Can you take a business class upgrade and then get a refund? This United passenger believes so.

This United business class upgrade wasn’t worth $999. I want my money back!

It’s not likely that any airline would refund a business class upgrade after a passenger completes the trip. But that’s precisely what Juli Talec says an employee of United Airlines promised to do before her recent upgrade.

Talec insists that she never intended to pay to boost her seat into the elite section of the aircraft. So why did she sign a credit card receipt for the business class upgrade at the United Airlines check-in counter?

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That’s the $999 question of the day.

Talec’s strange tale underscores just how important it is for travelers to familiarize themselves with basic airline protocol. You can’t enjoy a business class upgrade on United Airlines or any other carrier and expect a refund later. Unfortunately, this passenger learned that lesson just a little too late.

Asking United Airlines about a possible business class upgrade

In June, Talec had scheduled a trip to Croatia on United Airlines. She would first fly from Chicago to Amsterdam and then on to Zagreb. She had redeemed miles for her economy class ticket.

Sometime before the flight, Talec contacted United Airlines to ask about a possible upgrade to business class.

“I used the chat feature, and I asked the United Airlines agent if I could upgrade using miles,” Talec recalled. “At that time, the agent quoted me 36,000 miles to move up to business class.”

In the chat transcript, the nameless agent asks if United Airlines should process the upgrade to business class.

“I couldn’t decide at that moment,” Talec remembered. “So I asked if I could decide at check-in.”

The chat agent confirmed that Talec could make a decision later.

“No problem,” the United Airlines chat agent responded. “You can change your flight at the airport at the check-in counter!”

Unfortunately, the chat agent left out an essential detail about upgrade awards that Talec didn’t know but would soon find out.

Upgrade awards are never guaranteed and always subject to (limited) availability — and that availability can change in the blink of an eye.

United Airlines: “It’s not possible to upgrade your seat with miles.”

By the time Talec reached the check-in counter, she had made her decision. She had determined that spending the 36,000 United Airlines miles to upgrade her seat to business class was acceptable.

“It’s less frightening to fly in the business class cabin,” she explained. “So I was willing to spend the miles for the upgrade.”

But when she informed the check-in agent of her decision, she received an unexpected response.

The United Airlines agent said that it wasn’t possible to upgrade Talec’s seat using miles.

This part is where the story gets murky. Talec says that the United Airlines agent told her that she didn’t have enough miles to upgrade.

“I thought maybe it was because of a computer glitch,” Talec reported. “But she said there were no miles available to upgrade me.”

Talec protested and told the agent that another United Airlines employee had offered her the mileage upgrade to business class already. But this airline employee remained unconvinced and continued to reject the mileage upgrade.

Looking at the clock, Talec was becoming concerned that the departure time was nearing. She asked the agent what she could do to straighten out the problem.

“I wanted to fly business because it’s less scary that way, and I had anxiety about the flight,” Talec explained. “I asked her what we could do.”

The agent did have another way that Talec could fly in business class: she could pay for it.

Pay $1,000 to upgrade your seat to business class.

The agent then said that I could pay $999 for the upgrade. Later, if I really had the miles I claimed to have, she said I could contact customer care. She told me customer care would refund my credit card and use my mileage balance to pay for the upgrade instead.

Although Talec admits the scheme sounded unusual, she agreed to pay $999 for the upgraded seat. She handed the United Airlines agent her credit card and signed the receipt.

The United Airlines agent then handed Talec her freshly printed business class boarding pass.

Soon, Talec snuggled into her luxurious upgraded seat that converted to a bed for the overnight flight to Amsterdam. It was a true upgrade from the economy class seat she had been previously assigned.

Talec was pleased with the bargain upgrade, which she believed, in the end, would cost her just 36,000 miles.

It would be weeks before Talec would find out the truth about the cost of the business class upgrade: United Airlines had no intention of refunding the $999.

Fact: Business class upgrades are not refundable after the flight

When Talec submitted her request for the refund of her $999 payment, it was swiftly rejected. United Airlines made it very clear: Business class upgrades are not refundable.

That fact is especially true after a passenger takes the flight and enjoys all of the perks that come with the upgrade.

But surprisingly, Talec is not the first consumer to contact our team asking for help securing a refund for a used flight upgrade. Regular readers may recall the case of Steven Schmidt, who thought he had bid just $400 for two round-trip business class upgrades to Europe. He was unhappy when he learned the true cost of the upgrades — after he completed his trip. So he asked for a refund. Not surprisingly, Austrian Air also does not refund flight upgrades post-trip.

In Talec’s case, she was quite persistent and continued to escalate her request for a refund. Each step of the way, the answer was the same from United: No refunds for used seat upgrades.

Talec still didn’t give up. She asked the airline to pull airport surveillance to listen to what the agent told her.

I’m afraid your answer isn’t good enough. You seem to think I’m asking for a courtesy refund. I’m asking for United Airlines to give me what it  promised — a refund for the upgrade and [pay for it with miles instead].

Ticketing representatives, gate agents, and even the flight attendant when I boarded all said that this ‘happens all of the time and customer service will take care of you.’ The gate agent promised me, ‘if you really have the mileage balance you say you do, you can pay for the upgrade [with miles]. Just call customer service, and they will refund you and use your miles instead. It’s very easy.’ (The refund plea to United Airlines)

As Talec found out, it isn’t very easy at all — in fact, it’s impossible to get a refund for a completed business class upgrade.

When United Airlines would not investigate her complaint on the scale she hoped for, Talec sent her request for help to the Elliott Advocacy team.

Fact: This United Airlines award seat is not upgradable

When I read through Talec’s plea for help, it was hard to determine where the confusion began. I noted that she had been flying on a mileage award ticket, and as per the United Airlines upgrade policy, she should not have been able to upgrade her seat with miles or cash.

Award tickets on United Airlines are not eligible to upgrade.
From the United Airlines website: Award tickets can’t be upgraded. So why was this passenger able to pay for a business class upgrade?

Toward the end of Talec’s paper trail, United Airlines agreed that the agent had made a mistake — just not the one that Talec believed she had made. In fact, United Airlines should have rejected all of Talec’s upgrade requests from the beginning since she was flying on a non-upgradable award ticket.

After a further review on my end, the agent should have never allowed an upgrade since this is an award ticket. Any consideration for an upgrade would have had to have been made with a reservation agent buy [sic] canceling the award travel plan and then purchasing the ticket with a credit card instead. (United Airlines)

Still, the airline pointed out it had sold her an upgrade for $999 at her request. And she had flown in the Polaris business class lie-flat seat to Europe — and enjoyed all the amenities that came with that upgrade.

In its final word on the topic, United Airlines offered Talec a goodwill gesture refund of the $200 she had paid for an overweight bag.

Regrettably, we cannot change the upgrade from paid to miles as you’ve already taken the flight.

We have, however, refunded the overweight bag fee. Please allow up to 14 business days for the refund process to complete. (United Airlines)

I explained to Talec why there would be no foundation for our team to mediate her case successfully.

But Talec remained unconvinced.

“I expect a $999 refund, and United can take the 36,000 miles for the upgrade instead,” she reiterated. “I would never have spent this money on a seven-hour upgrade. It’s not worth it. United Airlines misled me!”

Unfortunately, not all cases that land in our inbox are fixable. This case is one of them. But Talec disagrees. She says she’s only asking United Airlines to give her what it promised.

It’s still unclear why Talec encountered so many United Airlines employees who she believes told her an upgrade refund is something that happens all the time. I explained that in all my years as a mediator, I had never heard of a used upgrade being refundable — ever — by any airline.

But she has one last avenue to pursue.

Any airline customer who is convinced that a carrier mishandled their situation can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Airlines are required to respond to passenger complaints filed through the DOT. I offered Talec that information, and she says that she will be filing that complaint because “They can’t be allowed to lie to customers and get away with it!”

How to decide if the business class upgrade is worth it — before you buy it

Talec says she would never have paid $999 for a seat upgrade — and yet she did. Before you request and accept a business class upgrade, here are a few practical things to consider.

  1. Supply and demand dictate the cost of upgraded seats.
    Airlines price their upgrades based on supply and demand. As the elite compartment fills up on any given flight, the cost of the seats increase. Most carriers release upgrade seats to their top-tier customers 24 to 72 hours before the flight. In most cases, the ordinary passenger can expect a surge in the cost of an upgrade in the final hours before departure. If you don’t have a special status with an airline and want an upgrade, it’s best to seal the deal before the days just prior to the flight.
  2. Upgrade awards aren’t guaranteed until ticketed.
    If you want to snag an upgrade to a higher cabin, don’t dawdle. Seat availability for upgrade awards is quite limited on each flight. Finding an available award upgrade is no guarantee that the upgrade will be available the next day or even the next time you refresh your computer screen.
  3. Can you comfortably afford the upgrade?
    Our team receives many complaints from travelers who make impulsive decisions while their brain is in vacation mode. (See: You should not buy jewelry during your cruise. This is why) As with any travel purchase, impulse upgrading is not wise. Even a great deal on a business class upgrade isn’t great if you really can’t afford it. And standing at the check-in counter is not the best place to make this decision. If you intend to ask for an upgrade before boarding, set a reasonable budget and stick to it.
  4. Understand the cost.
    Keep in mind that signing a credit card receipt and flying in an upgraded seat obligates you to pay for it. Make sure that you understand what you’re signing and the total cost. If you really want to pay for the upgrade with miles, don’t sign a receipt with a hefty price tag.
  5. Make sure to get unusual offers in writing.
    In this case, the passenger sensed that paying for an upgrade and asking for a refund later sounded unorthodox. But she neglected to get the offer in writing or even the employee’s name who offered it to her. Of course, we know that sometimes airline employees make offers they aren’t authorized to give. (See: No, you aren’t owed a free hotel when your flight is canceled) To protect yourself, get all unusual offers in writing. If you don’t, and the deal doesn’t materialize, you’ll have no foundation to successfully resolve your problem later.
  6. Read reviews.
    Yes, there is a site where you can read and review airline seats. To decide if an upgrade is worth it or even just to optimize your seat selection in any cabin, you can browse Seat Guru. It’s not unusual to be able to find a review of your potential seat with photos of the seat and surrounding area. This tool can come in handy if you’re trying to decide between various aircraft or flight numbers.
  7. Is it really an upgraded experience during the pandemic?
    It’s important to be aware that during the pandemic, the business class experience will not be the same as before COVID. Some onboard airline services have been temporarily paused. This varies by aircraft, airline, and route. So you’ll want to confirm what kind of upgraded experience you’ll really get before you plunk down your miles or cash for a boost into the upper class. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)