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Once you’ve experienced the comfort and service that comes with first and business class travel, it can be hard to go back to flying economy. Here are some options to upgrade your flights.
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Once you’ve experienced the comfort and service that comes with first and business class travel, it can be hard to go back to flying economy, especially for long-haul international flights. However, tickets in premium cabins are often far more expensive than the attractive, dirt-cheap economy fares that we love to jump on, leading many people to ask “how can I upgrade my ticket?”.
There are generally four ways to get an upgrade: having elite status with an airline, using an upgrade certificate, using miles, or paying cash. In this article, I’ll focus on the first three – most people willing to pay cash for an upgraded ticket will just buy that ticket from the start – and will focus primarily on the major US airlines. For mileage upgrades, I’ll also take a look at a few international airlines whose miles are easily accessible through credit card transfer partners.
6 Things to Know About Upgrades
- You’ll need to learn a little bit about airline fares. When airlines set prices for plane tickets, they use ‘fare classes’ – one- or two-letter codes that tell the computer how many tickets to sell at a certain price (and how many miles to give for that ticket afterward). The fare class of your ticket will determine what methods (if any) you can use to get an upgrade.
- You might not get all of the benefits. This varies from airline to airline, but upgrading your seat won’t always get you other perks like lounge access or an extra baggage allowance. And you’ll almost always earn miles based on the ticket you paid for, not the upgraded fare.
- Upgrades are often only for one class of service. This means you can go from Economy to Premium Economy, or Premium Economy to Business, but not Economy to Business. However, this isn’t always the case – it depends on the airline. Also, economy seats with extra legroom (like Delta Comfort+, Alaska’s Premier Class, or United EconomyPlus) don’t count as a separate class for upgrades, even if the airline markets it like one.
- Basic Economy tickets usually can’t be upgraded. On most airlines, if you purchase a Basic Economy or ‘Light’ ticket, you aren’t eligible for upgrades.
- The higher your status, the more likely you are to get an upgrade. Elite status is generally the first thing airlines use to prioritize their upgrade lists. For passengers with the same status, there are many other factors that airlines consider, including the fare class of your ticket, when you booked it, what kind of upgrade you’re trying to get, and even how much money you spend with the airline.
- Don’t expect an upgrade on an award ticket. Most upgrade methods only work for paid tickets; even if your mileage ticket can be upgraded, you’re generally going to be at the bottom of the priority list. (However, if award space becomes available, you can usually spend more miles to change your ticket to a higher class. Many airlines won’t charge you a fee to do this.)
Complimentary Upgrades for Frequent Flyers
The most common way that people get upgrades is by holding elite status with an airline. In most cases, you’ll need to have status with the airline you’re flying – not a partner airline – and your status level will determine whether, when, and how you’ll get upgraded.
When exploring individual airline policies, I’m going to assume you’re traveling alone – while many airlines offer upgrades for traveling companions, the rules can get complicated quickly and depend a lot on your individual circumstances. Check the respective airline’s website for more details.
AAdvantage Platinum Pro, Executive Platinum, and Concierge Key members are eligible for complimentary upgrades on all flights within North America; Platinum Pro members must be traveling on cash tickets, while Executive Platinum and Concierge Key members can also get upgraded on award tickets.
For AAdvantage Gold and Platinum members, complimentary upgrades are available on flights under 500 miles in length; for longer flights, you have to redeem 500-mile upgrade certificates. One certificate is required for every 500 miles of flight distance, rounded up: for example, a 1,660-mile flight between Seattle and Dallas would require four certificates. Elite members get four certificates every time they earn 12,500 elite qualifying miles earned in a calendar year; you can also purchase certificates for $40 each, or redeem 40,000 AAdvantage miles for eight certificates.
Executive Platinums start getting upgraded 100 hours before departure, followed by Platinum Pro at 72 hours, Platinum at 48 hours, and Gold at 24 hours.
Delta Air Lines (and Aeromexico)
Delta Medallion members, Delta Reserve credit card holders, select corporate travelers, and Aeromexico elite members are eligible for complimentary First Class upgrades in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Bermuda, Central America, and Northern South America, as well as upgrades to Delta One (lie-flat business class) on U.S. domestic flights.
Medallion members are also eligible for complimentary upgrades to Clase Premier when flying Aeromexico on domestic flights or between Mexico and the U.S., Central America, Caribbean, Colombia and Ecuador, on all tickets except Basic Economy.
For Delta and Aeromexico flights, Diamond and Platinum members start getting upgraded 120 hours before departure, followed by Golds at 72 hours and Silvers at 24 hours, except for domestic Delta One flights which are processed in the same order on the day of departure.
Delta also uses its upgrade system for Comfort+ seating. Platinum and Diamond elites are automatically upgraded to Comfort+ shortly after booking, while Gold members are upgraded starting at 72 hours before departure and Silver members are upgraded starting 24 hours before departure. Getting upgraded to Comfort+ does not affect your eligibility for First Class upgrades.
United elites are eligible for complimentary upgrades on most flights in North America and Central America as well as flights within Oceania (to/from Guam), with a few exceptions:
- Premium transcontinental routes (between Newark and Los Angeles/San Francisco and between Boston and San Francisco)
- Long-haul flights to/from Hawaii, including Denver, Houston, Chicago, Washington, Newark, and Guam.
Complimentary upgrades are available on paid tickets, and on award tickets for holders of most United credit cards issued by Chase.
Premier 1K members start getting upgrades 96 hours before departure, followed by Platinums at 72 hours, Golds at 48 hours, and Silvers on the day of departure.
MVP, MVP Gold, and MVP Gold 75K members are eligible for upgrades on all tickets except for Saver fares (including award tickets). Expensive cash fares (Y and S fares for all elites, plus B and M fares for Golds and H fares for 75Ks) and refundable award tickets (Z fares) are eligible for an instant upgrade if space is available; other fares become eligible for upgrades based on elite status and fare class purchased starting at 120 hours before departure for 75Ks, 72 hours before departure for Golds, and 48 hours prior to departure for MVPs. Upgraded customers do not get lounge access.
JetBlue doesn’t offer complimentary upgrades to Mint.
How to Use Upgrade Certificates
Many airlines offer upgrade certificates to top-tier elites or as a redemption option for business travel rewards programs. Here’s a few of the most common ones.
For top-tier elites, American’s transferable Systemwide Upgrades (SWU) are an incredibly valuable benefit, since they can be used to upgrade any paid American ticket (except Basic Economy).
Upon reaching Executive Platinum status, you’ll receive 4 SWUs; you can also select 2 additional SWUs as a milestone benefit for every additional 50,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) you earn in a calendar year after obtaining Executive Platinum status (which requires 100,000 EQMs).
Million Milers will also earn 2 SWUs if they accumulate 2 million lifetime EQMs, and another 2 SWUs for every million miles thereafter.
SWUs can be applied anytime prior to departure and require space in ‘C’ fare class (or ‘A’ if upgrading from business to first on a plane that has both); if that space is not available, you’ll be placed on a waitlist. SWUs expire at the end of the elite year in which they are issued.
American also offers upgrade certificates as a redemption option for its Business Extra program for small and medium-sized businesses.
Delta Air Lines
Delta offers two types of upgrade certificates to Medallion members: Global Upgrade Certificates (for Diamonds) and Regional Upgrade Certificates (for Platinums and Diamonds).
Both types of certificates are available as “Choice Benefits” when you reach the appropriate status level. Certificates are valid in a single direction of travel. You can only use certificates for yourself or someone traveling on the same flights as you, and they expire one year after issue.
Regional Upgrade Certificates can be used on Delta flights (including Aeromexico flights with a Delta flight number) that are normally eligible for complimentary upgrades, as long as you are traveling on a paid ticket issued in W, S, Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V fare classes.
Global Upgrade Certificates can be used on almost all Delta flights (except for Basic Economy tickets) as well as select flights on KLM, Aeromexico, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia if they have Delta flight numbers.
They can also be used on a handful of the most expensive fares on Air France and Korean Air. Delta-operated flights must be booked in P, A, G, W, Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, X or V classes; check the certificate rules for fare class requirements on partner airlines.
United Platinum and 1K members earn PlusPoints that can be redeemed on flights operated by United, United Express, Copa, Lufthansa, and ANA. You’ll receive 40 PlusPoints upon reaching Platinum status and 280 when you reach 1K, plus another 20 for every 3,000 Premier Qualifying Points (PQPs) you earn after acquiring 1K status (which requires at least 18,000 PQPs).
Pricing for PlusPoints varies depending on the distance of your flight and the fare class you purchase. Short-haul United flights (flights without Polaris Business class) cost 20 PlusPoints to upgrade from Economy to Premium Plus or Business or 10 PlusPoints to upgrade from Premium Plus to Business.
On long-haul United flights, it costs 40 or 80 points to upgrade from Economy to Business, depending on the fare class of your original ticket; upgrades from Economy to Premium Plus cost 20 PlusPoints, while Premium Plus to Business costs 30. All Copa, Lufthansa, and ANA flights cost 40 PlusPoints to upgrade from Economy to Business, but only certain fare classes are eligible.
Alaska Airlines MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members receive 4 transferable “Gold Guest Upgrade” certificate codes each year, which can be used to secure upgrades in advance. A single certificate applies to multiple flights in one direction of travel, as long as you do not have a layover longer than 4 hours.
“U” class upgrade space must be available at the time the certificate is used – they can’t be waitlisted – and certificates cannot be applied to G, T, R, or X tickets or award tickets, including tickets booked with Money & Miles. Upgraded customers do not get lounge access.
How to Upgrade With Miles
Unfortunately, upgrading economy tickets with miles is hard. Airlines often restrict mileage upgrades to the most expensive fare classes, or impose hefty fees if you want to upgrade with a less expensive ticket. However, it is possible, and in a few cases can be an excellent use of miles.
One important thing to know is that in most cases you need to use miles from the airline you’re flying. While the major alliances do have cross-airline mileage upgrades, they can be used on only the most expensive fares and are subject to extremely limited availability.
I’m going to take a look at the rules for upgrading flights using miles on the major US airlines, as well as a few international carriers whose miles are easily available through credit card transfer partners.
American’s “Upgrade with Miles” program allows you to use your miles to upgrade almost any paid ticket on American. They have a fairly straightforward award chart for upgrading from discount economy to business class:
- Fights within North America (except Hawaii) or between North America and Central America cost 15,000 miles plus a $75 co-pay
- Flights to/from Hawaii cost 15,000 miles plus $175
- Flights to/from Colombia, Ecuador, Guayana, and Peru cost 15,000 miles plus $150
- Long-haul international flights cost 25,000 and $350
If you have a business class ticket and your flight offers first class, you can upgrade for 15,000 miles and $175 on premium transcontinental flights, or 25,000 miles + $550 to upgrade to international first class.
Full-fare tickets (Y or J classes) can be upgraded with miles only (no cash copay).
Delta Air Lines
Delta has two options to use your miles for an upgrade. During the booking process or when viewing your itinerary after booking, you may see an option to use miles for an instant upgrade. This is the only way to upgrade Delta-operated flights within the Americas, and pricing is based on what Delta is charging for a cash upgrade on the same flight (so an upgrade that they are charging $100 for will cost about 10,000 SkyMiles).
For Delta flights outside the Americas, as well as select partner flights and some Delta flights with another airline’s flight number, you can book a Mileage Upgrade Award through Delta Reservations. Delta flights must be booked in Y, B, M, H, Q, or K fare classes to use an upgrade award; you can also upgrade Virgin Atlantic flights with Delta flight numbers in these fare classes, as well as P, A, and G premium economy fares.
Aeromexico flights with Delta flight numbers between the US and Mexico can be upgraded if your fare class is Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U or T, and Air France-KLM flights between the US and Paris can be upgraded if your ticket is in Y, B, or M fare classes.
Unfortunately, Delta does not publish an award chart for Mileage Upgrade Awards, so the only way to find out how many miles you’ll need is to call Delta Reservations.
MileagePlus Upgrade Awards can be used for paid tickets on virtually all United flights, usually in conjunction with a cash co-pay. Prices range from 6,000 to 30,000 miles and $0 to $600 depending on several factors including flight distance and regions, your elite status, the fare class of your ticket, and whether you are upgrading to Premium Plus or business class.
The cash co-pay is waived for elite members traveling on flights that are eligible for complimentary upgrades (most flights in the Americas and to/from Guam, except for premium transcontinental routes and long-haul flights to/from Hawaii).
United no longer publishes an award chart, but you can find out the number of miles required with its upgrade calculator.
You can redeem 15,000 miles to upgrade an Alaska itinerary (including Alaska flights operated by SkyWest) if your original ticket was booked in fare classes Y, S, B, M, or H. Upgrades do not give you lounge access.
You can’t use JetBlue miles to upgrade a cash ticket to Mint.
Air France and KLM are operated as two separate airlines, but they form a single company and their loyalty program, Flying Blue, is shared by both airlines (as well as several others in Europe and Africa).
You can use Flying Blue miles to upgrade most paid economy or premium economy tickets on Air France, KLM, and Kenya Airways to business class. Unfortunately, Flying Blue does not publish an award chart, so it’s hard to predict how many miles you’ll need – pricing depends on factors including flight distance and the fare class of your original ticket.
To see if upgrades are available in advance, look for an upgrade advertisement when viewing your reservation on the Air France or KLM websites, or call reservations. In some cases, you can also use your miles to upgrade on the day of departure during check-in (online or at the airport) – this option is available for all Air France and KLM flights, and for Delta and Kenya Airways flights departing from Amsterdam.
You can transfer points to Flying Blue from American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, or Citi ThankYou Points.
All Nippon Airways (ANA)
ANA offers very attractive pricing for mileage upgrades, based on your flight distance, as long as your original ticket was issued in an eligible fare class:
- Y, B, M, U, H, Q, and V class tickets can be upgraded to premium economy
- G, E, Y, B, M, and U class tickets can be upgraded to business class
- J, C, D, and Z class tickets can be upgraded to first class
Upgrades from economy to premium economy cost 9,000 to 20,000 miles depending on the distance of your flight, while upgrading to business class costs 12,000 to 28,000 miles, and upgrading from business to first costs between 20,000 and 45,000 miles. You’ll have to call ANA Mileage Club to process an upgrade.
You can transfer points to ANA Mileage Club from American Express Membership Rewards. Allow 48 hours for miles to show up in your account.
British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus
Although British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus each have their own mileage programs, all three airlines are owned by the same company and their miles – called Avios – are freely transferable across the three programs.
British Airways has a quite generous upgrade policy. Discount economy fare classes U, O, and G cannot be upgraded, but with any other paid tickets, you can use Avios to upgrade to the next class of service. (This means that economy tickets can be upgraded to premium economy, premium economy tickets can be upgraded to business, and business tickets can upgrade to first.)
The cost in Avios is the difference between an award ticket for your current class of service and one for the class you are upgrading to: for example, a flight from New York to London on an off-peak date would cost 26,000 Avios in premium economy or 50,000 Avios in business class, so you’d need 24,000 Avios to upgrade a paid premium economy ticket.
The same principle applies to flights on Aer Lingus between North America and Ireland, but their website does not note any fare class restrictions – just that your flight must have been booked on aerlingus.com, not through a travel agent or third-party website.
Aer Lingus does not have premium economy, so you can upgrade from economy to business class: for flights from the Northeast and Midwest, you’ll need 37,000 or 44,750 Avios (depending on whether your flight date is peak or off-peak), while flights from the West Coast and Florida require 46,250 or 55,000 Avios.
On Iberia, you can only upgrade cash tickets in Y, B, and H fare classes. The Iberia website just says to call your local Iberia Plus Service Centre for more information, including pricing and availability.
You can transfer points to all three Avios programs from American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, and Marriott Bonvoy.
If you have a paid flight on Singapore Airlines or SilkAir in fare classes M, H, W, E, B, or Y, you can use miles to upgrade to premium economy or business class. Pricing varies depending on your original fare class (M, H, and W tickets require more miles than E, B, and Y tickets), your origin and destination, and whether “Saver” or “Advantage” award seats are available.
If you want to upgrade a flight between the US and Singapore, you’ll probably be looking at 49,000-52,000 miles for premium economy and 85,500-89,000 miles for business class depending on which part of the country you’re flying from.
Use the Krisflyer upgrade award chart to confirm pricing for your specific itinerary and fare class.
Final Thoughts on Flight Upgrades
While upgrading with miles generally will not provide as much value as booking your ticket with miles outright, it still can be an option that makes sense. This especially applies if you don’t have enough miles to book a ticket in business class from the get go or if you can score an incredible deal on your cash flight booking.
Editors Note: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.