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TravelUnited miles and cash upgrades: Last-minute Polaris business-class upgrade

United miles and cash upgrades: Last-minute Polaris business-class upgrade

I’m a frequent United Airlines flyer. I pretty much have to be since I live near Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) — a United hub where most of the gates in the airport belong to the legacy carrier.

As such, I have lots of miles from United’s MileagePlus program, and I qualify for Gold status. I’m also the plus-one of a United Million Miler, so I have companion 1K status, too. This companion status is wonderful for free checked bags, complimentary extra-legroom seats and domestic upgrades when space is available. What I don’t have, though, are PlusPoints — the best way to get a guaranteed upgrade on an international flight.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on United Airlines

Instead, with only miles in hand, United offers a system of more or less “bidding” on an upgrade; both a dollar amount and a mile amount are assigned to an upgrade, and then you’re relegated to a waitlist to see if you’ll get the paid upgrade. Even though 1K status sometimes moves me up the waitlist, that doesn’t always work for me.

For example, I was flying home from Johannesburg in a coach seat last year, and I attempted to upgrade to Polaris for $500 and 30,000 miles. (Even though the upgrade isn’t confirmed right away, the cash and miles are automatically deducted — which I usually like to think is a good sign. You get them refunded later if the upgrade doesn’t go through.)

My upgrade didn’t clear on that flight, even though the flight looked mostly empty when I checked the week before. After a week on safari, I came back to find my seat still in the back of the plane, a situation that has made me wary of United’s upgrade waitlist option.

Related: Complete guide to United’s revenue, award and upgrade fare classes


This was front of mind on a flight home from Paris last month after a Viking river cruise on the Seine. To upgrade to Polaris, I saw an option that would add me to the upgrade waitlist for 20,000 miles and $550; honestly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cough up that much. I’d have been happy with either the dollar amount or the miles outlay, but doing both for an unconfirmed seat didn’t sound great. Plus, United wasn’t offering a straight-up miles redemption option. For a seven-hour flight, I thought I could ride it out in the back.

That was before my flight was delayed. On my way to my airport shuttle, I saw my outbound flight was already experiencing a two-hour delay. That meant I’d be spending at least four hours in the airport before my international flight. Suddenly, the thought of an upgraded flight was much more appealing.

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Cash turns out to be king for a last-minute Polaris upgrade

So, I decided to ask the check-in agent about upgrade options when I checked my bag.

Would it be possible, I ventured, to upgrade to Polaris? First, she looked at her screen and told me the same redemption I had seen online: “20,000 miles and $550.”

I asked if there was a miles-only redemption option. She said she didn’t see one. Then I asked what turned out to be my most important question: How about a cash-only option?

She looked closer, and if I wasn’t mistaken, she smiled. “That would be $595.” Trust me when I tell you I asked her to repeat that amount.

So, for just $45 more than the cash-plus-miles price, I could buy my way up to Polaris. There was no waitlist to deal with and no miles that needed to be redeemed.


Know the current valuation of your miles

Because I frequently look at my United miles and valuations, I knew the cash offer was an exceptionally good deal. (I’ll note here that it helps to know the valuations of your most frequently used points and miles for last-minute decisions such as this one.)

According to TPG’s current points and miles valuations, United miles are worth 1.3 cents each. At this valuation, 20,000 points would be equal to $260. However, my price to skip the miles redemption and simply pay cash was just $49 more.

That’s a savings value of $211.

This was definitely the deal I was waiting for. I could hold on to my miles and, for roughly $600, upgrade myself to Polaris (with accompanying lounge access for my extended airport stay).

Ice cream sundae — the cherry on top of my Polaris upgrade. ERIC ROSEN/THE POINTS GUY

Bottom line

There’s no guarantee that a better upgrade deal will be available at check-in. However, it’s always worth asking. In this case, I was able to upgrade with a cash-only deal; I saved thousands of dollars off what a regularly priced Polaris ticket from Paris to Newark would have cost. (Currently, the lowest available Polaris seat on the same route is $4,834.)

It helps to know what your point valuations are and the maximum you’re willing to spend before you ask for a paid upgrade. In this case, it truly paid off. I was able to fly home in comfort for $595 and got to keep my miles for another trip.

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