The Basics

The Upgrade Pricing on United Airlines is Just Crazy!

Chase Sapphire Preferred 60,000 point offer
Written by Charlie

Are you flying in economy with United Airlines? If you want to upgrade to business class or a premium seat, you can do that with these options – but check them all because there is some crazy pricing that goes on!

United Airlines makes it pretty easy to upgrade from the cabin you have booked into a higher class cabin. That means that you can move from economy class up to Premium Plus or all the way up to Polaris (business) Class. All you need to make that happen is money – but how much money it takes really varies, wildly.

Want to Upgrade to Business Class? The Price Could Change a Lot!

It is kind of crazy but the economics of flying in a metal tube seems to make people spend differently than they would for anything else. I have seen people jump to pay $2,000 to upgrade to SWISS first class from their business class (to be fair, I have not flown SWISS First but have heard great things about it) – when SWISS business class is already quite stellar and offers a terrific product. I have also seen people spring to upgrade to a domestic first class seat for $250 on a 2 hour flight – even though I heard them talking about how they didn’t want to spend $200 on a hotel room that night!

What do I mean by all that? Of course, it is people’s own money and they can do what they want but it is amazing to see how people will often spend way more than their original ticket cost just to get into a seat that has more room or lies flat. And the airlines know that and that people may often feel a little desperate to do that so they have a great system set up to take advantage of that.

TipIf you do decide to do an upgrade, consider paying with a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve that will give you $300 per year for travel reimbursement. That makes the overall price out of pocket less.

How to Upgrade to Business Class on United Airlines

United Airlines actually makes it quite easy to upgrade to business class and you can do it right online (or, if things are a little quirky, you can do it through their awesome Twitter team). There are two main ways to do this – and a third way that could actually be a lot cheaper than these ways.

United Premium Plus | Courtesy of United Airlines

The beautiful United Polaris cabin on the 787-10

Miles and Cash

The first way is with miles and a co-pay. It all depends on the fare class (normally, the cheaper your ticket, the more restrictions and a lower fare class it will be) as to how much that co-pay will be. For something like Europe – US, it will be $500 most of the time (United actually ran some promos this year that dropped the price down to $420) plus 20,000 miles per person to upgrade from a cheap fare class to business class.

For a flight that may be 11 hours (like our example flight), some may feel that spending 20,000 miles and $500 may be a great deal. Well, that kind of business class upgrade comes from the same fare bucket as awards so if United is stingy in offering that seat as an award seat, this method of upgrading to business class will not work for you.

So, while this will likely be the cheapest option, it may also be the hardest to find if United does not release space. But, this price will always be constant, in both terms of miles and cash, for your flight.

Cash Upgrade

The next option is to just pay a cash amount to upgrade from economy to business class (or to Premium Plus). Now, here is where the pricing can get really whacky.

First of all, United gives you two ways to find this price – and it is very often a different price depending on which way you use to see it. To see both ways, you need to look in the United app. It will show you (at the bottom of your reservation) – Enjoy our premium seat Upgrade from ____ per person and Upgrade cabin. That last one, Upgrade cabin, is at the bottom above email receipt.

For whatever reason, those two options can often give very different amounts to upgrade out of economy. Here is one such example that was capture at the same time:

This option was available with the mileage upgrade option as well

This option was available through the Enjoy our premium seat Upgrade option

You can see that even though the Polaris upgrade price is the same, the Premium Plus difference is a whopping $1,700! If you were desirous of selecting Premium Plus, by going through the “Enjoy Our Premium Seat” option instead of the “Upgrade cabin” option, you may actually consider springing for the Premium Plus option for the 11 hour, 45 minute flight.

Even though the business class pricing was the same in this example, there were several other examples where one option was $1,280 for business class and the other option was $6,540 – at the same time!

This happened quite often during my constant checking and it would flip back and forth with which one had the best price. Moral of this upgrade option? If you are prepared to spend to upgrade to business class, check both of these options on the United app to see the best price. Or, let’s go to the other option…

Rebook and Select Premium

Here’s the thing – since Covid, airlines have become a bit more flexible on flight changes. No longer do most fares command a change fee in addition to any fare differences. Now, (at least for flights originating in the US) you can choose to “Change” your flight and check your options.

I checked this out also and saw something interesting – if I chose to rebook, I could get the business class price down to as little as $940 for Munich – SFO – PHX. Yes, that is still a lot of money but it is still cheaper than what you would pay if you went through the upgrade options.

In fact, I even played around a bit and if I stopped in SFO instead of continuing on to PHX (which would not have been a problem – there were super cheap flights for that option), I could get the business class price down to $720.

Now, here is what makes this even better – if you choose to upgrade, your reservation is still on the same original fare rules/earnings. But, if you change and rebook to a higher cabin, you get that fare class.

One more plus of going this way is that if you were to make a change to your other flight after booking with an upgrade fee, you would lose that fee. If the airline makes a change, they would refund you. But, if you rebook into business class, they will need to rebook you into that.

Bottom Line

After spending a few weeks playing around with some reservations, I was surprised at the wacky pricing of upgrade pricing on United Airlines – some of the options, at the same time for the same seat, varied by $5,000! I saw the price change at least a dozen times on upgrade options, even though no seats had sold since previous checks!

his post is just to show you that, if you do want to pay to upgrade, be smart and poke around your various options. Not only could you get a better deal but you could also get better flexibility and better mileage earning.

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About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

3 Comments

  • “You could even rebook and get the fully refundable option.”

    I don’t think that’s correct. Even in the new fee-free world, non-refundable bookings usually have in their fare rules that if exchanged for a refundable fare, the original amount remains non-refundable. Otherwise all fares would essentially be refundable, just upgrade to a higher refundable fare and ask for a refund.

    • Thanks so much, Darin. I know that in the previous realm, the gate to keep it from happening often was the change fee. I figured that it would be truly refundable since it said that but i did not go through with it. I updated the post to take that out. Thanks for the help!

  • Yes, Swiss is one of the best business class product especially if you are lucky to get one of the throne seats. I found that it was pretty easy to get Swiss business class with minimum mileage awards so it is silly to pay that high price for an upgrade. I also booked a Christmas flight on Air France business class for $2,200 outbound and Delta coach inbound from LAX which is a good price considering they now want $7,500 for the same ticket.

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