United Airlines has long required the purchase of at least a W-bucket fare on international flights for which a person wishes to upgrade into Business Class using a Systemwide Upgrade instrument (SWU). SWUs, for anyone that doesn’t already know, are bestowed upon 100,000-mile 1K flyers once hitting 100,000 elite qualifying miles (EQMs) in a calendar year. Six are deposited at that threshold, with 2 more for every additional 50,000 EQMs flown during the same year.
The fare difference between the lowest coach fare and upgradable fares using a SWU vary and can be negligible or significant. Last night I priced out several markets all on United metal (United-operated aircraft) for popular destinations around the world. I selected travel dates in October this year and priced out lowest & upgradable fares on the same pairings of flights. Below is a summary of my research:
The lowest fare for Washington Dulles to Geneva happened to be in the W-bucket to begin with, so that’s why there’s no difference there. Otherwise, you can see the price differentials are across the board and no real logic or formula can be gleaned from the results. What is most likely, of course, is in the markets where United can easily sellout the Business cabin, you’ll see the larger spread between the least expensive & upgradable fare such as Sydney and Hong Kong.
This then brings into the picture a risk vs. reward situation for SWU holders. Not too long ago the buy-up to an upgradable fare to Sydney was only around $200-$400 total for the roundtrip. Lately, as you can see above, that differential has increased to the point of frustration for many of United’s frequent flyers. I’ve read numerous reports where people have missed out on the upgrade to Sydney after shelling out the extra money only to ride in coach. Personally, my tolerance level would sit at around the $200-$300 mark unless confirmable space was available at the time of booking for some of the higher amounts. That space, however, is rarely ever available in advance.
All but one of the upgradable fares from my chart were in the W-bucket (the other was “V”), and United will clear upgrades based on elite status, fare basis (bucket) and time on the waitlist, in that order. One strategy to ensure clearing ahead of the W-fare people is to buy-up to a higher bucket if your wallet can bear it. As nearly all of my travel is self-funded, I have only ever used my SWUs where I see confirmable space internationally (has been Europe only so far), or on United’s domestic premium service flights to/from New York’s Kennedy Airport. Many will claim my use of a SWU on a domestic flight is a total waste, but for my travel budget & pattern it ends up being a worthwhile.
I doubt United will ever remove the W-bucket & higher restriction given the drive for unit revenue and reported rebound in higher yield business traffic. It remains a hot topic on the frequent flyer boards, some even desiring a refund of the fare difference if the upgrade doesn’t clear. In the end it’s a love/hate scenario and ends up being a great perk when availability is there, but definitely damages the value of United’s top tier mileage-based elite status when not available.