Aside from booking award flights, another potentially valuable way to redeem United miles is to upgrade your seat on a Star Alliance partner airline through Star Alliance Upgrade Awards.
While using United miles for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards is neither particularly easy nor widely applicable, it’s certainly worth understanding how they work and what’s at stake, as there’s certainly value to be found if you know where to look.
In This Post
- Using United Miles for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards
- How to Book Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with United Miles
- Sweet Spots for United Star Alliance Upgrade Awards
Using United Miles for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards
Most Star Alliance airlines allow members to use loyalty points from different programs to upgrade the class of service on a Star Alliance airline that’s not associated with the loyalty program.
For example, with Star Alliance Upgrade Awards, you can use United miles to upgrade a flight with EVA Air, Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles to upgrade a flight with ANA, or Turkish Airlines miles to upgrade an Air Canada flight, as long as you fulfill a laundry list of conditions.
There are many nuances to how Star Alliance Upgrade Awards work with each airline, so let’s go over the rules with United MileagePlus.
First, when using United miles for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards, you can only request a single-cabin upgrade.
This means that if you’re booked into economy on an aircraft with economy, business class, and First Class, you won’t be able to use miles to upgrade directly into First Class, bypassing the business class cabin.
However, on aircraft with only two classes of service, you can upgrade from economy to business class, since this follows the one-cabin upgrade rule.
Determining Upgrade Availbility
Prior to requesting a Star Alliance Upgrade Award through United MileagePlus, you’ll want to determine whether or not there’s Star Alliance Upgrade Award availability for your desired flight.
The most reliable indication of availability is if there’s an award seat available for the same flight. This means that if you can book, say, an EVA Air business class seat with points, you should be able to request a Star Alliance Upgrade Award for it.
Likewise, if you can book a Lufthansa First Class seat with miles, you should be able to request a Star Alliance Upgrade Award for it.
You can use award search tools for this, or you can just search for availability through your loyalty program of choice.
While there still may be Star Alliance Upgrade Award availability in the absence of regular award availability, there isn’t a surefire way of knowing this outside of submitting a request and hoping for the best, or by contacting the airline separately.
To be clear, just because there’s an empty business class seat on the flight for which you’d like to request a Star Alliance Upgrade Award doesn’t mean that you can use your points or miles to upgrade.
If there’s Star Alliance Upgrade Award availability for your flight, the next step is to book a flight in an eligible booking class with an airline that participates in the program, as listed below.
Book an Eligible Cash Fare
One of the most important factors to understand with Star Alliance Upgrade Awards is that you need to book an eligible cash fare to apply for an upgrade.
Unfortunately, award bookings aren’t eligible for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with United miles.
Generally speaking, you won’t be able to book a discounted fare in any class of service and request a Star Alliance Upgrade Award. Rather, you need to book a full fare, which is generally amongst the most expensive fares in any class of service.
For Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with United miles, you must book an economy “Y” or “B” fare, a business class “C” or “D” fare, or any of the following fares with various airlines:
- Air Canada: “O”
- Air China: “J” and “G”
- Air New Zealand: “E”, “U”, and “O”
- ANA: “J”, “Z”, “E”, “G”, “M”, and “U”
- Austrian Airlines: “G”, “E”, “M”, and “U”
- Copa Airlines: “M”, “H”, “Q”, “K”, “V”, “U”, “S”, “O”, “W”, “E”, “L”, “T”, and “A”
- Brussels Airlines: “G” and “E”
- Ethiopian Airlines: “G” and “S”
- EVA Air: “K”
- Lufthansa: “J”, “E”, “G”, “M”, and “U”
- SAS: “S”
- Shenzhen Airlines: “M” and “H”
- Singapore Airlines: “S”, “Z”, “J”, and “U”
- South African Airways: “M” (domestic only)
- Swiss: “J”, “M”, and “U”
When shopping for flights on the airline’s website, you should be able to see the fare code at some point along the booking process.
Alternatively, you can search for flights on ITA Matrix, or you can get in touch with an experienced travel agent with GDS access.
Upgrade requests are only valid for a single non-stop flight. If you have multiple eligible flights on your itinerary, you’ll have to submit a request for each one separately.
Another important rule to be aware of is that you can only upgrade your seat with participating carriers when the flight is marketed and operated by the same airline. In other words, codeshare flights aren’t eligible for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with United miles.
This means that if you’d like to use United miles to upgrade an EVA Air flight, you should book the flight directly with EVA Air, and not on the United website.
Even with a ticket from one of the above airlines in an eligible class of service, not every flight is upgradeable. Specifically, Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with United miles aren’t eligible on the following:
- SAS flights within Scandinavia (Norway, Denmark, and Sweden), or to and from Finland
- ANA flights within Japan, and flights operated by Air Japan
- Singapore Airlines flights on all A350, A380, and 777-300ER aircraft, as well as “D” fares
Make Sure You Have Enough Miles
The number of United miles required for a Star Alliance Upgrade Award is based on your origin and destination, as well as on your original cabin class.
You can search for how many United miles will be required for any given upgrade by using United’s Upgrade Awards search tool.
Make sure you select “Star Alliance operated” under the “Filter by fare class” field, as you’ll otherwise see the miles required to upgrade flights with United.
For flights originating from the continental US, Alaska, and Canada, you can expect to redeem the following number of United miles for the listed destinations:
Economy to Business Class
Business Class to First Class
Within continental US, Alaska, and Canada
Northern South America
Southern South America
Central & Southern Africa
Australia & New Zealand
At the time of writing, all Star Alliance carriers except for Air India participate in United’s Star Alliance Upgrade Awards in some capacity.
How to Book Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with United Miles
If you’ve taken the steps to ensure there’s Star Alliance Upgrade Award availability on your desired flight, and you’ve booked an eligible fare, the next step is to submit the upgrade request.
Once your flight is booked, you can then submit a request to upgrade right away, or up until 24 hours before your flight departs. However, it’s best to send it right away, as the upgrade availability may disappear if you wait too long.
Here, enter the Star Alliance member airline you’ve booked with, the flight number, your current cabin class, the route, the departure date, and the names of the travellers. You can request an upgrade for up to four travellers, and you don’t need to be on the same ticket or travelling with them to request an upgrade from your account.
It’s important to note that you’ll need to have enough United miles in your account to submit the request, since as soon as the request goes through, the miles will be deducted from your MileagePlus account.
Your request may be processed immediately, or it may take a while to process. If there isn’t Star Alliance Upgrade Award availability for your flight, you can still submit a request, and it may clear eventually.
If your request is confirmed, you’ll still earn miles as per the original ticketed booking class, and not based on the upgraded class of service.
If your upgrade request isn’t granted, your United miles will be redeposited into your account 24–48 hours after the flight’s departure.
Sweet Spots for United Star Alliance Upgrade Awards
While most travellers won’t be able to take advantage of using United miles for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards, there’s definitely some amazing value to be found in specific situations.
Let’s walk through a few examples of when they might be particularly useful.
Preserving Your Balance
One situation in which using United miles for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards can be helpful is if you’re working with a relatively low balance in your MileagePlus account, and don’t have any way to top it up for a redemption.
Since you’re limited to what’s available to otherwise be booked with points for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards, you can consider this method as another type of “Money + Miles” option.
For example, suppose you’d like to fly round-trip from Los Angeles to Taipei with EVA Air in business class, and you’re flexible with dates. You find award availability in both directions, and then proceed to look at cash fares for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards.
Amongst Star Alliance carriers, EVA Air is known to offer comparatively lower flexible fares that are eligible for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards.
You wind up booking Economy Up “B” fares for a total of $2,025 (USD).
You’d need to use 30,000 miles per direction for a Star Alliance Upgrade Award on this route, for a total cost of 60,000 miles plus the cash fare of $2,025 (USD).
This way, you’d wind up in the same seats that’d otherwise have cost you $5,485 (USD)…
Or 216,400 miles plus $39 (USD) taxes and fees if you booked them directly with United miles to begin with.
That’s a pretty great deal, and it balances using a moderate amount of miles and cash to get into a great business class product for less.
An Opportunistic Upgrade
In some cases, travellers who fly for business or work are booked into flexible fares to begin with. While it may cost the employer more, the flexible fares also protect against any losses in the event of plans changing and needing to cancel.
For example, let’s suppose that you’re travelling back from Frankfurt (FRA) to Newark (EWR) after a business trip. You’ve been booked into Lufthansa business class on a “D” fare, which is eligible for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with United miles.
In the days leading up to your flight back, you notice that there’s an award seat available for Lufthansa First Class on your flight.
To upgrade from business class to First Class, you’d need to redeem 40,000 miles, which is a far cry less than the 121,000 miles it would otherwise cost.
Assuming it clears without issue, you’d then be able to enjoy the Lufthansa First Class Terminal and a very comfortable flight home.
This same approach would work for anyone who tends to pay cash for flexible fares for personal travel.
Buy Miles and Upgrade
Lastly, a particularly savvy way to leverage Star Alliance Upgrade Awards with United miles might be to take advantage of a “Buy Miles” promotion in tandem with Star Alliance Upgrade Awards.
Like many programs, United MileagePlus puts on sales to buy United miles with a bonus or discount a few times a year.
In some cases, buying miles can be a great deal, especially if you were going to pay cash for the same flights to begin with.
Let’s suppose you only have 1,000 miles in your account, but you have your eyes on the EVA Air flights outlined above.
If United were selling miles with a 100% bonus, the cost of acquisition would be 1.88 cents per point (USD). In this case, buying 60,000 miles to upgrade flights in both directions would cost around $1,128 (USD).
Therefore, if the cash rates for business class flights were $5,485 (USD), you’d still have saved $2,332 (USD), since your total out-of-pocket cost is $3,153 (USD): $2,025 (USD) for the flights, and $1,128 (USD) for buying miles.
Plus, this is still less than buying the 216,400 miles you’d need to book the flights with miles in the first place.
Again, this assumes that there’s a good sale for United miles and Star Alliance Upgrade Awards happening concurrently, and that there aren’t other sales for points with other programs with more competitive award pricing.
However, it’s something to keep in mind the next time you’re shopping for a flight and there’s a sale on miles.
Using United miles for Star Alliance Upgrade Awards can be a great way to enjoy premium cabins with Star Alliance airlines without having to pay full price.
Surely, there are a number of rules and nuances that you’ll need to follow; however, if you book the correct fare class, and if your upgrade request clears, this may be one of the better ways to fly business or even First Class without paying a premium.
If you book a flight on any Star Alliance airline, and you have miles from United MileagePlus to spare, it’s certainly worth a quick check to see if your flight is eligible for an upgrade, as you may wind up well in the black.