My (Near Epic!) Fail With the United Airlines Waitlist Trick

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My family and I recently took a trip to Portugal using United Airlines miles to book our tickets.  Neither my daughter or my mom had ever flow international Business Class, so I really wanted to treat them (ok, my daughter is 2.5, I just wanted the cute pictures 😉 ).  And my mom had saved more than enough miles to make that happen.

I started planning the trip ~10 months ago.  I regularly checked for open award seats between Lisbon and Missoula, Montana.  I wasn’t seeing ANY available Business Class seats (on any airline!) for the return flight, so I decided to give the United Airlines waitlist trick a try.

Being Able to Treat the Ones I Love (Like Mom!) to Trips to Amazing Spots Like Lisbon Is the BEST Part of the Miles & Points Hobby

My coworker Keith had success with it for his family of 6 traveling to New Zealand.  So I figured my odds were pretty good.

The United Airlines Business Class Waitlist Trick

In theory, the process for the United Airlines waitlist trick goes like this:

  • Search and book a coach award flight on your desired route on
  • Check the airline seat map for available Business Class award seats on the same flight
  • Call United Airlines to waitlist for a Business Class or First Class Saver award seat
  • Wait (patiently) for the Business Class or First Class award seats to become available
  • Get a confirmed upgrade and fly in style!

My Experience With the United Airlines Waitlist Trick (and How I Narrowly Avoided Disaster!)

I went about booking our 3 tickets following the steps above.

Luckily, my mom has the United MileagePlus® Explorer Business Card, that gives her access to more available award seats.  So it was much easier for me to find the saver coach tickets we needed.

I booked 3 one-way coach saver awards from Lisbon to Missoula for 30,000 United Airlines miles each (90,000 United Airlines miles total) online.  Then called United Airlines’ customer service (800-864-8331) to have us waitlisted for Business Class.

Keith advised me to make separate reservations for each of us.  That way, if only 1 Business Class seat became available, at least 1 of us would get to enjoy it.  I ended up booking my mom on her own reservation and me and my daughter on another.  Because I obviously couldn’t fly separated from my 2.5-year-old.

Had I booked us all together on the same reservation, we’d need 3 Business Class saver seats to open up so we could all clear for an upgrade at the same time.

Yep. This Is a Stock Photo of United Airlines’ Polaris Business Class.  So You Can Probably Guess How the Story Ends.

I also made sure that my mom had enough United Airlines miles in her account to cover the cost of the award tickets in Business or First Class.

A Business Class Saver award seat between the Lisbon and the US costs 60,000 United Airlines miles.

Because I had already booked the coach tickets for 30,000 miles a piece, we needed an additional 30,000 miles per ticket (90,000 United Airlines miles total) to waitlist for the Business Class seats.  That was easy to do because my mom always has a stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards points she earns with cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Freedom, that she simply transferred to her United Airlines account.

But back to the phone call to get waitlisted…

I’ve heard horror stories of this being a near-impossible task, so I was thankful to have found a very knowledgeable phone rep on my first call, who knew exactly how to get us on the waitlist.  Although it still ended up being a ~ 30-minute call because each ticket had to be manually processed.

Over the next few weeks, I kept checking and checking, and I kept seeing 7 open Business Class seats, but none of us ever cleared for an upgrade.  I checked again right at ~24 hours prior to the flight, when check-in begins, and I STILL saw all of those open Business Class seats.  But as soon as the 24-hour mark hit, 6 of them disappeared, and still, none of us had confirmed upgrades for the transatlantic portion of the flight between Lisbon and Newark.  Or for the transcontinental portion between Newark and Denver.

Wait…What Happened to the 7 Business Class Seats That Were Showing as Available Just Seconds Before Checkin?

But we HAD been upgraded on the Denver to Missoula flight.  Which was a total bummer, because that’s only a ~ 2-hour flight on a smaller 2 cabin regional jet, where First Class isn’t that big of a deal.

I also noticed we were at the end of the upgrade list, which didn’t make any sense.  Because we were technically displaced Business Class passengers who’d paid (with miles) for a Business Class seat.  And therefore should have been listed above anyone being upgraded for other reasons.

Who Knows.  Maybe the 4 Passengers Ahead of Us Had Also Employed the Waitlist Trick But Had Purchased Their Tickets Earlier Than We Had!

I hadn’t tried the waitlist trick before, so I thought “maybe this means we’ll see the other upgrades once we arrive at the airport?”

What Unfolded at the Airport

We arrived at the airport ~3.5 hours before our flight because:

  1.   We were traveling with a toddler
  2.   I knew I’d likely have to sort out the whole waitlist thing

Sure enough, when we went to check-in, the counter agent couldn’t explain why we hadn’t been upgraded.  Plus, we’d been seated in the very last aisle in the plane.  What?!

I was pretty frustrated, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy a good challenge.  Quickly realizing there was no chance we’d be getting Business Class seats, I asked to be put in Economy Plus.  The agent said “sure,” and then asked that I pay ~$135 per person.

At this point, I’d spent a good 30 minutes talking to the agent, so I asked for a manager.  The manager couldn’t give me an explanation for what had happened either, but he seemed really eager to help figure out a solution.

As you can imagine, my patience was running thin.  I politely explained to the manager that no, I shouldn’t have to pay for the Economy Plus seats because we were displaced Business Class passengers.  And considering the hassle, the least they could do was seat us in Economy Plus.

He apologized for the confusion and said he’d make sure he’d have us all sitting together in Economy Plus in no time, and at no extra cost!

I Must Admit, the Economy Plus Seats We Ended Up With Weren’t Too Shabby. And Honestly, Given We Were Flying Home, Having a Lie-Flat Seat Wasn’t That Crucial After All!

I asked him if he could help get my miles refunded, and he told me I’d have to call United Airlines customer service for that.

We finally made our way to the gate with our Economy Plus boarding passes in hand.  I’d say the whole ordeal took ~1 hour.  I was thankful we’d planned to arrive early.

After getting through customs I immediately called United Airlines MileagePlus customer service.  To my surprise, all it took was a quick 5-minute phone call to get things sorted.

I explained to the phone rep that only the very last (and shortest!) leg of our 3-leg journey had cleared for upgrades and that I’d prefer just to fly in coach for that portion if it meant saving 30,000 miles per ticket (90,000 miles total).

Without hesitation, she said she’d refund our miles.  And sure enough, the miles were back in my mom’s account by the time we landed in Denver.  We even got to keep our First Class seats between Denver and Missoula!

Bottom Line

I used every trick in the book to try and secure my family and myself Business Class seats from London back to the US.  But in the end, the United Airlines waitlist trick failed me.

It was disappointing to know that I’d spent a decent amount of time on the booking process, and more even time trying to explain to various United Airlines representatives why we should’ve been flying up in front.  But it all worked out.

We ended up with super spacious Economy Plus seats for both of the longer legs of our journey.  And we still flew First Class on the last leg of the trip, even though United Airlines refunded the extra miles we’d originally spent for Business Class tickets!

Have you had experience with the United Airlines waitlist trick?  Tell me about it in the comments!

Meghan Hunter is an editor for Million Mile Secrets. She covers points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. Her work has also appeared in The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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