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Many airlines do not allow complimentary upgrades on tickets booked with award miles. Back when I had American Airlines Gold status, they consistently denied my upgrade request, even with a nearly empty first class cabin. United is different. They do offer complimentary upgrades on award flights. It may take a bit of luck, but even lowly United MileagePlus Premier Silver members can score a free seat up front! This post will explain how the process works.
How to Earn Premier Silver Status Without Actually Flying
Let me be clear. I rarely fly with United. This isn’t because I think they abuse their passengers, or that they’re a terrible airline… I’ll let you be the judge of that. I simply do not have the opportunity to fly with United very often. Most of our personal domestic flights are on Southwest, and work travel is split between Southwest and American Airlines. In 2017, I have a grand total of one United flight logged.
I mention my lack of United flights to highlight the fact that I’ve done nothing to deserve status with the airline. However, I am currently a MileagePlus Premier Silver member. I earned this status from my 9-day Marriott Platinum Challenge. One benefit of being a Marriott Platinum member is Silver status with United. Make sure you register for this benefit, because it is not automatic.
How Upgrades Work
On paid flights, Premier Silver members will automatically be added to the upgrade list within 24-hours of the flight. Upgrades will then clear at the gate in order of status, with Silver being at the bottom of the list behind 1k, Platinum, and Gold members. Traveling companions on your itinerary will also be added to the upgrade list.
Award tickets are different. To fly up front on an award ticket, you can do one of two things:
- Pay the extra miles (usually double the price of economy), or
- Hope for a complimentary upgrade if you qualify.
Premier Silver members flying on award tickets are only eligible for a complimentary upgrade if they are also Chase United MileagePlus Explorer credit card holders. This is a critical distinction.
Additionally, if more than one person is traveling on the itinerary, only the Premier Silver member with the Chase credit card is eligible for an upgrade. If you have multiple people on the itinerary, you will not automatically be added to the upgrade list at the 24-hour mark. You must call United to request a separate record locator number for yourself, which will allow you to be automatically added to the upgrade list.
At this point, you are on the upgrade list, but you will be at the very bottom… below all paid flights and all award passengers in descending order of status. Suffice it to say, you will need a bit of luck to land the upgrade!
So, You’re Tellin’ Me There’s a Chance?!
In preparation for our United Award flight from MCI-SFO-KOA, I called United to discuss the upgrade situation. I had just gotten Premier Silver Status, and Brooke and I were flying on the same itinerary. I told the agent that I’m a Chase MileagePlus Explorer cardholder, and that I would like a separate record locator. She was able to separate the reservation, and confirmed that I would be on the upgrade list. She also warned that I should not expect an upgrade, but she wished me good luck.
When we arrived at the airport, I spoke to the gate agent. She confirmed that my name was on the upgrade list. I then asked if she could also add Brooke as my traveling companion. A couple clicks later, Brooke’s name was on the list, right next to mine! I’m not sure if this agent was simply being nice, or if this is how things are supposed to work, but I was very grateful.
After a couple minutes of waiting, the agent called my name and handed me two first class tickets! Boooooom!!
In our case, I believe a few factors helped us get the complimentary upgrade:
- I did my homework and learned the rules for upgrading an award ticket.
- Kansas City is a relatively small market airport, and our flight was at 5:45am.
- The gate agent was very nice and probably broke protocol to add Brooke to the list.
How’s United Domestic First Class?
I’m impressed. The seats are large and comfortable, and they recline much more than economy seats. We had access to power outlets. Free drinks (Baileys & coffee) and free breakfast made the early morning flight much more bearable. I’m also not really sure what it is about drinking from a real coffee mug (not a paper cup) at 30,000 feet… but I love it!
When I first learned about all the hoops I’d have to jump through for a small chance at a free upgrade, I almost didn’t try. I chalked it up to “research” for the blog, and went for it anyway. After landing a free upgrade to the first class cabin between Kansas City and San Francisco, I’m very glad that I made the effort!
If you’re a MileagePlus Premier Silver (and/or Marriott Platinum) member flying on a United award ticket, good luck with your free upgrades! Cheers!