A Quick Introduction to United’s Companion Upgrade Policies

This post is a continuation of Tuesday’s discussion of different options to upgrade with United Airlines. However, I’ve focused specifically on how these rules apply to companions or anyone other than the elite member. Several “tricks” can be used to improve the upgrade odds for both you and your companion.

Complimentary Premier Upgrades on Award Tickets

This first part repeats a bit from yesterday, but I’m including all of it because I usually buy my own tickets but book awards for friends and family.

Award tickets are eligible for a CPU (including a companion CPU) if you have one of eight different United- or Continental-branded credit cards. Basically, the old pre-merger United cards are excluded (so the Mileage Plus Select Visa is out). However, the new United versions of old Continental cards do qualify (so the OnePass Plus and the MileagePlus Explorer cards are both in). I qualify with my MileagePlus Club Card.

  • MileagePlus Explorer
  • MileagePlus Explorer for Business
  • OnePass Plus
  • World MasterCard for Business
  • Presidential Plus
  • Presidential Plus for Business
  • MileagePlus Club Card
  • MileagePlus Club Business Card

These upgrades depend only on your elite status. If you are a Premier 1K, you will clear after all Premier 1K passengers on paid tickets, including their companions. However, you will still be before any Premier Platinum passengers, regardless of their fare type.

One additional perk is that when you book an award ticket for another person and leave out his or her MileagePlus number, that person will take on the MileagePlus number of the account from which the miles were deducted. That means if I book an award ticket for my mother, my mother gets treated as a Premier 1K. And since my Club Card is tied to my MileagePlus account, she is also eligible for an upgrade.

Instrument-Supported Upgrades

The Regional Premier Upgrade and Global Premier Upgrade instruments described yesterday can be shared with any passenger flying on an eligible flight, and their upgrade priority will be the same as yours. You are essentially free to use your upgrade instruments as you wish. The same goes for when you use miles from your account to sponsor a mileage upgrade award for someone else.

A MileagePlus member may request an upgrade for another traveler using a MileagePlus Upgrade Award, a Global Premier Upgrade or a Regional Premier Upgrade, even if they are not traveling on the same reservation. Waitlist confirmation priority is based on the Premier status of the redeeming account.

Complimentary Companion Upgrades

True Companion Upgrades are a form of Complimentary Premier Upgrade. Up to one companion on each flight is eligible to receive an upgrade, and he or she will be processed after all other paid fares at your elite tier. This means if you are Premier 1K and he or she is a general member, then he or she will clear after you but before any Premier Platinum members.

Continental Airlines allowed you to request a companion upgrade within 2 hours of departure for anyone traveling on the same flight, regardless of whether he or she was on the same reservation as you. This policy remains in effect, and I have used it in the past when meeting up with a friend coming from a different city but continuing on the same plane as me.

An important exception is if you have a companion traveling on an award ticket. This would explain why, when Megan and I were both booked on award tickets using miles from my account, we were not eligible for a CPU even though normally I would be eligible for a CPU if traveling by myself on a CPU.

In addition, one companion traveling on the same reservation as a Premier member is also eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades on select flights, and may be confirmed with the same priority as the Premier member, even on the day of departure. This benefit does not apply to companions traveling on award tickets.

The Annoying Details of Companion Upgrades

If you and a companion are on the same PNR (“passenger name record,” or confirmation number) then the companion Complimentary Domestic Upgrade can be processed automatically. Linking two separate PNRs means nothing. I read so many stories about people who link PNRs and think that suddenly means they’re on the same reservation. All it does is create a note in your file. The computer ignores that note because it can’t read. You must make the reservation for two people at the same time and never split it. What if you have three or more people on the same PNR? Here’s the direct quote from United:

If a reservation includes three or more travelers, and only one is not a Premier member, the Complimentary Premier Upgrades will be processed according to the lowest Premier status level in the reservation. If two or more travelers on the reservation are not Premier members, it will not be processed automatically. In these cases, Premier members should call the Premier Priority Desk to request a separate reservation for themselves and the eligible companion.

This means if you have more than one person on your reservation who isn’t an elite, then no one is going to get upgraded. If there is only one person who isn’t elite, and two are Premier 1K and one is Premier Silver (a total of four), everyone will get treated like Premier Silver.

What’s this about splitting a PNR? Well, remember I said yesterday you can increase your upgrade chances if you travel alone because only one first class seat needs to be available at any one time. There may actually be more than one seat first class seat, but perhaps United is releasing them as upgrades one at a time. You could split your PNR in advance of check-in by calling the Premier Desk. Strategize by pairing off the highest elites with the lowest elites to stretch their high status as far as possible. For example: new PNR #1 has a Premier 1K and a Premier Silver, and new PNR #2 has a Premier Platinum and a general member.

You will also be given the chance to split your PNR at check-in. Online, there is a disclaimer asking if you want to be added to the upgrade list. If you accept, everyone on the reservation will be given a separate PNR. Ironic, no? The first rule was to book everyone on the same PNR to ensure you get upgraded together, and now the system can’t process upgrades without having a separate PNR for each person! This affects the entire itinerary, including your return journey, so here are a few tips:

First, book one-way flights so that you can split the outbound PNR without affecting the return. Second, don’t check-in. Telling United “no” will remove you from the upgrade queue and telling United “yes” will split you up, so just don’t put yourself in that situation. I have stopped using online check-in, and Megan and I still get upgraded after the 24-hour check-in window opens but before we arrive at the airport. The downside is that you won’t be able to see your name on the upgrade standby list even though you remain eligible.

If you do choose to split PNRs at check-in, your companion will receive the same status as you but still below all other people who actually have your status. Even though Megan is a Premier Silver, she will be treated as Premier 1K-lite — below Premier 1Ks and above Premier Platinums. As far as I can tell, this only applies for the flights on that day when you check-in. So Megan would be an ordinary Premier Silver when ranked for upgrades on the return flights.

Conclusion

Mommy Points shared her frustration Monday (and with me on Twitter the day before) when United auto-split her family during check-in, fouling up her reservation and her odds at an upgrade. This is something I’ve complained about many times before, including to United executive Mark Bergsrund.

The auto-split feature is a defect in how the back-end SHARES reservations software processes upgrades and is not likely to get fixed until United finishes programming its replacement. In the meantime, it has created a disclaimer that almost reads like a lawyer wrote it.

Today’s post focused almost entirely on this one aspect of how to manage the auto-split feature. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but I hope you find my explanation helpful when maximizing your upgrade benefits in the future.

A Quick Introduction to United's Upgrade Policies
They Finally Tied the Knot

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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  • Phil

    Besides, upgrade eligibility, high status at United (platinum or 1K) also gives other benefits such as free checked bags, free same day changes, upgrades to economy plus, etc which also extend to companions on the same reservation. If I split the reservation to try and get an upgrade, won’t my companions now lose all of these other benefits?

    • Scottrick

      Most of those benefits would remain. They are not as easy, but I have never had a problem calling in to have a companion on a separate reservation added to Economy Plus or asking to have their bags checked free at check-in. I’m not sure about same day changes since I haven’t tried that one.

      Usually I take advantage of this when someone is traveling on one or two segments with me but otherwise has a different itinerary, like when Megan and I depart the same airport but split after reaching Denver, or if I meet up with a friend before continuing on. The benefits only apply to the flight segments he or she shares with you, so no E+ upgrade on the entire itinerary, and no checked bags if they have a different final destination.

  • Adam

    Scott, a little confused on your advice for splitting PNR for 2 people. Your example was for more than 2, and in that case you recommend booking one-way tickets and then splitting PNRs with the highest ranks in each new record. For only two (say, my wife and I) the best practice is still to book two one-ways, call and split the PNR, and then not check in online? This post series is very useful btw, thanks for sharing all this info.

    • Scottrick

      It is a little confusing. I laid out several options and the merits of each. There is no fixed strategy because it depends on how many travelers you have, their status, availability of first class seats, and how much you really want to sit together. Maybe I’ll create a flow chart ;)

      First, book one-ways if you can. That makes it simpler so you don’t screw up the return when making decisions about the outbound.

      Second, if you really want to get sit together, stay on the same PNR and don’t check-in online. This way you’ll (hopefully) get upgraded together even if it’s after the 24-hour check-in window. The point of not checking in is to avoid splitting the PNR. If you split the PNR, you will be upgraded separately.

      Third, if you care about maximizing your upgrade chances but don’t care about sitting together (e.g., maybe one of you sits in economy) then split the PNR. If you have the same status, split the PNR in advance so you can each clear at the upgrade window for your status. If one of you has higher status, then you probably want to split at check-in because the higher status will carry over onto the upgrade standby list even after the PNR is split. I don’t think the higher status carries over if you split a PNR before check-in.

      • Adam

        Wow, this is complicated! This certainly clears it up. I guess I’ll gauge our upcoming trips and decide what we want to do from there. Knowing my wife I think she’d rather sit together, even though I know she’d be happy looking back to tell me something from the front of the plane :)

  • Jules

    Scott, if you are a cardholder do CPUs apply to international flights also?

    • Scottrick

      Being a cardholder (and only one of the eight cards above) makes you eligible for a CPU on award flights — the same routes that would otherwise be eligible for a CPU if it were a paid fare. They do not affect your eligibility if you already booked a paid fare.

      Most CPUs are on domestic routes, but some are international routes. Examples include some intra-Asia flights and flights to Mexico or the Caribbean. You can read more on United’s page:

      http://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/mileageplus/awards/upgrade/default.aspx

  • Mark

    Great discussion regarding splitting the PNRs. I’d add emphasize the warning, from experience, that once it is split, you are unlikely to end up seating together. It is really annoying.

    So I’ve quit checking in online too, but I always was pretty sure your upgrade chance declined (or was zero) if you weren’t on the list at the airport. Are you sure you can not add yourself to the list at check-in and still get an upgrade?

    • Scottrick

      I know from personal experience that Megan and I have been upgraded after check in opened but before we actually checked in. We were not on the upgrade standby list. Whether this was a fluke or not, I don’t know.

      Once you check in, you will be added to the list. I’m just delaying that as long as possible so that we are more likely to be upgraded together.

  • Emceeb

    This is fantastic. Thanks, Scott. I’m a 1k, my wife is Gold; our upgrade cleared for both of us this weekend; I decided to check in online and it split the record. On the return, upgrade for me, no upgrade for her. Friday, we fly through EWR on the same PNR, there’s 1 remaining seat showing available, but no cleared upgrade yet. I don’t want to check in online because I don’t want to screw up the return upgrade. Will UA automatically split up the record and give me that last seat, or will not splitting the record foil either of our upgrade chances?

    • Scottrick

      Splitting the record will affect your return journey, but it will improve your chances of upgrading individually. It’s impossible to know if you will get that last seat without knowing your position on the upgrade standby list, and you won’t learn that unless you split the record. What I said above, from my own experience, is that even if your name isn’t on the list, you can still get upgraded after the check-in period opens but without checking in.

  • Emceeb

    Guys– so help me understand. My 1k Upgrade/CPU would be processed at my 1k level for award tickets, provided I have a MP Explorer card, just as if I had purchased the ticket? Or do award tickets earn upgrades/CPU at the bottom of the pecking order like they do with Delta (albeit without the credit card requirement).

    • Scottrick

      Let’s assume a Premier 1K member has a qualifying card. Any award booked using miles from that account (even if flown by a different passenger) would be processed after a 1K on a paid ticket and after a 1K companion on a paid ticket. But it would be processed before a Platinum member on a paid ticket. Status matters first, then fare paid, even if that fare is $0. (Although technically United ranks by fare class, not the dollar amount.)

  • Adam

    Scott, one more question for you here. I booked two separate one-ways for my wife and I. Mine is a UA ticket, hers a US codeshare on the same flight. I called the premier desk (I’m a Platinum) and the agent made a note and got my wife a seat in the exit row next to me using my status. I assume this means she is not on my PNR and this was just an annotation as you mentioned above, correct? Is it even possible for her to be added to my PNR being that her ticket is with US?

    • Scottrick

      Correct, it’s just an annotation, but it only matters if someone bothers to read it. You can always get someone on a separate ticket to sit next to you in preferred seating for free if you call in.

      There is no way to get two PNRs merged to become the same PNR other than to cancel your tickets and rebook. Linking PNRs is not the same.

      Since your wife is on a US codeshare, she will not be eligible for an upgrade. Only UA-coded and UA-operated flights are eligible, with some small exceptions (e.g., some Copa routes).

      • Adam

        Thanks for the explanation.

  • Carl

    I am a 1K and my wife is a 1K as a result of my Million Miler status match. Is it better for us to simply travel on separate tickets? The reason i ask is if we are on the same PNR and there is only 1 seat, will the system skip us?

    Also, when we traveled to LAX last weekend, neither upgrades had cleared at the 24 hour mark, so i went ahead and checked-in online. We were already on separate PNRs anyway as i booked our tickets separately. But lo and behold, an hour later, our upgrades cleared. I had never had that happen within the 24 hour window, previously only happened at the gate.

    • Scottrick

      You are correct, if there is only one seat that opens up the system will skip over you. It doesn’t hold it in the system until a second seat opens up. Two seats must open at the same time for you to get upgraded together.

      Your odds obviously improve if you each process individually. As 1Ks, you are probably safe splitting your PNR. But most companion upgrade scenarios involve one elite and one non- or lower-tier elite. If you are already on separate PNRs, just check in. There’s no reason not to. My suggestions about waiting are mostly to avoid the split PNR hassle.

  • Nik

    Hi Scott, Thanks for the great scoops!
    Can you clarify some details
    about CPU’s for companions on award travel? I have Platinum status &
    the Explorer card. Say I book an award trip for my family of 4 using my
    UA miles on CPU eligible flights. The other 3 family members do not
    have mileage plus accounts. If we are all in the same PNR, are any of us
    CPU eligible? If I request the PNR be split into 4 separate records, do
    we then all become CPU eligible? Would splitting the PNR take away the
    baggage allowance & priority boarding my family would otherwise get
    to share with me?

    Thanks and Aloha

    • Scottrick

      Only two people can be upgraded because of one person’s status — you and one companion. If you are the only one who qualifies, then you will need to split the PNR at the very least to two and two. If all four stay on one PNR, no one will be upgraded. If you split it up, you and the other person who stays on your PNR will be eligible, but not the other two with no status and with no elite companion to “sponsor” them, so to speak.

      But it’s not quite that simple. If you split it so that, say, you and your spouse are on one PNR, the only way both of you will be upgraded before reaching the gate is if two upgrades become available simultaneously. If only one seat is available, they will skip over you and award it to the next person in line.

      This is why some people traveling as a couple split their PNR anyway. They can be upgraded individually one at a time because sometimes United is more likely to open one seat and not two.

      If you keep you and your spouse on one PNR (let’s imagine there are only two people on this PNR now), and you are still not upgraded when you reach the airport, then you can request that the gate agent split you and add your spouse to the upgrade queue two hours before departure. The same “one at a time” rule will apply.

      Finally, all benefits like E+, priority check-in, and free baggage apply even if you and your companions are not on the same PNR. The real requirement is that they be on the same flight. In the past, I have called reservations to add a companion to E+ next to me, or I have checked in with that person to make sure they got free baggage.

      • Nik

        Thanks for the reply. I thought splitting the PNR into 4 separate records could make us all CPU eligible due to the example in your article about booking an award ticket for your mother and leaving out her MP number. You wrote that she would get your status and CPU eligibility. Does that only work for one person per flight or not work if you are on that same flight in a different record or ?

  • Nic

    My husband is gold ( platinum last year) and we have the explorer card. He’s booked in first class ( paid by work) and I’m in lowly economy. We are on seperate confirmation numbers. What/ how is the best possible scenerio for me to upgraded? Thanks

    • Scottrick

      The only way for your to get a complimentary upgrade is for your husband to add your name to the list at the gate. This can be done starting two hours before departure, though the agent may not appear until about one hour before departure. Try to be among the first, because there may only be one or two seats left at that point. Once added to the list, you will be upgraded after all other Gold members but before Silver members. Honestly, your chances are not very good on most routes.

      You could also use miles to upgrade your ticket, and those could come from either person’s account. My memory is rusty, but I think it’s 15,000 miles one-way for a domestic upgrade.

  • Shannon

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks so much for this helpful post! I’m a Gold member with the Club card. I’m booking a trip with my fiance in November and I’ll be paying cash (on the hunt for Platinum!) and I’ll be booking him with my miles. Are you saying all I have to do to get him my status is leave his MP number off the award ticket reservation?

    • Scottrick

      Correct. If there is no MP number listed, it will default to the number for the account used to book the award.

  • Tina

    Hi Scott,

    Your probably tired of explaining this but my husband and I are in a pinch. We had to book separately (separate reservations) in order to use one travel certificate for him and one e-certificate for me – website didn’t allow one reservation to use both certificates at the same time. We paid both reservations with our Explorer Card but only my husband (the primary cardholder) received $0 for first bag, my reservation still shows $25 for the first bag. We called United and they told us there is nothing we can do to both get $0 first bag. Yes, I know the rules say “same reservation” but it is impossible to do it using the United website. Do you have any ideas how we might be able to both get $0 first bag – it would be nice to know before the flight so I can pack accordingly. Or is our only option to gamble that the United agent at the airport will understand our dilemma and waive the baggage fee? Any advice on strategy would be appreciated.

    • Scottrick

      Your best bet would be to try to sweet talk the agent when you check in.

      Although the United’s computer systems aren’t set up to handle scenarios like this, I suspect that’s intentional.

  • Jason

    Hi Scott,

    First, your blog is fantastic. I wish I found it months ago. I’m Gold and my wife doesn’t have status. Next week I’m flying to Costa Rica with my wife (lone United flight is from IAD to SAL).

    I booked our flights using my miles and paid for the taxes with my United Explorer card. I called United after reading this entry and removed her Mileage Plus number from the reservation. They confirmed that my potential upgrade will be decided the day of travel.

    To confirm, I won’t check-in online and when I arrive at the airport I should go to the check-in desk to check-in and request both upgrades? Or check-in and wait until I get to the gate?

    Thanks again.

    • Scottrick

      There are two issues here:

      Removing your wife’s MileagePlus number *after* booking the ticket may not be successful. The idea behind the strategy I suggest is that if no MileagePlus number is provided, then your number will be used by default. This occurs during the ticketing process. You can look up the reservation right now and see what number, if any, is assigned to your wife’s reservation. But my guess is that because you removed your wife’s number after ticketing that her reservation simply doesn’t have any number — yours or her’s — assigned to it.

      The second issue is that the two of you are traveling together. In that case, it really doesn’t matter. Companion upgrades do not apply to upgrades on award tickets. Furthermore, a given MileagePlus number can only be upgraded once. If you are flying, then your ticket will have your MileagePlus number and you will be the one who gets the upgrade.

      Because only you have a chance at an upgrade, you have a choice, and you can do it now or when you check in. You can split the itinerary to improve your chances of getting an upgrade for you alone, but this will mean sitting apart. Or you can leave things as they are and you will sit together in Economy.

  • Chris

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for the tips. I was wondering if you can comment in my specific situation. My girlfriend and I just booked tickets to Sao Paulo, but without thinking (before reading your post) we booked in separate reservations. I am Silver premier member and she does not have status. What is the best approach for us to be able to get upgraded (even to Economy plus seats) together? Thanks!