Monday, February 19, 2007

United's Systemwide Upgrades

United Airlines has several forms of electronic upgrades, but the most valuable (at least to those who travel internationally) are the Systemwide Upgrades (SWU). An SWU can be used to upgrade to the next class of service (economy to business, business to first) on any leg (regardless of length of number of flight segments) that United flies. My longest such upgrade was a part of my trip-from-hell where I used a single SWU to upgrade the LHR->ORD->HKG leg of 11,746 miles from coach to business.

However, there are restrictions (of course). In the old days, the SWU used to be able to upgrade any and all fares -- if you had a seat on the plan, you could upgrade it, provided an upgrade was available. Now, the upgrades, while still powerful, are limited to Y, B, E, M, U, H, Q, V, and W international economy fares (E-Upgrade Rules). This is still much better than the set of fares that you can use miles to upgrade: Y, B, M and H (United Upgrade Award Rules).

And, of course, it all depends upon availability. If the upgrade seat isn't available, you can't have it (but at least you can be wait listed to get the upgrade should it become available).

The next question one might ask is how does one come by these cool SWUs?

Unfortunately for most travelers, SWUs are only issued to Mileage Plus members who achieve 1K status (by earning 100,000 qualifying miles or flying 100 segments in a year). In January, each 1K member is given 6 SWU. In addition at each multiple of 50,000 miles above 100,000, the 1K member will be given 2 additional SWUs (so at 150,000 miles you get 2 SWUs and again at 200,000 miles).

There is one other time that you get SWUs -- when you cross one million lifetime flight miles, United gives you 3 SWUs.

There is a gray market for selling SWUs on the likes of eBay. Of course, they will all claim that they are not selling you the upgrade itself, but an envelope that contains the upgrade -- that way the seller hopes to stay within the rules United has against selling the upgrades. The price of the upgrade varies with the amount of time left on the upgrade (they only last 1 year) with an average of around $400.

I have never sold or bought an upgrade (really -- I'm not just saying that for United's eyes), so I can't tell you how good it works. I have given upgrades to my family members and my sister has shared some of hers with me, so I presume it would work fine -- I would be less than comfortable with providing a stranger with my itinerary details so that they could apply the upgrade.

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Anonymous said...

Very good article, seems I will only get SWUs when I cross the 1Million milestone, which is about 30 years from now.

Anonymous said...

Very good, seems that normal people like me would only get SWUs when I finally crossed the 1M milestone which is about 30 years from now.

Conor P. Cahill said...

Yeah.... I have given some to my family in years where I didn't travel a lot internationally and I have received some in other years.

There's also the gray market on eBay where you can buy an envelope for something like $400 which just happens to have the right to use someone else's SWU in it. Of course, just because you bought the upgrade coupon, doesn't mean you will get the upgrade, so I'd be very careful to confirm that there were upgrade seats open before doing so.

As an example, I'm flying to NRT next week and as a 1K, I'm still on the waitlist and business class is totally sold out so it isn't looking good at me using it for myself (and it would look much worse for others who don't have status).

Also, with the upcoming change to business class seats (they are moving to a lay-flat seats), the number of potential upgrade seats will drop significantly -- making it even harder to get an upgrade.

Anonymous said...

I purchased once an "envelope with travel advice" with two tickets, and it worked well.

For the seller it is quite troublesome...I think he has to go to the airport and confirm. It is not all that easy, as it sounds.

I am 1K flyer, so it did not flash a red warning lamp at United, but if you are not a frequent flyer, there may be repercussions. United has stiff penalties for rule violations. The seller and yourself are running the risk to loose all your miles.