United Upgrade offers out of pocket: at initial purchase vs. after processing

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There’s nothing like sitting 30-something feet up in the air on the premium cabin inside a  metal tube.  Very few things can compare to it.  Although a great experience still, flying in the main cabin simply isn’t the same.  Airlines are fully aware of this, which is why they consistently market their premium cabins and offer upsell and upgrade offers throughout the booking process and even after.  So if you’re in a position to pay cash for premium cabin, and since there are different point in times in which you can acquire a premium class seat, should there be a strategy involved?  Do all offers end up costing you the same?  Is there a way to know for certain what the best upgrade deal would be and at what point?  With United, you have three main ways to bag a premium cabin seat when paying out of pocket.  This of course excludes award and/or premier status upgrades.  Let’s take a look at the three.

Let’s assume I want to fly in premium cabin from Chicago to Newark, and determine whether there’s a way that will cost me less than others.

Option #1 – Purchase a premium cabin ticket.










Option #2 – Accept the initial purchase Upsell offer from Economy to First.




Option #3 – Wait until after your ticket purchase has processed and request an upgrade from Economy to First.



Here’s how the math looks like:

Option #1 – United First ticket for $486.40.

Option #2 – United Economy ticket for $116.40 + Initial upsell offer for $358.00 = $474.40.

Option #3 – United Economy ticket for $116.40 + Upgrade request after processing for $370.00 = $486.40. (Typically adds up to buying premium straight up)

Clearly there’s a winner here, but not by much.  In this particular case, Option #2 would save you $12, which doesn’t seem like much.  However, depending on the route, flight length, and seat/fare class availability (you can view the fare class by setting your profile preferences to default your United website experience to Expert Mode) these numbers might change, making your savings more substantial.  In my experience, however, option #2 tends to be the most economical of the three.  There are some rare occasions when there may be plenty premium cabin seats a short period of time before the departure date and option #3 ends up being better; but it’s the lesser amount of the times.  This would be a great opportunity then to leverage United’s 24-hr cancellation policy!  Except the initial upsell offer charge is not considered part of the original ticket purchased, and thus is non-refundable, per the upgrade terms.

Beware not to think you can cancel within 24 hours and receive a full refund for the originally purchase fare AND the upgrade.









In light of this, there’s no certain way to find out whether option #2 will, in fact, end up being the best option.  It’ll be a gamble.  Instead make the time to leverage all the available methods to earn UA miles, thus avoiding the need to purchase premium cabin tickets altogether, and book them as award tickets.

Give me your thoughts