United Upgrade Awards That Refund Miles and Cash, Let You Keep the Upgrade

A reader noticed something funny happening with United miles (plus cash co-pay) upgrades. If the first segment of the itinerary didn’t clear, the miles and co-pay would get credited back even if the first segment was a short flight and the long international flight was upgraded to business class.

  • Example itinerary: East Coast – Washington Dulles – Europe – Copenhagen. Domestic short hope to Dulles upgrade doesn’t clear, passengers flies DC – Europe in business, gets both their 20,000 miles and $550 co-pay credited back.

  • Same thing happens on the return: United flight Europe – Washington Dulles is upgraded, but short domestic flight doesn’t clear. Miles and co-pay refunded.

  • The Star Alliance wrinkle: He’s flying a Star Alliance partner airline intra-Europe. That segment wasn’t upgraded (and Star Alliance upgrades with United miles would generally require being booked as full fare tickets).

    I received an automated email notice from United telling me that I was on the upgrade standby list [intra-Europe]… which was booked on a T fare.

Perhaps there was something about how this upgrade was set up, in the case of both the outbound and return itineraries the first segment did not clear (and the last segment did not clear).

This reader reached out to United. He wanted them to charge him for the upgrade. He feels that United has been fair to him over time and though you win some and lose some with airlines and hopefully it comes out in the wash, 40,000 and $1100 was too much to pocket without saying something.

Now the way this is supposed to work is that if you clear one segment, you pay for the award. For international premium business class (what United markets as ‘Polaris’ even though most flights don’t have the new Polaris seats) if you clear the domestic segment but not the international one you get your miles and cash back. Not the other way around as in this case.

United was contacted over a month ago. As I predicted to him, he never received an acknowledgment. United may have a program to proactively identify software bugs they aren’t very good at dealing with customer communications when a simple cut and paste response doesn’t suffice.

Maybe writing about this will help others figure out what’s going on with their accounts when requesting United’s exorbitantly-priced miles plus cash awards. Or maybe it’ll encourage United to fix the issue. It’s too much to hope that it’ll encourage them to replace their inferior SHARES passenger service system when other airlines have better technologies and it leaks revenue like a sieve while providing poor customer experience.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I report bugs all the time to United.
    I generally get no reply….or a generic reply.
    NEVER….thank you and we have fixed the problem.
    Even when over a period of months, I report the same bug.

    You would think a real human being would be somewhere in their system to actually read the technical problem reports that come in, and even better, a human being to follow through to see that the bugs are fixed.

  2. Instrument-sponsored upgrades work the same way: if the overwater segment does not clear, but the shorthaul segment to/from the overwater leg does, the instrument is to be refunded and the pax will remain cleared into the premium cabin on the shorthaul segment as a courtesy.

    A small consolation for the instruments as United requires W+ fares (rather than discount inventory) to be eligible for an upgrade.

    United mileage upgrade amounts and copays on all but the highest fares are rather extortionate, so I don’t have much experience with the particular scenario, but I suspect it is rooted in the same logic as what I describe.

    My hope is that this is such a rare occurrence that United doesn’t see fit to revise its policy as a result of publication…

  3. Same thing happened to me upgrading a friend using a GPU, HNL-ORD-DCA. The HNL-ORD segment didn’t clear (not surprising), but ORD-DCA did. I was confused when my GPU was returned less than a week later.

  4. Gary why do you publicize this stuff? A while back a friend told you in confidence a significant loophole in an airline system and you immediately published it and killed it off – well done. (Needless to say once burned twice shy). I suggest you try to start to control your alimentary canal. You just end up pissing some people off and others can’t benefit.

  5. Every few years an irrops situation will cause me to get a GPU refunded even though it ought to have been consumed. (This is typically when an agent manually rebooks me into Z.) I figured this is generally in UA’s favor because:

    1) It would cost them real money to spend the time to “fix” the problem, vs the notional lost money in having cleared the upgrade (which was otherwise an empty seat). It doesn’t make sense to take up the agents’ time.

    2) The extra GPU probably causes me to book a flight I wouldn’t have otherwise taken, which is profit to them. The secret that UA hasn’t figured out is that if they gave me unlimited GPUs I’d probably be flying a lot more…

  6. I think this one is pretty well known, even at United. I have just assumed that they believe the cost of reprogramming the system exceeds any lost revenue through returned GPUs and deliberately choose to ignore it.

  7. This sounds like a good opportunity to selectively waitlist 😛 Intl upgrades are too rich for my blood though. For $1100 you could buy 2 RT tickets!

    @Gene MUAs are instrument-supported and you misunderstood the article. OP cleared the big segment and should not have gotten the cash/miles back.

  8. this isn’t new…was one of the few benefits legacy United flyers received from Continental (was their policy) with the merger

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