United changes upgrades for the better with PlusPoints

Whenever an airline reaches out with “changes” to a loyalty program, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. United’s recent email was no exception, though my momentary unease was quickly put to rest.

This week, United is introducing an entirely new currency, called PlusPoints. Unlike MileagePlus miles, which can be redeemed for flights, merchandise and other goodies, PlusPoints specifically cover upgrades, both on domestic and international flights, as loyalty chief Luc Bondar explained to Brian Kelly on today’s episode of Talking Points:

This new currency will replace the existing Global Premier Upgrades (GPUs) and Regional Premier Upgrades (RPUs), though this change represents an improvement, overall.

PointsPlus replaces United
PointsPlus replaces United’s current upgrade system. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

On Dec. 4, all outstanding GPUs will be converted into 40 PlusPoints, and RPUs will become 20 PlusPoints. Then, moving forward, elites will earn upgrades at the same rate that they do today — in other words, United Premier Platinum, 1K and Global Services (GS) members will all earn PlusPoints as follows:

  • 40 upon reaching Platinum
  • 280 upon reaching 1K or GS
  • 40 for each subsequent 25,000 PQMs (1K and GS only)

Currently, Platinum members receive two RPUs — they can still use 40 PlusPoints to upgrade regional flights in the future, but they can also choose to redeem the same number for one Polaris upgrade.

Redemptions break down as follows:

  • Economy to domestic first/regional business: 20 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Premium Plus: 20 PlusPoints
  • Premium Plus to Polaris: 30 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Polaris (Y, B, M, E, U, H, Q, V, W): 40 PlusPoints
  • Economy to ANA business (G, E, Y, B): 40 PlusPoints
  • Business to ANA first (J, C, D): 40 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Copa business: 40 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Lufthansa business (G, E, Y, B, M, U, H, Q): 40 PlusPoints
  • Business to Lufthansa first (J, C, D): 40 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Polaris (S, T, L, K, G): 80 PlusPoints
  • Economy to Polaris (“skip waitlist”): TBD PlusPoints

As you’ll notice, upgrade redemptions are largely identical or an improvement; long-haul economy to Premium Plus requires the equivalent of one RPU, as of Dec. 4, rather than a GPU. Additionally, it’ll soon be possible to upgrade discounted long-haul economy fares in the S, T, L, K, G fare buckets — as long as you haven’t purchase a basic economy ticket — enabling elites to apply certificates to waitlist “long-shot” upgrades without the requirement to buy up to a far more expensive “W” fare.

The carrier will also allow customers to waitlist upgrades before redeeming PlusPoints — points won’t be deducted from your account until the waitlist clears, so you can standby for a higher cabin on multiple flights even if you don’t yet have enough PlusPoints in your account to clear all waitlisted upgrades. You will need to have the necessary points in your account before a waitlist will clear, however — the system will skip over your reservation until you do. You’ll also be able to apply an upgrade using United’s mobile app, in addition to via the website and call centers.

Unfortunately, Copa upgrades now require the equivalent of one GPU per segment, representing a 100% jump. With a hub in Panama (PTY), Copa’s flights are considerably shorter than many of those offered by ANA and Lufthansa, so that’s a bit frustrating to see, in my opinion. Personally, I’ll hesitate to burn the equivalent of one GPU for a flight in a Copa recliner seat, but this PlusPoints shift does represent an improvement overall, though.

Savvy flyers will be able to redeem PlusPoints to move up to Lufthansa first class. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
Savvy flyers will be able to redeem PlusPoints to move up to Lufthansa first class. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

You may have also noticed a new option called “skip waitlist.” With that redemption, customers will be able to confirm an upgrade even when standard upgrade availability (PN for Global Services or PZ for all other members) is not available. Customers will see eligible flights when booking a flight at least 30 days in advance, along with the number of points required to confirm an upgrade at booking. There may be a Premium Plus “skip waitlist” option available for when that upgrade fare class (RN) isn’t open as well.

United hasn’t provided any hints as to how many PlusPoints you’ll need to use for this option, though I would expect it to be more than the 80 points needed to upgrade discounted economy fares. Additionally, Polaris seats confirmed using the “skip waitlist” option will be entirely unchangeable, with the exception of when United publishes a change fee/fare difference waiver in the case of irregular operations.

Aside from “skip waitlist” and the increase in points required to upgrade with Copa, United’s existing policies will remain in place. That means upgrades will still expire at the end of January one full year after they’re earned. For example, any upgrades earned in 2019 will expire at the end of January 2021. Upgrades can still be applied to any traveler’s flight, as well. However, MileagePlus members using the “skip the waitlist” option may only upgrade their own flights (or those of a companion).

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.