I’ve had several people ask me recently how to search for upgrades on United Airlines. It’s not immediately obvious because United no longer allows tools like Expert Flyer to access its inventory. However, United does have an in-house tool called “Expert Mode” that will display inventory for individual booking classes when you search for a flight.
For a good overview, read my my previous post: A Quick Introduction to United’s Upgrade Policies
Enable Expert Mode by logging into your account and visit the Search Preferences page, where United will ask you to read a lengthy disclaimer and check a box to activate the feature on your account.
When you go to perform a search, you’ll be able to see the number of seats available in each individual booking class. This can be useful for booking other ticket types, as well, but I’ll only be discussing upgrades in this post. You’ll want to focus on “R” space for upgrades that use miles, Regional Premier Upgrades, Global Premier Upgrades, or Complimentary Premier Upgrades. “PN” space is used for instant upgrades from Y, B, and M fares for elite members. You can find a complete list of the meaning of each booking class on cwsi.net.
I did a dummy search from San Francisco to Hong Kong. I checked a few results before finding this one. Click on the “Fare Class” link and you can see the word “R5” which means there are are 5 seats available in the R booking class. United counts up to 9 when it displays availability, so “R9” could indicate 9 seats or more.
There is a non-stop service, but I found no R upgrade space available. My upgrade request would be placed on the waitlist, and I would be processed according to United’s upgrade hierarchy: elite status, then fare class, then the time of request.
Depending on your tolerance for risk, this connecting itinerary may be preferable. You can confirm your upgrade from San Francisco to Osaka immediately, and the flight is operated with a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which I consider very comfortable. However, the connecting flight from Osaka to Hong Kong is operated by ANA, which cannot be upgraded using a Global Premier Upgrade.
Some people really want the certainty of knowing their upgrade will clear. The fare I showed above is an L class fare for $1,004. But even United requires you to book a more expensive W fare or higher to redeem an Global Premier Upgrade on an international route. (Upgrades are easier to come by on domestic and a limited number of short international routes, when Regional Premier Upgrades can be used and there is no fare class restriction.)
To go back and search for a W fare on the same flights, click on the “Advanced Search” link at the bottom of the results page or at the bottom of the search box on the home page. Type “W” in the fare class box about halfway down the Advanced Search form.
It turns out a W fare for the same itinerary connecting in Osaka is $1,430 and we can confirm our upgrade on the overwater segment immediately. If we booked the nonstop as a W fare, it would be $1,400 and we would be placed on the waitlist. Again, there’s a personal decision to make here whether you pick the more desirable itinerary and risk not get upgraded.
The upgrade hierarchy is worth knowing because many flights, like this nonstop SFO-HKG option, do not have upgrade space available at the time you book. Faced with the risk that an upgrade won’t clear, or perhaps just frustrated that United makes them buy a more expensive fare, most people will probably focus on purchasing the cheapest upgradeable W fares. I suggest you take a look at V fares, too, because they have priority over W fares and are often not much more expensive.
In this case, the cheapest available L fare on SFO-HKG nonstop is $974. The W fare is $1,400 if you want to go on the waitlist to use a Global Premier Upgrade. There might be lots of competition on the waitlist. If you buy a V fare, you’ll pay $1,600 and move ahead of those people. You’re already committing yourself to paying $426 more for the chance at an upgrade. Would you be willing to pay $626 to get a better chance? I leave that decision up to you, but I can say I have seen cases where a V fare was only $10 more than a W fare, making me glad I took a look at something other than the cheapest option.