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Using Miles to Upgrade Your Cash Flights

By: Julie Szpira

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For many travelers, flying in economy is the most accessible way to travel. With rock-bottom cash fares available to locations around the world, a cash booking is often a decent way to fly economy.

After people book these cheap economy tickets, we get one question over and over again.

“How can I upgrade my economy ticket?”

This is usually for those who discovered the points and miles game after booking a long flight in economy. For many of us, once we try the luxury of business or first class, the idea of flying in economy is horrifying!

While using miles to upgrade economy tickets to business class is usually a poor use of miles, it’s a good idea to understand your options.

 

General Upgrade Rules

Upgrade rules vary between the airline programs, however, there are couple pretty standard guidelines.

  • You can only upgrade one class of service. So you can only upgrade from economy to business, or from business to first. You can not use miles to upgrade from economy to first.
  • Upgrades are dependent on availability. There may be premium cabin seats available for purchase, but that does not mean that they will be available for upgrades.
  • The miles earned for the flight are based on the original fare class you booked, not the upgraded fare class that you actually fly.

Modern Airport - 10xTravel.com

Upgrade Rules By Airline

United Airlines (MileagePlus)

You can use MileagePlus miles to upgrade paid tickets booked in any fare class.  

However, tickets that are booked as discount fares will require miles as well as a cash co-pay.

The miles and cash co-pay vary depending on the fare class you originally booked in and your origin and destination regions.  All upgrades awards are for one-way travel, but apply to all the segments of the one-way trip.

The upgrade price can vary from 7500 miles and no-copay to upgrade a full fare economy ticket to business class for a US domestic flight, up to 35,000 plus a $600 co-pay to upgrade from a discount economy ticket to business class for a flight to the Middle East region.

10xTravel MileagePlus AwardChart

MileagePlus Upgrade Award Chart for Mainland US, Alaska and Canada. The full MileagePlus Upgrade Award Chart can be found here.

You can request to use MileagePlus miles to request an upgrade while you are booking.

You pay $119 for the economy ticket, PLUS 20,000 miles and a $75 co-pay. If you booked a domestic first class ticket directly with miles, it would only cost 25,000 miles and $5.60 in taxes/fees

You can also request an upgrade after booking by using the “Manage” option under “My Trips”, by phone, or in person at the airport starting 24 hour before your departure.

In most cases, using miles for these upgrades gives you a terrible redemption value. You have to pay for the full cost of an economy ticket, use a significant amount of miles to upgrade your economy fare and sometimes also have to pay extra cash!

However, United miles can also be used to upgrade flights operated by their Star Alliance partners. Often, these upgrades can only be applied to tickets booked in “full-fare” fare classes, such as economy class tickets booked in Y or B and business class tickets in J, C or D, but there are exceptions.

In many cases, booking a full fare economy ticket can be almost as expensive as a discount business class ticket, so most people usually usually do not book these fares.

 

American Airlines (AAdvantage)

American Airlines operates their upgrades similar to United, wherein the fare class of the ticket decides how many miles will be necessary for an upgrade.

You can only use American Airlines miles to upgrade flights marketed and operated by American Airlines. You can only upgrade one cabin of service, the upgrade is good for one-way travel and can be applied to a maximum of three segments of the one-way trip.

Similar to United, American Airlines has various mileage requirements and co-pays, dependent on the fare class your original flight was booked in, as well as the destination to which you are traveling.

The American Airlines mileage upgrade award chart

Mileage awards can be applied at the time of booking, or at anytime prior to check-in. You can request a reservation by phone, or in person at an American Airlines Travel Center or an Airport Ticket Office.

If your upgrade is not immediately confirmed, you can be put on a waitlist. Waitlist upgrades are confirmed in order based on

  1. Elite Status
  2. Upgrade Type
    1. Systemwide and mileage award upgrade
    2. 500-mile upgrades on purchased tickets
    3. 500-mile upgrades on award tickets
  3. 12 month Rolling EQDs (essentially, how much money you have spent on AA)

While you might not have elite status, your upgrade type (mileage award) is at the top of the list.

 

Delta Airlines (SkyMiles)

Delta does not publish an award chart, and their mileage upgrade awards are similarly secretive.

You can use Delta SkyMiles to upgrade paid flights, however not all fare classes are eligible for upgrades.

  • For flights within the US, North America and Northern South America, fares booked in Y/B/M/S/H/Q/K/L/U/T classes can be upgraded with miles.
  • For flights from the US to Southern South America, Europe, Northern Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle east, only fares booked in Y/B/M/S/H/Q/K classes can be upgraded with miles

Delta allows you to use SkyMiles to upgrade tickets on most Delta operated flights, as well as some flights operated by Virgin Atlantic, Air France and KLM.

Delta provides almost no information regarding the use of SkyMiles for upgrades. While Delta has not published an award chart, aviation enthusiasts have shared their knowledge of upgrade award pricing on FlyerTalk.

As the information is not distributed directly from Delta, there is no guarantee of the mileage amounts, however the following provides a good guideline of what you can expect to pay when upgrading a cash ticket.  If you are interested in booking an upgrade, Delta instructs you to contact a SkyMiles representative for exact pricing.

 

British Airways (Executive Club)

British Airways is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and SPG Starpoints.

Avios (what British Airways calls their “miles”) can be used to upgrade cash tickets booked in most fare classes, with the exception of deep discount economy classes Q/O/G.

The formula to calculate the number of Avios needed to upgrade is actually very simple. They take the Avios needed for the cabin you wish to upgrade to and subtract the Avios needed for the cabin in which you booked your paid ticket.  The difference is the amount of Avios needed upgrade.

For example, if you’re flying between the US and Europe on Peak days and you booked a one-way cash ticket in economy, you would need 20,000 Avios to upgrade to premium economy.

This is because the one way cost of a premium economy award ticket is 40,000 Avios, and the one way cost of a economy award ticket is 20,000 Avios.

40,000 Avios Premium Economy – 20,000 Avios Economy = 20,000 Avios to upgrade

This formula is the same for all eligible fare classes across all routes, so the amount of Avios needed for various routes is easy to calculate.

You must request your upgrade at the time of booking or online before check-in. British Airways does not allow you to upgrade with Avios at the airport or on board.

 

Air France/KLM (Flying Blue)

The Flying Blue program is a transfer partner of all the major transferable rewards programs (Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points and SPG Starpoints).

You can use Flying Blue miles to upgrade paid flights that were booked in any fare class when flying on Air France or KLM. When flying on other SkyTeam airlines, only select fare classes are eligible for upgrade.

As with the other airlines, Flying Blue upgrade awards vary depending on the fare class you originally booked, and the route you are flying. Flying Blue offers a Flying Blue Miles Calculator. You can enter your flight information, and it will tell you the number of miles needed to upgrade your flight.

Flying Blue upgrade awards do not require a co-pay, but the number of miles needed to upgrade deep discount economy flights is quite high.

For example, a flight booked in economy in L and Q fare classes from North America to Europe would cost 45,000 miles to upgrade to business class. The same business class flight could be booked directly with Flying Blue for only 62,500 miles.

You can request your upgrade via phone or online until 24 hours prior to departure.

Air France and KLM operated flights offer an interesting option, with possibility of last minute upgrades. These upgrades can be processed by a ticketing agent, a gate agent or even a purser when you are on-board the aircraft. Only the first segment of flight booked with a last minute upgrade can be upgraded.

 

Korean Air (SkyPass)

Korean Air is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and SPG Starpoints.

You can use Korean Air miles to upgrade paid flights that were booked the J/C/Y/B/M fare classes. These are non-discounted fare classes for economy and business class tickets. When using Korean miles to upgrade on flights operated by SkyTeam partners, only non-discounted full fare tickets are eligible.

You may request an upgrade award online, by phone, or in person at a Korean Air Branch Office.

Given that only non-discounted fare classes are eligible, it is likely that most travelers will not have booked their flight in an upgradable fare class.

A discount round-trip economy ticket from San Francisco-Seoul next spring is $1,236.  An economy ticket in an upgradable fare class (M) is $2,226!!

In order to be able to use miles to upgrade your ticket, you would have to spend almost $1,400 than the cheapest economy ticket and ALSO spend 80,000 miles to upgrade.

In contrast, a round trip business class award ticket booked directly with Korean Air miles would cost 125,000 miles (off-season award price)  and ~$100 in taxes and fees.

 

Singapore Airlines (KrisFlyer)

The Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer program is a transfer partner of all the major transferable rewards programs (Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou Points and SPG Starpoints).

You can use KrisFlyer miles to upgrade paid flights that were booked the Y/B/E fare classes for economy to business class upgrades. These are non-discounted fare classes for economy.

The upgrade from business class to first class does not have a fare class restriction. This allows any paid business class ticket to be upgraded to first class, provided there is availability.

You can only upgrade one fare class, so if you booked your ticket in economy and your aircraft has a premium economy section, you would not be able to upgrade your economy ticket to business class. You would only be able to upgrade your ticket to premium economy.

You may request an upgrade award online or over the phone.

 

Final Thoughts

In most cases, using miles to upgrade cash flights is not a great use of miles.

Many programs have fare class restrictions, hefty co-pays or require a substantial number of miles to be redeemed in order to allow you to upgrade.

If you started in this hobby after you already booked a flight in economy, just fly in economy. Keep your miles for a future flight.

The front of the plane is a dream for many travelers, and the best way to fly in front is by directly booking award tickets with miles.

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