On Friday I flew from our home Arcata-Eureka Airport to Chicago with one of my boys. We’re here for a couple days before moving on to Detroit to enjoy the Detroit area with fellow blogger Mark Ostermann of Miles to Memories.

Our tickets to Chicago were booked for 12,500 United miles per person. This was far better than paying for a cash ticket out or our tiny airport, and still a better deal than even SFO. It also saved us the hassle of driving to the Bay Area.

When I went to check-in, I noticed that there were quite a few economy plus seats available on the 757 flight from LAX to ORD. First class was also pretty empty. I selected economy plus for the two of us on check-in, a perk of holding United Silver status. I figured we’d end up on the upgrade list for first with a reasonable chance of landing it.

Except we weren’t even on the upgrade list, all because I missed one critical detail.

United’s Quirky Award Ticket Upgrade Policy

I’ve been flying primarily with Delta these days, and Delta’s upgrade policy s simple: all tickets except for basic economy qualify for complimentary upgrades to first class and domestic DeltaOne for the Medallion member and a companion. This even includes award tickets.

I’d forgotten that United doesn’t have the same upgrade policy. Similar to Delta, all paid fares except for basic economy are eligible for complimentary upgrades for Premier members. The difference is on award tickets, which is what I’d booked.

I knew United does offer complimentary upgrades for Premier members on award tickets, as I’d enjoyed the benefit once last year. What is the difference between then and now? I finally found it in the MileagePlus upgrade terms:

“Premier members who are primary cardholders for certain Chase-issued MileagePlus credit cards are eligible for Complimentary Premier Upgrades when traveling on award tickets on United-operated flights.”

That was the issue. Between summer of last year and summer of this year I’d dropped my United MileagePlus Explorer credit card. Technically not dropped, but I did downgrade it to a no-fee version for the sole purpose of retaining access to XN award space (something that can in handy for this very trip).

The second issue is that only the Premier member traveling on an award ticket is eligible for an upgrade. So my son and I were out of luck on two counts.


So there you have it. Award tickets on United are eligible for complimentary upgrades, but you must also be a cardholder of the Mileage Plus Explorer card, Club card, or Presidential Plus card. You also won’t receive a companion upgrade. The devil is in the details, as always.