United Offers Discounted First Class Upgrade at Time of Purchase

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Yesterday I was helping a family member book a flight to Washington DC (I’m sure lots of you act as the ‘family travel agent’ as well), and after we had completed the booking we were offered the opportunity to confirm a first class seat for $159 each way.  That’s not an insignificant amount of money, but it certainly struck me as discounted compared to what the normal cost is to buy up to first from that fare.  This was a non-elite passenger who purchased a round trip ticket from Houston to Washington DC for $379, which is actually a pretty decent price for those two markets outside of a sale or fare war.

United Discounted Upgrade

The $159 upgrade price displayed via a pop-up right after booking the ticket.  We declined to spend the money for the upgrade, but it did strike me as interesting, and certainly a lower price than I normally see to upgrade on United on a 3 hour flight.  After we declined the upgrade on that screen, the price that was offered to upgrade each segment when going into the reservation was $720+ each direction, so clearly the $159 was a very discounted price compared to that rate.

United Full Price Upgrades

We wouldn’t have paid the extra money in this case regardless, but I think United might see a better conversion rate on these offers if they marketed them as a “one time only offer” and gave the head’s up that if you didn’t accept the offer then that the price may be (much) higher later.  Not only would it probably be better marketing, but it would be a fair warning to the consumer who might be on the fence about whether to spend the money for the upgrade.  If my family member had been reasonably interested in that upgrade, but wanted to think on it a bit, they would have been out of luck when they went to buy even a few minutes later as the price over 4x after we clicked off of that screen.

Once upon a time in my pre-elite days with United/Continental, I was offered cheap upgrades to first when I checked into flights (sometimes referred to online as “Tens of Dollars upgrades”), but rarely were the prices majorly discounted at the time of purchase.

I’m curious as to whether you have also recently seen some of these discounted first class upgrades at the time of purchase, and whether the price jumped as soon as you clicked off of the pop-up.

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  1. I got a similar offer when flying business from ORD-CDG. $500 to upgrade to first class. What sucks is that if you purchase the upgrade, but later cancel your trip the upgrade fee is non-refundable (even if you ticket was refundable). So be careful when doing this. It also has a term that says you will get your money back if you don’t end up getting the upgrade (not sure what that is all about).

  2. Great! As someone who went from 1K to not flying United at all, this looks good to me. Now if i have to fly United I can still get an upgrade for a few bucks (and jump ahead of all the elites!). Plus, with 24 hour cancel rule, if I don’t get an offer I like I can always cancel and rebook with someone else. Why bother being loyal now?

  3. I think in this case its just offering an upsell to P class which comes in at around $700.00 IAH-DCA/IAD RT, so this isn’t the elusive TOD. I’m not sure why it doesn’t offer that when you go to the upgrade screen, I guess ticketing restrictions?

    • Yeah it acts like those buy-up offers you still get at check-in sometimes put you in R class, but are often cheaper than you can do before check-in. Possible it is a buy-up to P class, but weird that that price changes so much once you get past that screen.

  4. We purchased economy fare tickets for IAH to TPA and received a cheap upgrade offer to first class. March 10-14 flights.

  5. I was offered a $44 upgrade on the ORD-DEN leg of a DEN-ORD RT. Moved me into P. I took it because I didn’t pay for the ticket as it was a business trip.

  6. I book United tickets every week for business travel (domestic) and I would guess I get this offer only about 10-15% of the time. It really does not occur very often in my experience so far.

  7. The post-purchase pop-up offer are either upgrade to R, buy-up to discounted first/business, and for elite members, sometimes to Y/B/M for insta-upgrade. If you see the pop-up, it generally means that there is R space available to upgrade using instruments/miles. $159 is not bad at all for a 3 hour flight. I would have taken it.

    @Oliver – under PMUA rules, the upgrade fee is refundable if you rebook another flight and took another upgrade offer. Not sure whether the new system allows them to track that.

  8. I flew USAirways the the end of March when it was part of Star Alliance and then the return when it was One World. I also was offered the upgrade. I applied for it (4 hour trip) and didn’t get it. Turns out that they had to reroute us and at the new connection, I asked about the upgrade the gate and I got it. Apparently it doesn’t have to be done solely online.

  9. I’m flying LAX-SYD in J in July and if they offered me an upgrade to F for $159, I’d do it. $300, I’d do it, too, but I assume it’ll be in the $800 range.

  10. I usually take advantage of the upgrade offers, and I’ve gotten them fairly often from United as of late. Got an upgrade offer from Houston to Cancun for $79. Back in December I got an upgrade offer for $119 from Chicago to Miami, and then a $79 offer on the return from Miami to IAD. Delta gave me a $70 offer a year ago from LGA to Miami. Hoping to get one in a couple of weeks on Delta to Cancun. My seat hasn’t been assigned yet for any of the flight legs, and the economy is sold out.

  11. I recently booked my parents EWR-TPA-EWR. The tickets were $258 each in K. I was offered upgrades for $149 each leg.

  12. FYI, when these offers are made after booking on ua.com, a notation is made in the PNR in SHARES that it was offered, as well as the $$$ amount offered. So, in theory, that price quote could be retrieved again if you called in. But it’s UA so it’s like playing agent roulette.

  13. I was a little shocked to learn today that apparently domestic United First travelers don’t get same-day access to United Clubs.

  14. A couple of years ago, I was told that “standard upgrade policy” is to charge 1K’s the difference between their ticketed fare and an “M” fare; others must buy up to a “B” fare. Not sure if that is still true.

  15. I’ve seen this occasionally over the last couple of years. I changed my mind once after saying no and called up the premier line. They said that it was a one-time online-only thing and they had no way to resurrect it once you’d said no.

  16. I had the same thing happen this week. IAD-DEN for $159 for a flight for my husband. After ticketing, I looked to see if he could use an RPU and the upgrade price was $1008!!! Also, I booked an award ticket for myself this week and had the same upgrade screen popup. I ha not seen that before on an award ticket. (But I am a 1k and this is the first domestic award ticket I’ve booked for myself in years so my only comparison is award tickets I’ve book for my kids who have no United status.)

  17. @ Rob P., who said, “I was a little shocked to learn today that apparently domestic United First travelers don’t get same-day access to United Clubs.”

    I believe that is common with the major U.S. carriers. It certainly is with American.

  18. I got an upgrade offer when booking an award economy ticket from Prague to PHX round trip. I believe it was $750 each way and it allowed for me to upgrade a reward ticket for cash. The $750 each way was about $300 cheaper each way than purchasing the actual Business class ticket ($3700) because the reward ticket was “worth” $1600. I’m not sure if it’s because it was a reward ticket but the upgraded business ticket would not accrue miles either which is unfortunate. A better question for the blog would be, “Do these upgrades accrue mileage bonuses as a normal first class ticket does?” If so then it’s worth it.

  19. I recently bought a last minute ticket nonstop from Port of Columbus to Houston Bush. There was a popup for an upgrade to 1st class for $79. It included a free checked bag, which saved me $25, since i was checking one bag anyway. I took it and had a very pleasent flight.

  20. In my experience, it’s good to book as early as possible. Everytime I’ve booked with United 4-6 months prior to takeoff, the upgrade has always popped up (so far).

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