Can I Use United Miles to Upgrade a Non-United Flight?

by Sam Roecker

Reader Asks: Can I Upgrade My Air Canada Flight Using United Miles (MileagePlus)? 

I’m flying Air Canada from San Francisco (SFO) to Montréal (YUL) on an economy class ticket purchased through United. I’m a United Premier Gold with tons of MileagePlus miles and was wondering if I can upgrade my [codeshare] Air Canada flight to business class?

Sample Fare from San Francisco (SFO) to Montréal (YUL)

Star Alliance touts the benefit of being the only alliance to offer upgrade awards across all 28 of its partner airlines. While that benefit sounds enticing, it unsurprisingly comes with a (not) short list of exceptions. Before I dive into the details, two important details are worth noting: codeshare flights¹ are not eligible for upgrade awards, nor are discount economy tickets. In other words – bad news – you cannot upgrade this United-purchased Air Canada flight.

¹A codeshare flight refers to a joint marketing agreement to “share” a flight by two or more carriers. In this example, Air Canada operates the flight, but United also sells tickets with a United flight number. 

Star Alliance Upgrade Award PDF [downloand link]: United-Award-Chart

The $303 one-way economy fare displayed is ineligible for upgrades, as are most “regular” economy fares you see when searching Google Flights, Kayak, etc. Note the difference in price between “regular” economy and the Y (flexible) economy fare!

Air Canada Upgrade Using United MileagePlus Miles

Air Canada Boeing 787-9 | Image by Air Canada

Star Alliance Upgrade Awards

While United’s MileagePlus program allows members to redeem awards on most Star Alliance partners, many of the terms and conditions are exceptionally unpleasant. General rules include the following:

  • Awards are valid for one-segment, one-cabin upgrades (meaning Chicago – Frankfurt – Madrid requires two awards)
  • Upgrades are not guaranteed and subject to each carrier’s restrictions (more on that below)
  • You can redeem miles to sponsor up to four people, including travelers with a different last name
  • Upgrade requests must be made 24 hours prior to departure

There’s no specific tool that allows you to search availability, however, Saver Award availability is generally a good predictor (meaning if a Saver Business award is available on your particular flight, an Upgrade Award should clear, provided you book the correct fare class). Upgrade requests can be made electronically after your ticket is confirmed.

Here’s where the program gets ugly: 

  • Only a few (very expensive) fare classes are eligible:
    • Economy class Y and B fares
    • Business class C and D (J on some carriers)
  • Codeshare flights are not allowed
  • Waitlisting is not permitted
  • ANA and Ethiopian requests must be made within 8 weeks of departure
  • SWISS D class fares cannot be upgraded
  • Singapore flights operated on A350, A380 and 777-300ER cannot be upgraded

Here’s another example of the price disparity between “discount” economy and an upgrade-eligible fare:

Sample Y Fare Pricing ORD-LHR

  • The cheapest economy fare displayed is $836, an L class fare that is not eligible for upgrades
  • An upgradeable Y fare is a staggering $4,352 roundtrip, compared to $4,593 for paid business


Bottom line, Star Alliance upgrade awards are definitely not a sweet spot of MileagePlus. The price of a “full fare” ticket, plus the miles, plus the hassle makes this benefit remarkably unattractive.


United MileagePlus Miles Star Alliance Upgrade Award Chart

It’s as simple as using this award chart… just kidding!

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Gwayrav June 28, 2018 - 10:54 am

Thanks for this informative post. I appreciate it. I have been trying to figure out how to do this for a while and it seems it’s just not possible… or more accurately, it’s just not feasible. Surprisingly, I have found some rather decent Business Class fares… so more miles!

Sam Roecker June 28, 2018 - 11:44 am

Glad it was helpful! I find this “benefit” rather perplexing considering how easy it is (generally speaking) to use MileagePlus miles. Thanks for reading.

Eric W. June 29, 2018 - 12:58 pm

The Star Alliance upgrade benefit is really intended for use in only one scenario: if a traveler’s corporate policy requires the purchase of refundable economy tickets and doesn’t allow the purchase of business class. In that case it allows the customer to travel in business class while still following the appropriate corporate rules.

Sam Roecker June 29, 2018 - 1:08 pm

Great point, Eric. Have you used this benefit before?


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