Upgrade Shenanigans (of My Own Design)

I’m on my last long-haul trip with United Airlines today, heading to Milan for the weekend. I originally booked the outbound from Seattle to San Francisco to Newark for roughly 1,000 extra miles over traveling to Newark non-stop (the full itinerary earns over 18,000 miles).

But I knew that first segment to San Francisco would be the worst: 678 miles on a CRJ with no first class cabin, a 5:50 AM departure, and an inter-terminal bus transfer upon arrival with less than an hour to make the connection. Adding to my disappointment, my upgrade from San Francisco to Newark did not clear, despite applying a Regional Premier Upgrade over two weeks before departure. It would be a long day in coach.

I had the option to perform a same-day change to the non-stop to Newark, which even had a first class seat available, but I stayed put. The detour through San Francisco was integral to earning the miles necessary for Premier 1K status for another year. Remember, I’m going to end the year with a margin of just 36 PQMs to spare.

Then things got interesting.

I hate that United operates regional jets on roughly 40% of its flights to San Francisco and all but one flight to Los Angeles. It’s one reason I’m leaving them for American Airlines and Alaska Airlines next year. These regional jets also tend to get overbooked. Several passengers on this morning’s flight where heading to Hawaii and had no other alternative routing. I put my name in for a VDB (voluntary denied boarding) even though the offer was for only a $150 travel certificate.

Fortunately gate agents have a lot of leeway in an oversold situation. Just because the offer at check-in was $150 does not mean I (or you) had to accept it. My discussion with the gate agent was:

  • I don’t care about the travel certificate.
  • I do want my PQMs in order to requalify for elite status.
  • If you put me on the direct flight to Newark, I will miss my status goal.

I said I would make the change only if he could re-book me in full Y or F to ensure I could earn the 150% full-fare bonus PQMs. He could only do Y, but as a result I also moved to the front of the upgrade queue and cleared into seat 2A. I’m not sure yet if my RPU was taken from me, but I think I have a case for getting it returned. A comment was also included in my passenger record indicating the importance of receiving the fare bonus — sometimes an upgrade will clear but the passenger only receives credit for the original fare purchased regardless of what the boarding pass says.

A first class seat, a shorter trip, and still all the miles I need? I think that’s worth giving up a $150 travel voucher. The only downside is I’ll now clear Premier 1K status with over 600 miles to spare; I was kind of excited about a narrow victory.

Update: None of this actually worked as planned. I did have to redeem my upgrade voucher, which was fine. But I had to request original routing credit because the fare class bonus wasn’t recognized. It would have been smart to request that my new itinerary be marked as an “involuntary change” to facilitate this, but fortunately the agent I spoke to on the phone was willing to process the request. I also got a travel voucher for the inconvenience, though I never asked for one.

Something else exciting happened when I boarded: The pilot came out and addressed the cabin, thanking us for flying United. With 350,000 butt-in-seat miles on United, I have never seen this happen before. Maybe twice there was an announcement on the PA beyond the usual departure info. Is it part of a broader strategy to improve customer interactions with employees? Maybe. The pilot will get a complimentary letter to 1K Voice, but unfortunately United has made its move too late to change my mind about seeking friendly skies elsewhere.

About 

Scott created Hack My Trip while traveling on a budget during graduate school and continues to share his thoughts on better travel. He maintains elite status with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hyatt, and Starwood.
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  • Bill n DC

    Good work!

  • JulianPscheid

    Nice bargaining job. I hate those regional jets to California as well (as a PDX flyer).

  • cloudybw

    Congrats. Most likely you will be credited Z* class, where * is the first letter of the fare basis for your SEA-MXP fare component. You probably need to contact MP desk for either ORC which gives you more lifetime miles and more RDM or SEA-EWR in Y which gives you more (useless) PQM.

    • Matt

      i have not found this to be the case. Recently I was rebooked manually into Y and received credit for a Y fare (150% EQM and 125% RDM); it also qualified for the double miles promotion, though the fare basis paid did not.

    • Scottrick

      I would agree with Matt. Upgraded fares tend to reflect the Z fare class of the new seat assignment but are awarded miles under the originally purchased fare class. A rebooking situation should allow a new fare class to be substituted. This is why I was very specific with my request and asked the agent to notate the record and print out a new receipt for my itinerary.

  • Carl

    Keep an eye out for how your flight credits. Even when rebooked in Y, I believe that the system looks at your original ticket and will only credit you for the fare paid. You may have to call in and repeat the negotiation. I hope they can find the PNR notation via the ticket, as the PNR doesn’t stay around long. Good Luck on getting it.
    United has announced that SEA-SFO will become all mainline and that they are adding additional flights to be more competitive..

  • https://twitter.com/MileCollector Mark

    Earlier in the year I was rebooked from N to B, and automatically received 150% EQM.

    Also, last week I flew AMS-EWR in business, and prior to departure the captain came out and personally introduced himself, shook hands, and thanked each passenger in the business cabin.

  • shay peleg

    But really you could get a 400$ voucher

  • Aptraveler

    Well played Scott, nothing ventured nothing gained I say. But do keep an eye out for those miles, just to make sure they get credited properly. Have fun in Milan amico!

  • Matt

    I had a UA pilot LAX-JFK in October come and individually shake each of the BusinessFirst passengers hands, ask whether we were traveling for business or pleasure, and wish us a safe flight and a good time in NYC. It was a first for me as well–but there must be a few good ones left in the friendly skies. ;)

  • Akrach

    If you flew on an RJ, wouldn’t it be a Skywest captain that was actually thanking people for flying United? Am I the only one who finds this laughable?

    • Scottrick

      The flight I ended up on was a 757 from Seattle to Newark. The RJ to SFO was the oversold flight.

  • Andy McMahon

    I had a UA pilot on a DCA-ORD flight in September come out and do the same thing to first class and most of E+. He shook hands with several passengers and was apologetic about a delay as the ground crew was changing shifts. Mighty impressed with pilots like that.

  • Q

    UA pilot DEN-PDX last night also did this “curtain speech” for the First cabin. I agree it appears to be part of their “fly friendly skies” reboot. I’m a Million miler and it is the first time I’ve seen anything like it.

  • Shane

    Nice negotiation work. That’s a lot of trust in UA’s IT system to make it happen though. Regarding the captain coming out, that happened to me last year in February when I flew UA SFO-iAH. This was pre Friendly Skies campaign so it did happen (albeit rarely) before). Prior to that I’ve never seen that happen.

    • Scottrick

      Hah! Didn’t happen after all. So now I’m stuck dealing with United to figure out how to get my miles after all. I suppose I can always fall back on requesting ORC if they don’t give me the fare bonus.