United has gotten very difficult for redeeming saver award seats in premium cabins, at least on the routes I check. I scanned a full four months and didn’t see a single Los Angeles-Sydney or San Francisco-Sydney flight with two seats available as award tickets in first class. Only about 3 flights that had a single award seat up front. Exception is in the 3-5 days before flight, when availability seems to open up.
This was never a problem in the period from 2000 – 2002. I suspect it’s a combination of fewer seats allocated, trying to hold back space for revenue tickets and even coach upgrades (of which I found plenty) along with more demand for awards given United’s financial difficulties and the fears about loss of miles that customers face.
It is interesting that upgradeable coach tickets seem far easier to obtain, at least anecdotally. With some routing flexibility I’ve always been able to find seats to Asia in business class. The key of course is in knowing every conceivable routing and checking each one by one – starting with the transpacific flight legs and working backwards.
I really wish the website were more help in this, though. As it is the only thing you can do is get an imperfect understanding of upgrade availability by logging into united.com in expert mode and searching for award seats. If I can find a flight with an award in any class of service, united.com will display all the upgrade and award inventory codes for the flight, including upgrade codes. So I tediously work through that as a starting point with every route I can come up with. Although flights that have no free seats in any cabin could still have upgrade seats but would not be revealed with this method.