In my experience, like you mention, many many United employees call agents and airport staff can’t or won’t do this. If you don’t clear, they generally won’t put you on the standby list at the airport, or if they do, it will be at the bottom.

  21. Just FYI, last couple of times I’ve tried Plan B it’s appeared at the bottom of the upgrade list at the airport, so I strongly caution against using it as there is no recourse (other than refund, of course).

  22. I was recently told by a 1-K phone agent that with implementation of variable award pricing that they would no did the wait list for business with confirmed coach award seat.
    In past I did it successfully on several occasions.

    I had also done it successfully on United SFO to FRA in business connecting with Lufthansa in coach for FRA to LHR as one ticket. Please clarify if United & Partner on same record is still allowed as article says no partner awards

    What used to be key in clearing wait list was making sure your have “PR-1″ status (higher priority on the upgrade list). Most gate agents do not know what that means and have be educated and call their help desk.

  23. The real question is why are you routing through DEN? Maybe if you are lucky (well, I guess you are Lucky….) the new Centurion Lounge will be open by then.

  24. Forgot to mention in earlier post : you pay the business saver mileage at (phone) booking.
    If you do not get upgraded the point difference between saver coach and saver business is supposed to automatically be redeposited. This does not always happen so when I put my flight info into my calendar I always added a note 3 days later that if I did not get upgraded on ______ flight to check my United account for the redeposit .

  25. @JohnSF – I had a similar issue. I booked an award reservation TPE-NRT-ORD-DCA with first two booked in I on SA partners and XN on UA from Chicago to National. When I found out United released business saver award seats, I called UA asking for “upgrade” to I. The agent told me the only way to get I on UA was to rebook the whole itinerary. The problem was there was no longer award seat for the first two segments. I just called back an hour ago. This time I got an agent who was willing to take it up to their IT person for a potential get-around. It took a good 30 minutes but at the end she was able to rebook me on UA segment in I while preserving the first two segments of my original booking. I don’t have status with UA. It is really a hit or miss.

  26. If the waitlist does not clear before the day of the flight, where do waitlisters stand in priority on the upgrade list compared to those using PlusPoints?

  27. Per United 1K desk this is dead. Email Follows. Is it simply a matter of confirming the coach seat and then calling? Am I missing something or is 1-K desk misinformed.

    From: [email protected]

    Sent: Wednesday, November 04, 2020 3:54 PM
    To: [email protected]
    Subject: Does booking coach, paying business miles and being near top of upgrade list still work

    Hi Jon,

    We no longer have the Saver and Standard award program. To book an award reservation, each flight is divided into variable award pricing and must be available at the time of booking. No waitlist is allowed.

    Our reservation department has the current policy and procedure with regards to Award booking. Please contact our team at 1-800-864-8331, where specialist is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

    Regards,

    Brenda
    Customer Care
    Case ID: 160445053387575
    ________________________________________
    ::: ORIGINAL EMAIL :::

    From: [email protected]

    Message:
    Direct and simple question:

    Can I still pay the saver business award rate at time of booking and go on wait list with PR-1 status even though I will only be confirmed for coach at time of booking.

    I was told by K-1 phone agent that was discontinued but am reading online it is still permitted.

  28. Opps – included me personal email in bottom part of text in a 11/4 post on this thread. Please XXX out domain name (as I did with email near top of text) or just delete it as well as this post

    Already get too much SPAM

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