Are you as confused as these travelers about United’s upgrade system?

When Marco Lippman booked his United Airlines ticket for a flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt, Germany, he received a message that “four tickets were left at this price” that qualified for upgrades. But when he tried to upgrade his ticket, he found himself on a waitlist. And United’s website still contained a notation that upgraded tickets were available.

Lippman asks: Is this a “bait and switch” advertising ploy by United?

After several recent highly publicized egregious customer service failures, such as the violent removal of David Dao from a flight to accommodate airline personnel, United’s poor customer service reputation belies its marketing slogan, “Fly the friendly skies.” And United fails its customers in more subtle ways as well — one of which involves its confusing upgrade system.

As our advocate pointed out to Lippman, upgrades on United are awarded according to MileagePlus Premier membership types. Additional factors, such as geographic regions of flights and code-sharing on alliance partners such as Copa Airlines and Lufthansa, also determine availability of upgrades.

During United’s online ticket-booking process, a pop-up box may appear above the fare with additional information, such as “Mixed Upgrade.” If there is a waitlist for upgrades, that information will appear in this box. Upgrading requires payment in advance, whereupon passengers attempting to upgrade are then placed on standby lists. A customer who bids on, but doesn’t receive, an upgrade is entitled to a refund of the upgrade fee.

As Lippman puts it, he has “egg on his face” for not clicking on “Mixed Upgrade,” where he might have seen that there were no actual upgrades available before adding himself to a waitlist. But Lippman isn’t the only one confused by the way United presents its upgrade “opportunities.”

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Kathryn Goldstein contacted our advocates after purchasing two tickets to Hawaii for her 25th anniversary. She used 100,000 frequent flyer points to request upgrades to first class for her husband and herself. But United rescheduled their flights, delaying their outgoing flight from San Francisco to Honolulu. And she never received confirmation from United that their flights were upgraded.

Goldstein wants confirmation of her upgrades. She asked for contact information for United, which is available on our website.

United’s contract of carriage indicates that:

Day-of-departure upgrade fees are non-refundable, but if a flight for which an upgrade fee has been paid is affected by a flight cancellation, Schedule Change, or Irregular Operations, and the Passenger cannot be accommodated in First Class on a later flight, Passenger will be eligible for a refund upon request.

There’s no way to know whether Goldstein will get her upgrade until she boards her flight. It is known that she can request a refund of her upgrade fees if she and her husband aren’t seated in first class on their outbound flight.

So if you’re booked on United and seeking an upgrade online, go over the screens cautiously to make sure that you’re doing it right. And be prepared to find yourself on a waitlist rather than in a higher class of seat, especially if your flight schedule changes — or to have egg on your own face if you don’t get that upgrade.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for

  • deemery

    This is an issue for both United and for Star Alliance. They need to be more transparent for how you can spend your miles.

  • Joe Wojnowski

    United changed the upgrade process on International flights when they converted their overseas to the new Biz/First pods.

    When you get an upgrade for points offer for an overseas flight, you will be shown a points amount plus and additional cash required. Even if you are waitlisted, they take your cash and points immediately.

    As mentioned above, they will confirm your upgrade as late as boarding time. I’ve usually received my upgrade 4-6 weeks prior to flight time.

    Basically, United uses their Mileage Plus members as a revenue backup. If someone if willing to pay more than the additional cash you gave United, they get the upgrade. This can occur as late as check in at the airport.

    I was on a waitlist for an upgrade using points +$550. One of the people I was traveling with on the same flight, was offered a cash only upgrade for $899 at the airport kiosk.

  • sirwired

    I don’t see anything confusing; just because a fare class is upgrade-eligible doesn’t mean they happen to have upgrades available at that moment. If you want a seat up front guaranteed, they’ll be happy to sell you one outright.

  • BubbaJoe123

    It’s not confusing at all. The website tells you, when you book your ticket, either:

    (a) there are no upgrades available for this flight
    (b) upgrades may be available

    If (b), you can pay the miles and copay, and, if your upgrade clears, you fly in the upgraded cabin. If it doesn’t, you fly in the cabin you booked, and you get your money and miles back.

  • Mel65

    After our recent upgrade fiasco with AA, I doubt I’ll ever purchase one again! We purchased upgrades when I bought the tickets and selected seats in June. We purchased priority boarding passes the day before departure and on the way back from Vegas, since we’d won a little, we purchased FC upgrades. EVERY flight was delayed for maintenance reasons, we missed all connections and our upgrades went the way of the dinosaurs. When we purchased the FC upgrades, a pop up said “your previous seat selections will be refunded”… which they were… sort of. When I checked my credit card, they’d charged the upgrades another 39 times (yes, 39) but then refunded them 39 times. By my math that means the original ones were never refunded, but AA and I don’t do math the same way. Funnily enough, I’ve had fewer issues getting the FC fares refunded than the 6 $36.00 upgrades refunded! What a battle this has been!

  • Bill___A

    No, I am not confused at all. I have had no issues over the years from United Upgrades, or how they are sold, and I have benefited upon occasion. I also don’t see the relationship between their upgrade systems and the Chicago Airport Police dragging an obnoxious (but now likely wealthy) passenger off the plane of a United Express partner airline.

  • Annie M

    Could they make it any more difficult? What does this mean? If you want an upgrade, pay for it and don’t take a chance you “might” be able to upgrade.

  • Alan Gore

    This is why if you want to book a premium class by yourself, always do so as an upgrade on coach, rather than a premium ticket. If the service for any reason cannot be provided, the carrier can’t invoke airline math to reduce your refund.

  • Don Spilky

    The truly insidious verbiage here is “Passenger will be eligible for a refund upon request.” If I don’t get an upgrade, why should I have to REQUEST a refund? It should be automatic! What PAX would ever say, “hey, I didn’t get an upgrade but keep my $$$ anyways”??

  • The Original Joe S

    Obnoxious because he paid for a seat they wanted to throw him out of to accommodate some airline toads? I hope he soaked them for MILLIONS! AND, I might be wrong, but they weren’t Police [sworn officers] but merely pieces of dung rentacops…..

  • The Original Joe S

    Fly foreign out of CONUS. Drive in CONUS.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree with you that all airlines need to be more transparent on how a person can spend their miles.

    For a long time, I could never cash in miles for three FC tickets on Singapore Airlines when US Airways was in the Star Alliance. One day, an US Airways person told me that Singapore only allows one First Class reward ticket per flight from the entire Star Alliance partners. Once I knew this tidbit, the solutions were 1) to book one FC ticket and two BC tickets or 2) book three BC tickets.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    The question or the point that wasn’t addressed in the article is “did the OP paid more for the tickets”? What was the price difference between a ticket that was upgradeable versus a ticket that was not upgradeable?

    If there was a price difference then the next question is “how many tickets are sold for upgrades?” or “how big is the waitlist?”. If the waitlist is like four or five passengers then that is ‘fair’ since passengers can change or cancel their travel plans. If the waitlist is like 20 passengers then it is a ‘fraud’ eceived a message that “four tickets were left at this price” that qualified for upgrades. But when he tried to upgrade his ticket, he found himself on a waitlist. And United’s website still contained a notation that upgraded tickets were available.

  • Mel65

    These were all upgrades to original economy tickets.

  • sirwired

    The “airline toads” in that case were flight crew that were needed to service a flight out of the destination airport. (Maybe the crew that was supposed to be there went over-time or had some other reason they needed to be replaced.)

    It’s correct that the airline shouldn’t have boarded the plane and THEN decided to bump passengers, but this was not a case of some airline employee wanting to take a leisure trip or something.

    And it WAS airport police that did the dragging, not rent-a-cops. Most airports of any size have a dedicated police force, and ORD is no exception. They may be employed by the airport authority and not the municipal government directly, but they are police officers. (Nearly any public place can have their own police (with at least some arrest powers); most colleges have one, heck, one of the shopping malls where I live has a few officers to supplement the security guards.)

  • MarkKelling

    The issue is the passengers ARE paying for the upgrade, with miles or money or both, and then are told there is no upgrade at this time and you might get one later or a refund after your flight only if you ask for it. There is no option to get around this other than flat out buying a 1st or business class ticket.

  • MarkKelling

    Driving is great — if you don’t have a job and have all the time in the world to get where you are going.

  • Travelnut

    I fly United barely enough that last week I got an email congratulating me for reaching Premier Silver status. They stressed the benefit of upgrading on the day of the flight. This thread certainly makes me pretty much non excited about it.

  • MarkKelling

    Used to get “free” upgrades all the time on United and mainly Continental before the merger even at the Silver level. They just happened, no requesting, nothing additional to do on my part. But since then now that they offer relatively low cost buy-up options to all passengers, I have not received an upgrade within my historical memory.

  • MarkKelling

    It’s not confusing, just frustrating.

    When you are booking, you have the option of selecting an upgrade for money, miles, certificates, or a combo of those. The web site makes it look like the upgrades are available. Then you go through the entire purchase process, paying for the upgrade, only to be told “Sorry, no upgrades available on this flight at this time” even if the entire plane is empty except for your ticket you just bought! But they have already taken your money or whatever payment you chose and there is no way to get it back without canceling your ticket (and hoping you are within the 24 hour window and more than 7 days from flight time). It is the same issue when you respond to the upgrade email they send where it says “Upgrades available on your flight for $$$” but when you pay, you get the same “Sorry …” message. Sometime you do get the upgrade, but I just want know when I make the purchase whether I got what I paid for or not.

    What I would like to see is some indication that you will receive the upgrade immediately on confirmation of the flight. Flights not having upgrades immediately available should state that before you even get to the payment screen. If what United is doing is having the equivalent of an auction behind the scenes and whoever ends up paying the most gets the upgrade, then make that public and give the passengers an opportunity to pay more for the upgrade if they really want to.

  • The Original Joe S

    flight crew that were needed to service a flight out of the destination airport. THE DOCTOR NEEDED TO SEE HIS PATIENTS. WHO IS MORE IMPORTANT?

    Oh, dear me! so, screw over a PAYING PASSENGER and break his teeth. Put the airline toads on a BUS, and have some respect for the paying passengers. [ I know, that’s not ever gonna happen with US Flagged airlines. ] Doesn’t matter if they were rentacops or regular Gestapo; they used excessive force, and the guy got millions.

    The point is that the PAYING PASSENGER was not obnoxious, the airline and the gestapomen were. Glad for video phones – the passenger got big bucks from UNTIED, the dung airline…..

    I am always bemused at how many people on this site always want to side with the dirtbags against the customers.

    I had a friend in the travel business. He booked a tour for a group, and the tour evaporated. Out of his own pocket he made them whole. The word spread. People beat down his door. He became filthy rich, because he understood the concept of loyalty and integrity. Nice five-story palace occupying a full city block, with a 6 car garage including Rolls and other toys. You get back what you give. Contrast with the reptiles posting here who will usually favor giving the shaft to the customer. No repeat business from the shaftees, unless they are abjectly STUPID……

  • The Original Joe S

    That’d be me, Mr. Drysdale!

  • sirwired

    What about the entire plane-load of PAYING PASSENGERS in Kalamazoo that would get their flight canceled for lack of a crew? Are they inherently less important than just four passengers out of Chicago?

    The airline indeed really screwed up here, (as I said, they should have taken care of all this before boarding the aircraft), but they did not bump those passengers on a whim.

    If it didn’t make a difference if they were police or rent-a-cops, why did you bring it up? (I personally agree that it doesn’t matter, but it apparently mattered to you when you thought they were rent-a-cops.)

  • The Original Joe S

    I figured that their stupid actions meant that they couldn’t possibly be trained sworn officers. I was wrong.

    What of the plane load of people in kalamazoo? You inject an irrelevant statement into the discussion. Has nothing to do with pulling the guy off and beating him up and breaking his teeth. They could have put the airline toads on a BUS, which would have taken them there on time, instead of beating the guy up and breaking his teeth.

    Just shows that to Untied, pax ain’t worth squats. However, learned them good for MILLIONS of BUCKOS, and bad publicity.

  • sirwired

    The passengers wanting to get from Kalamazoo to ORD aren’t irrelevant. Putting the crew on a bus would NOT have gotten them there for something even vaguely resembling an on-time flight back (it’s a three hour trip with no traffic if driven.) If it was a heavy air-traffic day, a delay that long could very well have led to the return flight being cancelled entirely. (And even if the flight did operate, many of those passengers would have missed their connections.)

    I’ve repeatedly said that the airline should have figured all this out before the flight boarded, so I have absolutely no idea why you think I’m offering any justification for the airport cop forcefully dragging him off the plane to resolve the situation.

    The airline had to choose between four passengers going from ORD to Kalamazoo or an entire planeload of passengers coming back. It’s not an irrational choice to choose the latter.

  • The Original Joe S

    doctor had to see patients next day. I have no idea what the requirements of the Kalamazoo plane people were.

    The airline had NO OTHER PEOPLE to substitute for those 4 toads? Difficult to believe……. I don’t believe that they had to choose between four passengers going from ORD to Kalamazoo or an entire planeload of passengers coming back. It stretches credulity. AND, it cost them big time for being STUPID!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m glad it cost them…….

  • The Original Joe S

    I’ve repeatedly said that the airline should have figured all this out
    before the flight boarded, –

    That is obviously true

    so I have absolutely no idea why you think
    I’m offering any justification for the airport cop forcefully dragging
    him off the plane to resolve the situation. –

    Because you called the passenger OBNOXIOUS. HE WAS IN HIS SEAT ALREADY. I don’t blame him.

    Guess what? they are gonna try this on a black belt some day, and they’ll all go to the ICU after the Black Belt turns them into burger meat.

  • sirwired

    No, that was somebody else that called the passenger obnoxious; that wasn’t me.

  • Annie M

    And that is what I meant – if your heart is set on an upgrade then book the ticket you want instead of hoping or expecting you will get one.

  • bayareascott

    That is a different product than what this post is about. Premier members of United are eligible for free upgrades (space available, and by status) on most domestic flights, called Complimentary Premier Upgrade (CPU) flights. This does not apply to international flat-bed seating, which is primarily what this post is about.

  • bayareascott

    The refunds are automatic. Don’t understand the reason for the verbiage.

  • jsn55

    I flew Continental forever with mileage upgrades on coach seats at the time of ticketing. For a bit after the merger, United’s website allowed those kinds of upgrades, gradually raising the price of the coach fare for the privilege. That has slowly faded as UA discovered they could sell those seats instead of letting their loyal passengers spend miles on them. It’s been a very interesting 3 years or so watching all this going on. What I have noticed is that first class fares are much, much less expensive than they used to be. If an upgradeable fare is $500 plus 40K miles and first class is $750, why bother with the upgrade? I think mileage upgrades at the time of ticketing are gone forever, but I still keep looking.

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