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Did you know you can upgrade your flight on 23 different airlines by American Express Membership Rewards points? Upgrade with Points is a little-known benefit unique to Amex. And it works differently than other upgrade options since it is processed completely through American Express — no points transfer required.
While you won't often get great value when you upgrade with Amex points, keep it as an option in your back pocket. You may find a situation where it's worth it.
We'll walk through what Amex Upgrade with Points is, which Amex cards offer the feature, which airlines participate, and how to upgrade. Also, we'll cover the value you get and compare it to some other upgrade options.
- What is Amex Upgrade with Points?
- How to Upgrade Your Flight with Amex Points
- Is Amex Upgrade with Points Worth It?
- Other Ways to Upgrade Your Flight
- Final Thoughts
What is Amex Upgrade with Points?
The Upgrade with Points program offered by American Express lets Amex cardmembers use their points to make an upgrade offer on 20+ participating airlines. It's essentially a bid, similar to how some airlines allow you to make cash upgrade offers.
The process is straightforward. If you've booked an itinerary on a participating airline, you log into your Amex account and enter your itinerary details.
Eligible Amex cards
The Amex Upgrade with Points feature is available on all cards that earn Membership Rewards points. While you might expect this benefit to be reserved for premium products like The Platinum Card® from American Express or travel-focused cards like American Express® Green Card, Amex says this:
“All U.S. American Express Card Members with a Membership Rewards account can use Upgrade with Points.”
Not all cards fetch the same value with Upgrade with Points, however. Most Amex cards provide $10 of value for 1,000 points — a value of 1 cent per point. These include:
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- The Platinum Card® from American Express Exclusively for Morgan Stanley
- American Express Platinum Card® by Charles Schwab
- The Business Platinum Card® from American Express
- American Express® Gold Card
- American Express® Business Gold Card
- American Express® Green Card
- Business Green Rewards Card from American Express
However, other cards provide just $5 in value for 1,000 points, and that list includes several student credit cards, some lesser-known cards you might not have heard of before, and The Blue for Business® Credit Card from American Express.
If you only have co-branded Amex cards, you're out of luck, as these don't offer the Amex Upgrade with Points feature.
Not every airline is available using the Amex Upgrade with points feature. None of the major U.S. carriers are included, which is a bummer. Neither are major European carriers with a solid U.S. presence. However, you still can find some interesting options among the 23 participating airlines:
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air Mauritius
- Air Tahiti Nui
- Caribbean Airlines
- Copa Airlines
- Ethiopian Airlines
- Etihad Airways
- Fiji Airways
- Garuda Indonesia
- Gulf Air
- Kenya Airways
- LOT Polish Airlines
- Oman Air
- Philippine Airlines
- Sata Azores
- South African Airways
- TAP Air Portugal
How to Upgrade Your Flight with Amex Points
To start the process, you need to book a qualifying itinerary. This must obviously be a flight on one of the airlines listed above. You don't have to book through Amex Travel — or even directly with the airline. However you book, make sure you use a card with excellent travel insurance coverage.
Next, log into your American Express account. You can navigate to the Amex Upgrade with Points feature in a couple different ways. However, I suggest clicking “Explore Rewards” from one of your Membership Rewards-earning cards from Account Home. Then, you can scroll down and click on “Book or Upgrade Travel” under “Ready to Redeem?”
Rather than clicking on “Explore Amex Travel,” look a bit further down for a link that says “Explore Upgrades.” This is what you want.
This link will take you to the Amex Upgrade with Points page. Here, you'll see a tile view of all the participating airlines. You can click on the appropriate airline to begin the upgrade process.
It's important to note that even if the airline is listed, this doesn't necessarily mean your flight is eligible for an upgrade. This will be determined once you enter the booking details. To keep going from this point, you need an actual booking.
An example ticket
As an example, I booked a one-way Aeromexico economy ticket from New York–JFK to Mexico City. I figured this would be a likely candidate flight for an upgrade. Rather than book the cheapest ticket, I opted for Classic on a hunch that a Basic ticket might not be eligible (but I cannot confirm this).
Although this isn't an especially long route, Aeromexico does operate Boeing 787-8 aircraft on the JFK-MEX route — which offers lie-flat business-class seats. I was curious what the cost would be compared to the premium Aeromexico is charging for the flight.
Even though I'd booked the flight minutes before, Amex was able to find the reservation immediately. It was eligible for a points upgrade to Aeromexico Clase Premier (business class). This is what I'd hoped for.
Here's where you can make an upgrade offer. Rather than let you make whatever offer you'd like, Amex provides a slider that has a minimum and maximum. The site also provides a gauge for the likelihood that the airline will accept the offer. This is based on the past success rate for upgrade offers on similar flights.
Two things jumped out at me. First, you can clearly see the cash cost of the offer being made. I'm getting 1¢ per Amex point in value. However, you may notice the cash cost is different than the fare difference between Classic economy and business when I made my booking.
Second, the minimum bid is already showing as “strong” on the gauge. This is a bit curious; it'd be nice to make a lower offer. Playing around with a couple more bookings, the gauge reading really depends on the airline, booking, and route.
Notice that you also can supplement your bid with cash. What you can't do is offer cash instead of points. Adding cash to the bid doesn't offset any of the required Amex points. Given that the bid is already “strong” in my case, I see no reason to offer any additional cash.
If you decide to place an Amex Upgrade with Points bid, you'll need to save the offer and then complete the checkout process. You need to provide a card as a payment method and can't change it once you submit.
Amex will let you know if the airline accepts or rejects your bid. This usually happens within five days of the flight.
Points will not be deducted from your account unless the offer is accepted by the airline. Your card will be charged only if the offer is successful. Amex processes this as a charge to your card, then applies Membership Rewards points as a credit offset. In addition, your card will be charged for any cash portion of the offer, plus any taxes and fees that are not covered.
Some additional details
Here are several final details to be aware of when considering making an Amex Upgrade with Points offer:
- You can use submit an upgrade offer even if you don't have enough Membership Rewards points. I find this odd, but it's clear in the terms. If you make an upgrade offer in excess of the points you have, and it is accepted, you'll end up with a negative balance on your account.
- Strangely, Amex states that there isn't a minimum number of points you must offer. The slider doesn't go to zero, however, so I don't understand why this is in the terms. I couldn't figure out a way to offer less than 38,755 points for my example flight. Further down, Amex states that the upgrade offer range is determined by the airline, which is contradictory.
- Taxes and fees aren't covered. The upgrade offer is only for the fare.
- You can make upgrade offers for others. Whether you're traveling with companions on the reservation or want to make an upgrade for someone else entirely, you can make upgrade offers in both cases. For reservations with more than one person, the offer is per traveler.
- You can make more than one offer per reservation, but only one offer per flight. For multi-segment itineraries, you make specific offers per segment. If you've already made an offer, you can amend or cancel it at any time.
- You may be offered an immediate “Buy it Now” option. If you opt for this, congrats — you've successfully upgraded. Just make sure it's worth it.
- Upgrade with points charges don't qualify for the airline fee credit, the 25%/35% Pay with Points bonus, or bonus points earnings on cards that award these for Amex Travel purchases. This should be obvious, but just in case you were wondering.
Enrollment is required for select Amex benefits.
Is Amex Upgrade with Points Worth It?
In short: It's usually not. Compared to many other uses of American Express Membership Rewards points, using them for an upgrade here yields poor value. Consider my flight example. I booked a ticket for $314. Business class was offered for $803. This is a difference of $489.
Now consider the Upgrade with Points offer of 38,755 points. At face value, Amex says I'm getting 1¢ per point (for an offer of $387.55). If taxes and fees are minimal, you could argue that I'm getting close to 1.2 cents per point compared to the revenue fare. This assumes the bid is successful. I'd be paying $387.55 to get $489, theoretically.
Yet I also compared this to booking an award directly. I could book the same ticket with 58,000 Delta SkyMiles and $44. With the upgrade offer, I'd use fewer points overall 38,755 instead of 58,000). Yet I'm spending a few hundred dollars. I don't consider that worth it.
If I must fly business class on this route, I'd likely opt for transferring 58,000 Membership Rewards points to Delta. It's still not great value, but getting into business class would be guaranteed (the upgrade offer isn't). I'd also gain flexibility, as you can cancel the award ticket without penalty.
Amazingly, this was one of the better values we found for this article. Generally, more points were required for long-haul flights.
Better alternative: Book business class awards
You have so many other uses of American Express points available to you. Membership Rewards has 18 airline transfer partners, many of which provide great value for your points. Not to mention, Amex often runs transfer bonuses to some of its travel partners. In terms of value, this is a better way to use your points.
For the example flight, it's close to a wash in terms of overall value. However, you can find other cases where booking an award is 100% the way to go. For example, if you've booked a $900 round-trip flight between Seattle and Reykjavik, and Amex is asking over 80,000 points to upgrade to Saga business class, you're much better off booking this as an award.
In the vast majority of cases where a business-class award is available at a saver rate, you should book the award.
Sometimes better: Book business class directly using points
Even using Membership Rewards points for flights directly can be better than the Amex Upgrade with Points feature. Bookings through Amex Travel also fetch 1¢ per point. But if you have the Business Platinum Card, you'll get 35% of your points back (up to 1 million points back annually) for flights with your selected airline or for any business- or first-class flights. This happens whenever you book with Amex using Pay with Points and provides over 1.5 cents per point in value. Even the Amex Business Gold gives you 25% back.
Enrollment is required for select Amex benefits.
Keep in mind that you also earn miles according to the fare class you book. This can really add up when you book business-class directly using points; you're paying with points but the airline sees it as a paid ticket. Keep an eye out for good deals that you can book this way.
Other Ways to Upgrade Your Flight
Here are four other ways you can potentially upgrade your flight:
- Use upgrade certificates. You typically receive these as an option when you reach the upper tier(s) of some airlines' elite status. One example is American Airlines' Systemwide Upgrades. United has its PlusPoints system for upgrades. Unfortunately, if you're not a dedicated frequent flyer, this option is out.
- Use miles. Some carriers allow you to book a revenue ticket and then use miles to upgrade. Unfortunately, there are often a bunch of additional rules and restrictions, such as booking a specific (i.e., more expensive) fare class or forking over additional money in addition to the miles.
- Purchase an upgrade after booking. Many airlines let you upgrade to a higher cabin after booking, whether it is premium economy, business, or first. The airline may stick an offer in front of you immediately. I've found that these are usually not worth it (at least to me), but occasionally they come at a tempting price point.
- Bid for an upgrade. Not all airlines offer this option, but it is great for those that do. The systems differ. I once bid for an SAS upgrade. However, as I bid the minimum amount ($300 for a 10-hour flight in this case), I did not win. Had I been successful, it would have been a killer deal to make the jump from premium economy to business.
There are cases where the Amex Upgrade with Points feature may be useful. It's worth checking if you're interested in an upgrade for an upcoming itinerary but don't necessarily need it. If the rate is decent compared to booking business class directly or booking a business-class award, it might be worth submitting an offer for an upgrade.
No matter what, though, the value you'll get isn't great. The feature is unique — I'll give Amex that. But you're likely better off using your Membership Rewards points in other ways.
Did you know Amex offers this Upgrade with Points feature? Have you ever used it? If not, will you use it? Let us know.
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