My Experience With United’s Complimentary Companion Upgrades

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Today was a rite of passage of sorts for my traveling toddler.  It wasn’t like the days she first walked, or used the potty, or slept through the night.  Those were all bigger milestones for sure, but this was still an occasion to be marked.  She scored her first complimentary first class upgrade!  In a domestic first class cabin filled predominantly with white males over the age of 40, my bubbly three year old happily took seat 1A as my “companion” thanks to my United Platinum status.  She didn’t know or care that the seat was any different from those in coach – she was just happy to be flying.  However, I knew that she couldn’t possibly kick anyone and that we would have plenty of elbow room.  😉

When I checked into our flight at roughly 24 hours before check-in I was asked by the computer if I wanted to add myself to the upgrade stand-by list.  I knew from looking at the seat map that the flight was pretty empty, and many seats in E+ were also empty.  Since my husband was also on the flight, I decided to do an experiment and see what would happen if I added myself to the upgrade standby list.  I was under the impression that I would not clear into first class if my companion did not clear, and since I was going to choose Little C as my companion, then I assumed it would be an all or nothing thing for the two of us in terms of moving up to first.  My husband also has elite status with United on his own, so it was technically possible he would also clear based on his own status, but as a Silver it was pretty unlikely.

However, within a few minutes I learned via an auto-generated email that I had been upgraded.  My little three year old companion had not.  Huh?  This is not how I thought the system worked from other experiences I had heard and read.  I wasn’t worried about it as my husband could just take my upgrade while I stayed with C in coach (no chance she would happily part from me on the plane), but it was confusing since that isn’t how I thought it worked.  In the end, my daughter also cleared an hour or two before departure, and my husband just barely missed out on the upgrade and happily chilled by himself in E+ (which is by far the more relaxing experience of the two choices).

Now back to how this happened….. I presume that since the computer first asks if you want to be added to the upgrade list (and tells you that your reservation will then be split), that the damage is immediately done and you can now be upgraded all by yourself.

What is confusing is that the next screen then asks for your companion.

However, you are already no longer on the same reservation as your companion.  The companion does seem to make it to the upgrade list with your status (though below everyone else with your status), but your upgrade does not seem to be dependent upon theirs.  If I was traveling alone with C, this could be a deal breaker.  Obviously I am not going to sit in first while she is in economy.  With a flight as empty as this one was, I might press my luck if I thought we both had a shot at being upgraded as there were plenty of economy seats together to switch back to if it didn’t happen.  However, on a full flight there is no chance I would risk losing our seats together if I didn’t trust that we would either both be upgraded, or both remain together in coach.

Given my current elite status, when traveling on United with my family, my upgrade strategy will change from flight to flight.  Sometimes it will be worth going for the upgrades, and sometimes the downside of splitting up or even just the down-to-the-wire uncertainty won’t be worth it.  This is especially true on the outbound because you are now all split for the return flight, and this can cause some especially entertaining drama (more on this later).  I do know that for the foreseeable future, whenever C and I are on the same flight, she has to stay right next to me wherever I am seated for the sake of everyone on board.  She is currently a serious mama’s girl!

What has your experience been with companions and complimentary upgrades – both with United and with other airlines?  What is your strategy, especially when traveling with your little one(s)?  Stay tuned for a post on how our first class experience was….the preview is “all the juice you can drink!” 



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  1. I have had much difficulty with this as well. It seems it always separates the iternary no matter what i choose during that check in proces. From now on, I am just going to wait to check in until I get to the airport.

  2. Congrats on your first CPU+1! (Okay, maybe it’s not your first companion upgrade, but on my spreadsheet, “CPU+1” means the kid got it too).

    I don’t think you missed anything in your analysis, but I’ll add one tip that’s been useful to me. When I fly United with family, I try very hard to book one-way tickets. It’s usually the same price, it gets me twice as many $5 contributions to my Club, AND it avoids all the messiness with reservations splitting. There are no downsides unless you have to change/cancel the entire trip, in which case you get hit with double the change fee.

  3. Another potential problem is being upgraded to non-adjacent seats. I don’t know about United, but American seems to split seat assignments for primary and companion automatically (together once in maybe 50 upgrades). When we get the upgrade before it goes to gate control, we can go online and manually pick seats together. In any case, most folks in American front cabin seem happy to accommodate switching seats, having had the same experience themselves. Of course, when traveling alone, I am always willing to offer to switch seats to accommodate couples. I have done it many times.

  4. United’s current system is a total disaster. That, combined with their inability to pose a question during check in that is clear and doesn’t hide some unpleasant consequences, results in many dissatisfied customers. It’s about time they changed to a sensible and transparent system or, better still, got rid of CPUs altogether and went back to having to fly to earn upgrade instruments.

  5. I recently had my first CPU+1 as well. During on-line check-in, I accepted splitting the reservation for an upgrade. The flight was nearly empty in First on a UA 737-800. But when my companion did not immediately get upgraded, too, I called UA. The agent said that if I had not accepted splitting the reservation during online check-in, both of us would have been still put on the upgrade list but would not have cleared until the computer decided to upgrade us both at the same time.

  6. Like they said on the SMD4 (and UADo) atleast in my session, they are completely revamping the upgrade system.

    In the meantime, if there’s only you and your companion on a reservation, you can get upgraded PRIOR to 24 hours (through a separate upgrade system that CO called EUA). Unfortunately, it will only upgrade if there’s 2 or more spaces available.

    At T-24 (check-in), that system asks if you want to be placed on the gate upgrade system (separate system that CO used to call the Battlefield list). To get onto this system, you need to split from your companion (however, your companion can still be added to this list). However, what’s confusing is that EUA also runs at the same time. If you split from your companion and there’s only 1 space available, you can get upgraded but not your companion. The ordering of the battlefield list doesn’t make too much sense either (although it’s supposed to upgrade the primary user by status+fare first followed by their companion after all the primaries are upgraded).

    Hopefully it will be less confusing when the finish this revamped process!

    Safe travels!

  7. Definitely some weird experiences with this. I flew earlier this year from CUN to IAH with a companion. I am a Premier Platinum and my companion has no status. When asked if I wanted to be added to the upgrade list (breaking our linked reservation) I said ‘no’ because I would rather sit together in E+. Strangely, it broke us up anyways and I was upgraded to first class.

    I had to ask the gate agent to undo my upgrade and reseat us together in E+. After all of this, we were both upgraded at the gate.

    It worked out well, but was more stress than it was worth.

  8. No luck for me today. Premier Silver om an award ticket, they wouldn’t even entertain the thought of waitlisting me, even though there were more than 10 first class seats open and plane virtually empty. I reread the rules, and I was eligible (even though it woud be their very last choice) I am going to “fight” for it a bit harder next time.

  9. I have had luck just going over to the GA and asking for my companion to be upgraded with me, if the number of open seats on the seat map lies between our positions on the upgrade list. I have had more trouble just getting the check in agents to add her to the upgrade list in cases when she in on separate itin, especially if I’m already upgraded.

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