Bet You Didn’t Know: Waitlisting for United First or Business Class

By Julian, author of Devil’s Advocate

 

It always feels like a bait-and switch. You’re searching for premium award space on united.com and suddenly your heart soars. United’s award calendar is showing business class availability for a date that would work perfectly with your schedule.

But when you click on that date and scroll down the list of flights, you come crashing back down to earth. Because you’ve just realized United is toying with your emotions. Yes, there’s a flight with one leg in business… but the other leg is in economy. And depending on the routing, sometimes the leg in economy is nearly as long as the leg in business.

This is a phenomenon United refers to as “Mixed Cabin” and that I refer to as “getting only half of what you’re paying for.”

united waitlist award ticket

When you’re confronted with this situation, you usually have two options. Either you can search for another date or routing with available premium space for the entire trip, or you can book the mixed cabin space and minimize the economy leg as much as possible. For instance, I won’t pay business prices for a trip from Los Angeles to Europe if I have to travel from L.A. to the East Coast in economy, but I might consider it if my connection is somewhere closer, like Houston or San Francisco. Hey, I can put up with the ham n’ eggers for a little while. Well, a very little while.

The Little-Known Third Option

But as it turns out, United does offer another alternative. It’s not well publicized and it’s not guaranteed to work every time, but it costs absolutely nothing extra. So if you’re stuck with a mixed cabin routing, it’s worth taking a shot at it.

First, you’ll need to book the mixed cabin routing as you normally would, which means you’ll pay the premium class price in miles (either Saver Business or Saver First depending on what you want). It doesn’t matter if some of the flights on your itinerary are partner flights (though you’ll pay United’s higher partner miles price if they are), but the economy leg that you’re trying to upgrade will need to be specifically on United metal for this trick to work.

Then, after you’ve booked the mixed cabin redemption, call United and ask to be waitlisted for first or business class on the economy leg. Sometimes it takes calling back once or twice in order to find a United agent who will understand what you’re asking for, but don’t give up. Keep trying and eventually someone will realize what you want to do and will know how to do it.

After your phone call, if the agent has waitlisted you correctly, you should see something like this when you look up your reservation on united.com (with thanks to my friend Omer who captured his screenshots when I helped him with this trick on a recent reservation):

united waitlist award ticket

What United has done is put you on a waitlist, and they will automatically upgrade you if the premium class award space opens up at some point down the line. Since you’ve already paid the full premium class price in miles, there’s no extra miles to collect and there’s no fee for the upgrade.

If premium space opens up…

Assuming you luck out and the premium class space does open up, you’ll receive an e-mail from United like this one…

united waitlist award ticket

If you get this e-mail, you should immediately double check your reservation on united.com to be sure it shows the upgraded leg. Assuming it does, congratulations! You’re all set.

Now, while this usually works properly, on occasion United doesn’t put the upgrade through correctly. So if you get the e-mail but it doesn’t show as upgraded on your reservation, call United immediately. Tell them you received the e-mail and ask them to put the upgrade through. You don’t want to wait to call because the space could close back up or get snagged by someone else, so check immediately that the upgrade has been completed.

Also, while I’m waiting for space to open, I check on space manually every so often just to be sure United isn’t missing anything.  Yeah, it’s United, so better safe than sorry.

If premium space never opens…

Obviously there’s the possibility that the premium class space never opens up, and the waitlist will expire 24 hours before your flight departure. But don’t panic — you’re not out of luck just yet.

United’s rules specifically state the following

“If the waitlist does not clear, you will automatically be added to the airport standby list upon check-in.”

Now, while this all sounds well and good, I’m sure you will be shocked to learn that when it comes to United, “automatically” doesn’t necessarily mean “without doing it yourself.” So when you check in, confirm that you’ve been added to the standby upgrade list. Again, not every agent will know what you’re talking about, so you may have to find the right agent to get it done properly.

When I’ve waitlisted for upgrades or educated others on how to do it, I’ve been fortunate enough to always have the upgrade clear before check in. So I’ve never personally gone through the process of getting on the right list at check in. But Dan over at Dan’s Deals has written extensively about “Plan B” which is an even more advanced form of the upgrade waitlist trick discussed here. In his posts you can find more information about the process of upgrading on the day-of-departure, so I’d recommend checking them out.

Dan says only airport agents can add you to the correct upgrade list at check in, but other reports on FlyerTalk indicate it can be done by phone with the right phone agent. So I say cross your fingers and give both a shot!

Did you know you could waitlist for first or business class on United award tickets?

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Find all the “Bet You Didn’t Know” posts here.

About Devils Advocate

The Devil's Advocate learned the ins and outs of travel loyalty programs while flying more than 200,000 miles a year as a TV producer and director for World Wrestling Entertainment (and yes, of course it’s all real). He now splits his time between New York and Los Angeles and loathes New York winters only slightly less than Los Angeles traffic.

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Comments

  1. I as aware of this, but you are not kidding when you say that you might have to call back. In my experience, about 80% of the United CS reps have no idea about this (and I usually am talking to their premier line reps). I have given up and just monitor availability myself. I would lose out in the unlikely case that there are people that are waitlisted, but the chances of that seem pretty slim.

    • It definitely can be hit and miss when finding the right agent, but it is very convenient when it works!

  2. Just an FYI, Alaska does this too. I didn’t know it, but the agent offered it to me. Sure enough, I cleared into first class.

      • I don’t believe it would work as waitlisting is part of the United Mileage Plus program terms and conditions and you’d have been ticketed under the KrisFlyer program T&C’s. But you could always call United and try. The worst they could say is no.

  3. Is it possible with a third party award ticket, like Aeroplan or ANA? On United metal, of course.

    I’ve been able to add my UA MP number on such a ticket and get E+ at least.

    • Hi Stannis. See my answer above to David. I don’t think it would work, but you can always call and try!

  4. since these are domestic flights, you are only competing with people using Regional Upgrade instruments, or miles, so the chances of clearing are high.

    • That’s not entirely accurate. Business class upgrades clear into “R” inventory, award space clears into “I” inventory. Prior to airport control, if United releases R space but not I, any type of upgrade can clear while you’re still waiting for award space to open.

  5. Yes, I did know this. Because I read every bit of this on another blog, from which you completely stole this content, and you don’t even bother with the blogger’s fig leaf excuse for stealing others content, giving credit. Reeeeealy sleazy, a new low. Shame on you.

    • If you’re referring to Dan’s Deals, I did specifically mention Dan and his Plan B work in the post. Otherwise this is all my own work and writing. As I mentioned, I’ve personally done this before and just did it in January with my friend Omer — the screenshots above are directly from our experience.

  6. Be prepared for the agent to say “we can’t waitlist a United flight if there’s any partner flight in the same award” – that’s not quite true; actually, an itinerary that includes any partner flight will not ticket if there’s a waitlist (which is only possible for United-operated flights) in the same itinerary . So, whether booking by phone or on United’s website, you need to wait until the ticket is actually issued (that is, you get an an email with the e-ticket number, not just the initial email that indicates a reservation has been made) before adding the waitlist. Thankfully United usually issues the e-ticket quickly (almost always in less than an hour, often in just minutes). Also, if you make a change and the e-ticket needs to be re-issued, the waitlist has to be taken off and then put back in after e-ticket re-issuance. This is true even if the waitlisted flight is not impacted by the change.

  7. You might have said this somewhere in your post, but am I correct to assume these upgrades are only for DOMESTIC flights?

    And while I have your attention, can you answer this question?

    * Who has FLAT Bed Business Class from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Honolulu?

    Many thanks, Michelle.

  8. Julian! You are the best! I was in the same situation! I called and the United rep know what to do and my upgrade confirmed immediately – no waiting! I so appreciate this information! Many thanks!

  9. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is
    added I get four e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service? Thank you!

  10. is this still current as it is now a year later…also, how do you monitor the waitlist? on ual.com my flight status will not post untill 2 or 3 days prior to departure

  11. Thanks so much for the information, will definitely keep in mind! Would this also apply to tickets that aren’t mixed cabin, meaning direct flights booked on the XN class?

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