The Mystery of Complimentary Upgrades on United Award Tickets

Please note this site has financial relationships with American Express and this post may contain affiliate links. Read my Advertiser Disclosure policy here to learn more about my partners.

For a while now it has technically been possible for elite United flyers to get upgraded on an award ticket…..however it has been like the mythical pot of gold at the rainbow as far as I was concerned. At least until now.

Here are the official rules on how the upgrades on award tickets are supposed to work:

Premier members who are primary cardholders for certain Chase-issued credit cards are eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades when traveling on award tickets on United-operated flights. The following credit cards qualify for this benefit:

  • MileagePlus Explorer
  • MileagePlus Explorer for Business
  • OnePass Plus
  • World MasterCard for Business
  • Presidential Plus
  • Presidential Plus for Business
  • MileagePlus Club Card
  • MileagePlus Club Business Card

Complimentary Premier Upgrades on award tickets will be sorted as indicated in the “Upgrade Confirmation Priority” section above (which basically says that complimentary upgrades come after those on high “instant upgrade” fare classes, those using instruments like regional and global upgrades, and then upgrades are sorted by Premier status, then fare class and award travel), and prioritized after the lowest paid fare class within each Premier level. This benefit does not apply to companions traveling on award tickets.

I have been an elite flyer with United for over six months now, and have had a co-branded credit card for many years, but had never personally seen any evidence of these magical complimentary space available upgrades on award tickets until this week. When my family flew a few days ago from Houston to Vail I didn’t see myself on the upgrade standby list, so when I got to the airport I went to the gate agent to get myself added…mostly as an experiment just to see what would happen. That particular gate agent didn’t know how to do it, but she said she would call and get some help. Sure enough when I looked on the mobile United site a few minutes later, I was indeed on the list as #1 on the upgrade standby list (the highest I had ever been). I wasn’t going to clear, but at least I saw that the process work.


Of course, I technically couldn’t add myself to the standby list until the day of departure at the airport, so many other folks can clear before I ever have a shot at being on the list. In fact, the first class cabin on that flight was prettyempty until 24 hours before departure, so I am betting I would have cleared as a Platinum had I been on the list earlier. I wasn’t upset at all by this, just happy to know how it worked.

Then when we flew my mom up last minute from Houston to Vail to join us, I used miles out of my account, and as such she inherited my status for the trip (probably a glitch, but a long standing one). Within minutes of booking her flight I got an email that she had been upgraded. So in that case she didn’t have to be put on the standby list at the airport, she just cleared magically within minutes of booking the flight. It is worth mentioning that this 737 was so empty that first class actually went out with seats open even after they upgraded some non-revenue passengers. So, a United Silver on an award ticket would have even been upgraded that day!

Then about a day before we flew home I got an email saying I had been automatically upgraded for the return flight. My mom then sat at #1 on the waiting list for the last 24 hours and was upgraded after boarding. She declined the upgrade and sat with Little C and myself while I gave my husband my upgrade. Her upgrade went to the next person on the list.

So, how is this really supposed to work? My best guess is that I wasn’t on the upgrade list on the outbound because I was on a reservation with my kiddo and my husband so it passed me over. However, as is common with United, it automatically split me off their reservation on the return (probably because I was manually put on the upgrade list on the outbound) and thus put me on the upgrade stand-by list automatically on the return. My mom was on there the whole time as she was a single traveler with Platinum status in the eyes of the computer system.

Armed with those facts I now have some ideas about how to strategically make award reservations in the future if upgrades are important on that particular trip. Often when traveling as a family upgrades aren’t really important because we probably aren’t all going to clear anyway – at least not on award tickets where you aren’t technically supposed to have a companion. Lord knows that my kid would not be pleased if I went and sat in another part of the plane, and I’m not nice enough to always fly with C by myself while my husband chills in first. Especially if that means we are now having to sit next to a “stranger” who may or may not be kid friendly. However, there are some flights where a freebie upgrade on a award ticket will be great!

This experience also reinforced to me that having a co-branded United card like the United MileagePlus Explorer Card or United Club Card is helpful as an elite traveler even though you already have many of the benefits that come with the card like priority boarding, checked bags, etc. Read this thread if you are interested in getting a United card. Without the card we wouldn’t have scored a total of three complimentary upgrades on this trip. If you have elite status with United, having one of the cards essentially makes your miles more valuable since your award trips are now upgrade eligible.

What has your experience been with getting upgrades on United award tickets?


Disclosure: I do receive a commission if you are approved for a credit card using one of my affiliate links. As always, thanks for your support.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.



  1. Do you actually have to use the card to pay the award taxes and fees, or is just having the card good enough? American Airlines gives me the co-branded card benefits like priority boarding and free bag without actually using the card to pay for the ticket.

  2. This is interesting because for decades I always used the United Mileage Plus credit card in purchasing United tickets and not once did I get upgraded. This is not one of the credit cards you mentioned above but it is one of the co-branded and has been since 1993 when I got it. Guess I’ll start using my Explorer card more frequently.

  3. “I used miles out of my account, and as such she inherited my status for the trip (probably a glitch, but a long standing one).”

    I don’t believe this is a glitch. I thought this was one of the benefits of holding a United card as an elite.

  4. Upgrades on awards are also available to global services members. Never got one myself but its states in the benefits guide

  5. I was recently upgraded on a US award flight involving a domestic leg on UA. I’m platinum with UA and only hold the Mileage Plus Visa that they no longer offer to new applicants.

  6. A little off-topic, but if I cancel my United MileagePlus Explorer card before we take our award ticket travel, will we lose our 1st bag free benefit? Thank you!

  7. I thought, as you say, the United Club Card enabled you to get in line for a complimentary upgrade on award tickets … which is why I was surprised when the United transfer desk agent in Brussels told me (Nov 12- BRU-IAD) “I see you qualify for a complimentary upgrade.” I was surprised since mine was a revenue ticket. It was from E to EP but still it was great on an 8 hr flight. I’m not even Silver!

  8. Carl, I didn’t use mine to pay for the taxes and it worked just fine. The fine print may indicate otherwise.
    Jane, do you have elite status with United?
    Jon, either way it has been around for a long time. I hope it continues to stick around. 😉
    Jacob, very true. Fly to Vail and I bet you will get one!
    Zach, good to know. Thanks!
    Elena, I don’t know how all their systems communicate, but if United’s system recognizes that you no longer hold the card then I imagine you should use the first free bag benefit.
    Liz, if by international you mean routes like Canada then yes. If you mean trans-atlantic or trans-pacific type travel then no (unless they oversold coach).
    Paul, hmmm, interesting. Thanks for sharing.
    Alison, American’s upgrade system is totally different with their 500 mile upgrades and even with United this wouldn’t work for transatlantic flights.

  9. Generally you won’t get upgraded with a companion unless there is space for both of you, and if there are three people on the reservation (especially a child) then I would still expect problems clearing. This is common to all upgrades. The only thing different about the upgrades on award tickets is that they clear after revenue passengers within the same elite tier but before revenue passengers in the next tier. In my experience, people I’ve booked tickets for have cleared at the 96 hour window owing to my 1K status. You don’t need to use the card to pay for any part of the ticket; just having it is enough.

  10. @mommypoints your best guess is actually very spot on. This is outlined on their website if you actually look it up.

    It’s under the companion section on that page. Basically, if you have 3 people on the same reservation and only one of you is elite, then you will not be automatically added to the upgrade list like you should be. You may call after making the reservation to do so, but to manually add you like they did at the gate, they will split you off the reservation and that’s exactly why you were upgraded on the return flight. Being split off, you were processed normally for an upgrade.

    hope that helps

  11. Scottrick and Nick, this world of complimentary upgrades and family travel is a new one for me. I think I have a decent grasp on how it works – but seeing it in action is a whole new ballgame. Thanks!
    Jamison, you seem to be good at that!

  12. Just so I’m clear, this is irrelevant if one never redeems UA miles for a domestic flight? I find UA miles sooo valuable for intl J travel that I would rather use almost any other airlines’ miles than to waste 25k UA miles for a domestic trip.

  13. A few years back, I was upgraded on a UA award ticket. I don’t have UA status of any kind and I didn’t use a UA credit card. The Gate Agent called me up to the podium about 20 minutes before boarding, and asked if I “minded” being moved up to First Class. I couldn’t help but ask why I’d won the lottery. The GA said that there was a couple raising holy hell in coach about not getting to sit together and it was easier for her to move me up than deal with them! I thanked her profusely and commended her wisdom 🙂

  14. I guessing my chances of getting upgraded would be slim, Wife have Plat MP member and both of us are card holder of the united explorer card. And we book our international using awards miles, with kids (2&4). I guess we will find out next week. IAH-FRA-BKK-ICN-SFO-IAH Mommypoint., can I borrow your CARE kit.. lol.

  15. @mommypoints I have played extensively with this process since it was rolled out a couple years ago and have enjoyed many upgraded reward tickets. If you have time I recommend that you do some research by booking some award tickets and redepositing the miles just before flight time (you’re 1K so its free, right?). My experience has been that this process works best if you can get a CPU in advance, because, as you note you won’t be added to the airport standby list until you get to the airport and ask. Furthermore, asking can be a massive hassle depending on the particular agent/airport. In any case, I have noted that you will be CPU eligible if and only if there is only one person on the ticket. It doesn’t matter who the person is, it can be you or anyone else, just as long as it is only one person. If there is more than one person, regardless of the other persons status and/or whether or not they have an eligible United credit card, none of the passengers will be CPU eligible. So, if you are booking for friends book each person on their own ticket, they get your status anyway, so there is nothing to lose. As always, YMMV.

  16. How does united know that I have the card?

    Also, will that work on UA operated flights that were awarded with Lifemiles?

  17. I recently got upgraded on my return from Hawaii to SFO, when I was travelling on an award ticket as Premier Silver. The plane was almost empty, with several empty business class seats. My wife was on a different PNR, so she didn’t get upgraded. I ended up declining my upgraded to be with her. But we had the entire row of seats free, so we could stretch and sleep all the way through.

  18. -The fact that you have a co-branded Chase card is attached (somehow) to your United profile. It is an automatic process that usually works without your intervention.
    -This only works on routes that are already complimentary upgrade eligible, so if you never redeem miles for those routes then it won’t help you.
    -Glad to see others have had success with this as well!! Pretty cool benefit.

    • Lauren, most unfortunate. Next time have the website handy on your smart phone to show them the details of upgrade priority.

  19. I’m sitting in Boston now. Flying on an award ticket and use the presidential plus card from Chase/United. Checked in and didn’t show up on the upgrade list. asked about it in the United club and they said they weren’t sure what to do, but would take care of it. That was 90 minutes ago. Still not on the upgrade list. I’m 1k…not sure that matters, but not sure you need to be certain status to get on the list. Seems like a broken system.

    • patrick, it is a broken system, but you should be able to be added to the upgrade list at the airport…of course that depends on someone knowing how/being willing.

  20. I know this is an older post, but…Do you have to have a certain status level (silver, gold, plat, etc) and one of the cards, or just have to have one of the cards on the list to be eligible for a complimentary award upgrade?

  21. Does anyone know if this applies to star Alliance gold status (through aegean)? I know star gold doesn’t necessarily qualify, but does that change if you have a card too?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *