Your ultimate guide to upgrading with miles

Oct 7, 2019

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Far and away the most coveted perk in commercial aviation is an upgrade to a comfier seat with better legroom, more recline and better food and beverage options. While it’s easy to envy the elite members who get “complimentary” upgrades, anyone who’s ever taken an economics class will tell you that there’s no such thing as a free lunch upgrade.
Elite members pay for their “complimentary” upgrades through extended periods of loyalty (and revenue generation) to a single airline, but even if you don’t have elite status, many airlines will give you the option to upgrade eligible tickets using your miles. Today we’re going to take a look at general guidelines for upgrading with miles, as well as specific rules for a few major airlines.

In This Post

What is an upgrade with miles?

As the name suggests, upgrading with miles involves redeeming your frequent flyer miles to upgrade your ticket to the next class of service (i.e. from economy to business class or from business to first). As airlines switch to a more revenue-based model for earning and redeeming miles, they’re willing to accept miles in lieu of a cash payment for all kinds of services including upgrades and even lounge access.

When and how to upgrade with miles

One common misconception that people have about upgrades of all types is that if there’s an empty seat in the next cabin, you can upgrade to it if you’re willing to pay. Airlines make a disproportionate chunk of their revenue selling premium cabin seats, especially full-fare ones to last-minute business travelers. In many cases they’d rather gamble that someone will buy that seat close to departure rather than offering it for an upgrade, even if it ends up going out empty.
Each airline has a revenue-management department that controls how many seats are available for upgrades, just like they control how many are available for award redemptions. This means that when you’re upgrading with miles, your upgrade won’t clear before the flight unless there’s upgrade inventory in the cabin you’re trying to upgrade to. For example, on American Airlines the “C” fare class is for upgrades from economy to business class on two- or three-cabin planes, while the “A” class is for first class upgrades on three-cabin aircraft. If you’re still unfamiliar with the general process of upgrading tickets, you should start by reading TPG’s guide to getting upgraded on the following airlines:

In each case you should do your best to search for upgrade inventory before trying to initiate an upgrade request. If you’re using a mileage upgrade and it doesn’t clear before departure, you’ll likely fall below all the elite flyers on the upgrade waitlist at the airport. If you’re intent on upgrading a ticket (you need more space or its a longer flight) you might even want to start searching for upgrade inventory before you book your flight. The good news is that mileage upgrades can almost always clear in advance of departure (if there’s upgrade inventory), so there’s no incentive to wait until closer to the flight. If you have the miles and you see the upgrade space you should go ahead and lock it in while it’s still available.

What types of tickets can I upgrade?

Exactly which tickets you can upgrade is going to vary from airline to airline, but there are a few overarching commonalities in terms of what tickets can’t be upgraded using miles. The first exclusion is award tickets — all three US legacy carriers (Delta, American and United) do not allow mileage upgrades on award tickets. You may still see an offer to purchase a cash upgrade on award tickets, but this varies heavily by route and the prices are often egregiously high. The second exclusion is basic economy tickets, again with all three legacy carriers prohibiting you from upgrading these ultra-cheap, bare-bones fares with miles.

While some airlines will have a list of upgrade-eligible fare classes and others will take the opposite approach and list the fare classes that are excluded, you also see a common trend where many of the deeply-discounted economy fares are not eligible for an upgrade. Normally the average traveler doesn’t have to pay too much attention to their specific fare class — if you’re not chasing elite status with American Airlines, it doesn’t matter all that much if your economy ticket falls into the Y,G,N or Q fare class beyond the price of the ticket. However, if you’re looking to upgrade your ticket with miles, the fare class can determine both whether your ticket is eligible for an upgrade and if so how much it will cost.

Domestic versus international

There aren’t a ton of differences between domestic and international mileage upgrades, though expensive international business-class seats are certainly harder to come by and therefore cost more. Perhaps the biggest thing to be aware of is that many international planes now feature a premium economy cabin. While the terms and conditions of most upgrades say either “one cabin upgrade” or “upgrade to the next class of service,” the good news is that for now at least, you can upgrade directly from economy to business class and bypass premium economy.

United
United’s Premium Plus cabin aboard a 777-300ER. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

Airline upgrade with miles rules

Now that you understand the basics of how mileage upgrades work, it’s time to dive in and look at the specifics for each airline. We’re going to be covering the four most popular American carriers that offer mileage upgrades, but if you’re looking for more detail or other upgrade options (including cash or elite benefits), you should check out our full upgrade guides at the links below:

American Airlines

American Airlines offers perhaps the most simple and straightforward chart for understanding mileage upgrades, depending on the route you’re flying and the original cash ticket you booked. Note that whether you’re upgrading from economy to business or from business to first, deep discounted fares include a cash copay while full fare tickets only require additional miles to upgrade.

TPG values American Airlines miles at 1.4 cents each, so when you factor in the $350 copay you’re looking at about ~$700 to upgrade to business class on some of AA’s longest flights. This is not a bad deal at all, though upgrade inventory is incredibly hard to come by.
If you’re wondering what exactly American counts as a “discount economy ticket,” here are the relevant fare codes for each category of upgrade pricing:

  • Discount Economy with published fares booked in H,K,M,L,V,G,Q,N,O,S and Military or Government fares booked in Y
  • Full-Fare Economy with published fares booked in Y
  • Discount Premium Economy with published fares booked in P
  • Full-Fare Premium Economy with published fares booked in W
  • Discount Business with published fares booked in I
  • Full-Fare Business with published fares booked in J, D or R

United Airlines

United doesn’t publish an award chart, and instead calculates the mileage upgrade cost flight by flight, based on your region of travel, fare class and Premier elite status. I’m a Premier Silver elite (thanks to my Marriott Titanium status and the RewardsPlus crossover partnership), and have an upcoming flight from Washington D.C., (IAD) to Detroit (DTW) in the L economy fare class. For this flight, United wants either $104 cash or 20,000 miles for an upgrade. This works out to a pretty low value of 0.52 cents per point, well below TPG’s valuation of United MileagePlus miles at 1.3 cents each.

Delta

Delta has two similarly named upgrade options — “Upgrade with Miles” and “Mileage Upgrade Awards.” The first allows you to buy cash upgrades at a value of 1 cent per SkyMile, a pretty awful redemption, while the latter is the standard mileage upgrade award we’ve been discussing throughout this post. Unfortunately, these upgrades are no longer available on Delta-operated flights within the Americas, and can only be used for international markets. One area where Delta beats the competition here is by allowing you to use these upgrades for select partner operated flights, not just flights on Delta metal. Here’s what you need to know about Delta’s Mileage Upgrade Awards:

  • As of February 2019, MUAs are not available on Delta-operated flights in the Americas.
  • SkyMiles Award Tickets are not eligible for Mileage Upgrade Awards.
  • For international markets, Mileage Upgrade Awards on Delta-marketed and operated flights may be used to upgrade on the following paid fare classes: Y, B, M, H, Q, or K.
  • For flights marketed and/or operated by Air France-KLM, Mileage Upgrade Awards may be used for a one-class upgrade when the paid fare class is Y, B, or M.
  • For Air France-operated flights, Mileage Upgrade Awards are available from economy to premium economy to business only on transatlantic joint venture flights between U.S. cities and Paris (CDG and ORY).
  • For Delta-marketed flights operated by Virgin Atlantic, Mileage Upgrade Awards are available from Economy to Premium Economy or Upper Class, as well as Premium Economy to Upper Class. Mileage Upgrade Awards are available from Y, B, M, H, Q, and K paid fare classes from Economy Cabin and P, A, and G paid fare classes from premium economy.
  • For Delta-marketed flights operated by Aeromexico, Mileage Upgrade Awards are available on Delta’s published fare classes in Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U or T for travel between the U.S. and Mexico.

Unfortunately the only way to use these upgrades is to call a Delta reservations agent, and if you’re trying to upgrade on a Delta flight (even internationally) many will tell you that the only option for upgrading with miles is to accept whatever offer shows up in your My Trips page.

Alaska Airlines

While many TPG readers, and I, prefer to use Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles for low-cost premium-cabin awards on international partner airlines like Cathay Pacific and JAL, you can also use them to upgrade eligible Alaska Airlines flights to first class. No matter how long your flight is it will cost exactly 15,000 miles to upgrade to first class, worth $270 based on TPG’s valuations. You can only upgrade cash tickets booked into one of the five most expensive economy fare classes Y, S, B, M or H, and you need “U” inventory for your upgrade to clear. This is where ExpertFlyer comes in handy, making it very easy to search for upgrade inventory.

Bottom line

Traveling the way you want to requires a good amount of flexibility, and it helps if you can keep a number of different tools in your belt. These include leveraging transfer partners to book premium cabin awards at lower rates, hunting for low cash fares and learning the different types of upgrades available to you. While the value isn’t always great, mileage upgrades are a good option to consider if you don’t have elite status with an airline but still want to score a better seat on your upcoming flight.
Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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