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Disclaimer: I use the word “upgrade” a few times in the post. I am not referring to buying a cash ticket in economy and trying to use miles or cash to get it into business class. I am referring to using miles to change an award from economy to business. The first type of upgrade is almost universally a bad deal. The second type is a fine deal.

United has a litany of award fees. Booking by phone is $25. Cancelling is $150. Changing the origin, destination, award, type, cabin, or anything within 21 days of departure is $75.

But I’ve had some pretty good luck changing United awards without incurring the stated fees. I wrote about the way I figured out to Save $100 or More on Cancelling United Awards.

And I once changed an award from Europe to the US without incurring a $75 change fee or having the 20,000 extra miles for my upgrade from economy to business class deducted from my account. (That was a fluke caused by the fact that fees seem to be manually applied by agents over the phone.)

I’ve figured out another way to save up to $75 per ticket in certain circumstances.

I stumbled upon a customer friendly glitch at You can change the cabin of your award at any time for no fee as long as the flights remain the same.

This contradicts United’s stated change rules, and it can save you hundreds of dollars.

It’s pretty clear that changing the cabin of an award should run $75 for non-Premiers or $50 for me as a Premier Silver.

But that hasn’t been my experience.

A few months ago I booked Rookie Alli a one way ticket from Buenos Aires to Washington DC for 30,000 United miles and $77. A few weeks ago, I decided to upgrade her to a flat bed for the 20,000 mile difference between economy and business class for her birthday–no jewelry from me.

I expected to be dinged with a $50 change fee.

I knew there were two ways to get her to DC–through Newark and Houston. I didn’t care which way she got there as long as I could find a BusinessFirst bed for her.

Her original booking was through Newark.

I know, from booking hundreds of awards, that United tends to release a lot of Saver award space in the last few weeks (and the last few days) if a flight looks like it won’t be full. This is especially true of business and first class seats. Check out the Buenos Aires to Newark direct flight for the next two months.

Green means there is a BusinessFirst bed available

Of the ten days with business class space in the next two months, six are in the next two weeks, and three are in the next five days.

I logged into my United account two weeks before her scheduled flight and performed an award search. I found that I could switch her existing economy reservation to the same flights, but in business class, for 20,000 miles and $0.

Not all flights were free to change though. Routing through Houston would cost 20,000 miles and $50, the standard change fee for a Premier Silver.

I quickly selected the Newark flight, and the confirmation screen listed the change fee as $0.00.

The Play

I often recommend booking economy flights to people with the hope that business or first class space will become available later.

This news means you should book the exact flights that are likely to open up business class space. You can guess that by searching award space for this week on the routes you’re considering to see which routes currently have a lot of last second award space.

Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, but it’s sometimes the best thing you can do to predict. Whichever route seems to be a gold mine of last minute premium space would be the best to book now to avoid change fees later.


There is no change fee being levied on to upgrade awards to a higher cabin of service as long as the flights are changed.

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