Analysis of United Airlines’ lowest coach vs. upgradable fares using a Systemwide Upgrade

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:

a table with numbers and symbols

Fares researched June 13, 2011

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 “Vâ€), 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.



  1. A couple thoughts and question on this research….

    1) Are you looking at lowest published fares or what is actually available on a specific date? Just because a K fare is published doesn’t mean that one will ever really have the opportunity to buy it thanks to the revenue management gods so the potential savings/markup numbers can be very theoretical rather than actual.

    2) If you’re interested in tracking SWU-able fares (including pricing history trends) on a variety of routes check out I’m tracking about 100departure cities in the USA and about 20 destinations with details on all W fares sortable and searchable.

    • Hi Seth,
      1) I actually priced the fares out, so did use the real world all-in total. Some markets did end up pricing out into the lowest published fare bases, but some not.
      2) Awesome resources you have! I recall having seen them before & thanks for posting the link. Nicely done!

  2. This is a source of huge frustration to me. I do a shade over 100,000 miles per year. Economy Plus sold me on United in the first place and the SWUs sealed the deal. I do recognise that demand ebbs and flows and the useability of SWUs will vary, so I will give it some time. However, so far this year, I have not been able to use any; if they all go unused, I shall have to look very closely at AA. I’d lose Economy Plus but gain more SWUs, and more useable ones.

    • @NB: Ouch, sorry to hear you haven’t been able to use any. American is definitely more lenient and giving, as you say. I haven’t monitored how tightly they control their inventory… will have to read some of the remarks on FlyerTalk & MilePoint.

  3. Shh. Don’t tell AA about this. Even when you see a bargain fare (ie: recent fares to Japan, etc), you could still use an SWU on them. Really valuable. They can also be used to upgrade I (discounted business) fares to First Class on three-cabin flights – this was a recent change – a rare bona fide enhancement.

    The eight AA annual SWUs are by far the easiest-to-use SWUs out there. UA second, DL a distant third.

  4. That is the main reason why I no longer fly on UA anymore. American Airlines is the easily way to get an upgrade regardless of fare class so I always choose to fly with them internationally. They even give more international stickers (8 total). I wish however that I can use the upgrades on OneWorld carriers like you can with other Star Alliances.

  5. obviously all these things are moving targets, but i’ll say that the diff is quite a bit LOWER than I have really ever seen for some of these routes. Usually I am amazed that the upgradeable fare is more like 100% more, SFO FRA can be 600-800, with an upgradeable fare sometimes easily 1500$. Same is true for SFO or IAD to Asia. Lowest economy can be somewhat reasonable, and then they want sometimes 2000$ for an upgradeable fare. In the past couple years it has become almost worthless for a 1K to have the SWU’s, they are so often very expensive or it simply doesn’t clear. Back in the 90’s, early 00’s it was sweet.

    • The fares certainly do fluctuate and you’re absolutely right… times have changed and the value of SWUs has been reduced in many markets, especially Australia.

  6. Late last year I went to Singapore from Denver, on the way there I went DEN-ORD-HKG-SIN, and on the way back I went SIN-NRT-ORD-DEN. On the way there I shelled out $500 and 25K miles to fly in business. On the way back I was upgraded the whole way on a systemwide. The cheapest available ticket was about $1300, calling in to UA reservations they were able to upgrade the fare on the way back to be systemwide eligible for $200.

    • Hi Kris,
      The $$+miles option is certainly painful in my opinion. Glad you got the return using a SWU and it looks to have fallen in the ORD-HKG range from the above chart at ~$200 one-way.

  7. Is possible to know is an upgrade class is avalible before booking? previusly in continental they showed the avalible class.. tody only after ticked is issued you can clain the SWU.. is it right?

    • @jose: Yes, using the “Expert Mode” on and looking for R-class space (business class, for example). Expert mode can be activated in your profile under “Flight Search Preferences.” Also, paid tools like ExpertFlyer and the KVS Tool will do the trick.

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