How to maximize my chances of getting an upgrade on an international flight
December 30, 2009 9:46 AM   Subscribe

How can I optimize my chances of earning upgrades on upcoming international flights? Please help me avoid flying all the way from the East Coast of the US to Asia in coach!

In the next few months I will be taking several international trips for work (yay!). The entity I work for will only pay for coach tickets and for these trips I will be obligated to fly United. The prospect of a 13 hour flight in coach is horrifying to me, so I want to maximize my ability to get upgrades.

Here's where it gets complicated: I don't have a United frequent flier account. I have a US Airways account with about 20,000 miles stockpiled that I have used to earn miles on previous trips on United because of their code-sharing agreement through Star Alliance. I also have a debit card that earns miles on US Air. Is there any way that I can use my US Air miles to purchase upgrades on United flights?

I will be flying United regularly for the foreseeable future. Would it be wiser for me to open an FF account with them and earn the miles directly? Even if it means basically abandoning the 20,000 miles I have with US Air and starting over from nothing?

posted by fancypants to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I did a trans-Atlantic flight on United a few weeks ago and they upgraded me to Economy Plus (still cattle class, but with extra leg-room) based on my USAir status (Platinum).

Generally speaking, airlines tend to be much more stingy with upgrades to First and Business class for international routes. Unless you can make the top tier of United FF status relatively quickly (100 thousand qualifying miles or 100 segments) I think you're going to have to pay for those upgrades with miles - the going rate for an upgrade on international routes is about 30,000 miles each way, so even if they took your USAir miles, which they don't, your 20,000 wouldn't even buy you a single upgrade to Business Class.

Sorry I don't have better news for you, but being a frequent flier just ain't what it used to be.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:05 AM on December 30, 2009

Opening up a frequent flyer account with United costs nothing, so why not do it? You're not obligated to use it if you instead choose to attach your US Airways FF# to your flights.

As mentioned, you have to be either a very frequent flyer to earn international upgrades, or you have to have a lot of miles stockpiled in United's program to upgrade to the next class of service (which now requires a copay on most airlines). International upgrades start at 30k miles, and you can't use your US Airways miles on United, just on other Star Alliance partners that fly internationally.

What I would do is sign up for a United FF account, sign up for any and all bonus mileage promotions they have, and fly exclusively on United or Star Alliance partners and credit that account. Depending on how long your flights are, you may gain elite status in their FF program relatively quickly, and you'll rack up a lot of miles that you can use for upgrades.
posted by bedhead at 10:15 AM on December 30, 2009

Also, head on over to Flyertalk's United Airlines forum, where you will find people who know everything about United's FF program and can help you gain elite status quickly.
posted by bedhead at 10:18 AM on December 30, 2009

you should not only open up a Mileage Plus account, but you should also get a Mileage Plus Visa and use this for your business expenses. Basically, there is no way for you to avoid getting stuck in coach for your first round trip because United doesn't know you from Adam and doesn't have any reason to pick you amongst the hundred other coach passengers for an upgrade.

Your strategy is to get to Premier (25,000 miles flown per calendar year) as soon as possible, then get to Premier Executive (50,000 miles) within United's program. Those tiers bump you up in priority when waiting for upgrades. Last I recall, a round trip from the US East Coast to Asia is in the neighborhood of 10,000 miles depending on destinations, so you're only looking at a couple of trips before you're in the neighborhood of getting into Premier; at which point you're at least guaranteed perennial seating at Economy Plus (which is really United's way of making you pay extra for old Economy seating and thanking them for the favor)

Keep in mind that the qualifications for United's program are for miles flown per calendar year. This is probably similar to US Airway's elite status qualifiers. You not only need to build an account of usage, but need to do so consistently from year to year. This is also separate from the bonus miles that you get from partners like the visa credit card or Hertz or Starwood reservations. Those bonus miles are used to pad your account for those 30,000 mile upgrades.

Also, check with the ticket buying policies at your company. It's possible, if they're just sticking you with coach, that they're also sticking you with non-upgradeable tickets as well. A lot of businesses are under pressure to keep travelling expenses low, so if your agent is booking you on some bulk discount coach class ticket, you might be out of luck anyway.
posted by bl1nk at 10:24 AM on December 30, 2009

oh, the other thing I would also say is to add to what that bedhead said, and once you do get signed up for Mileage Plus, check your My Promotions section of your online account on a monthly or biweekly basis. Register and try to go for every promotion that gives you bonus elite-qualifying miles. Once you get to Premier and Premier Exec, the 25% and 50% mileage bonus accruals that you get help pad your account and keeps you in the revolving door for upgrades, but you need to stay on top of the treadmill every year when you have to re-qualify.
posted by bl1nk at 10:28 AM on December 30, 2009

Yeah, if you're going to be flying United regularly from now on, I'd agree to just go ahead and open up a United account and use it from here out, and switch your rewards credit card over accordingly. You'll have better luck with domestic upgrades that way, and can use your mileage for international upgrades.

20K miles just isn't that many to be concerned about walking away from, US Air is a terrible airline (which, as I said above, I say as somebody who's flown them often enough to make Platinum), and their international routes are pretty minimal. If you do have any kind of status with US Air, you could ask United to match it when you set up your Mileage Plus account, through you'd still be starting from scratch for qualifying for any higher status tiers.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:31 AM on December 30, 2009

If your company is paying for a Y ticket (fully redeemable and most expensive coach fare), then the amount of miles needed to upgrade may be fewer... and you might even get out of needing to co-pay. This assumes you've joined UA's frequent flier program and stockpiled some miles with them. You probably won't have the miles and status you need to upgrade on your first couple of flights (though you can always consider paying a cash fee on your own-- again the higher the coach fare bucket, the lower the extra fee will be to upgrade, so try to get Y tickets when you make your reservations!).

I don't know the ins and outs of UA very well-- I'm a Continental person-- but bedhead's sugestion about FlyerTalk is right on. The Continental forum has helped me to figure out all sorts of useful stuff. Get thee to FlyerTalk!
posted by idest at 11:56 AM on December 30, 2009

It isn't easy to get an upgrade on the long overseas flights. I fly a ton, am platinum, and have NEVER once been upgraded on a long haul flight. I think your better bet - at least initially - is to try for Economy Plus, and to use Seat Guru to get the best possible seat in Economy Plus. Then try to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Lots of posts here about ways to make yourself comfortable.

Eventually, if you really do fly to Asia alot, you may be able to upgrade on the occasional long flight. Or maybe you'll at least get enough status to be able to count on an exit row seat, which helps. Or a seat near a bulkhead, which also helps a lot in terms of leg room anyway.
posted by semacd at 12:55 PM on December 30, 2009

Yeah, I'm a pretty regular biz flier, and upgrades don't happen on long-hauls. Here's why:

Because businesspeople pay for (and fill up) the biz class seats.

Now, why do they do that for long hauls when they usually just count on getting upgraded for transcontinental or short haul flights? Because they can! Many, many companies have policies allowing employees to purchase the next tier of service for flights over a certain length. For my company, it's 8 hours. Dollars to donuts says yours does too if you're doing client-billable work. If not, well, you'll either need to pay or take some ambien. :)
posted by TheNewWazoo at 6:17 PM on December 30, 2009

I disagree that upgrades rarely happen on international flights. It depends on the route, the airline and the date. I'm not a Platinum Star Alliance member but I've gotten business class upgrades about half the time I've flown on United between SFO and NRT.

However using that route as an example, United does code sharing with ANA. If the flight is run by United you can get upgrades. But if it's run by ANA you will not get an upgrade. They simply don't do them. Just something to look into on your flights.

TheNewWazoo makes a good point about the flight length. One company I worked with had a policy to upgrade to business class for flights longer than 8 hours, another for flights longer than 3. I'd check with your office just to be sure.
posted by Ookseer at 10:58 PM on December 30, 2009

I've gotten an upgrade by being a solo flyer - it's easier to shift people that way. My sister and her husband managed to get themselves into a better (and quicker!) flight when they volunteered to be bumped off an overbooked flight.
posted by divabat at 1:36 AM on December 31, 2009

Not wishing to rub it in but I just want to dispose of this idea that you must be part of a freqent flier programme to be upgraded. I have been upgraded twice to business class on seperate airlines without being members of their loyalty programmes. I am not saying that it is not true that airlines look at loyalty members first when dishing out upgrades, just that it is not an absolute necessity.

In my opinion the fact I was i) travelling by myself and ii) did not ask for an upgrade assisted me. I know some people go the pleading / begging / i'm going to a funeral / demanding route but the checkin staff have seen it all before. iii) It is a suspicion of mine that because I was trying out both airlines for the first time there was an element of let's give this potential future customer the best experience we can.

I also have a star alliance membership and have never been upgraded because of this even though I have a resonably healthy account. In summary, it is largely luck and whilst signing up to a frequent flier programme may slightly alter your odds the fact is it is reasonably unlikely you will be upgraded and whilst 'the prospect of a 13 hour flight in coach is horrifying' to you I suggest you work on changing this attitude.
posted by numberstation at 7:21 AM on December 31, 2009

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