When to Upgrade Airline Tickets With Miles

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Redeeming top value award flights can be a tricky business. Every carrier has a unique set of rules and region definitions, requiring a different number of miles for each destination and class of travel. When you add upgrades into the mix, it can start to feel like a full-time job.

You need to dig through award charts and program T&C’s to determine which fare classes are eligible for upgrades, the number of miles required, calculate if the cash price of the ticket plus the miles needed to upgrade offers a decent return, and find availability to upgrade into the class of travel you want to fly. We've done the digging and figured out a few examples where substantial value with upgrades can be had; hopefully, you'll find some more for us to add to the table!

Examples of When to Upgrade Airline Tickets With Miles

ANA Mileage Club: Seattle to Tokyo - 25,000 miles from Economy to Business
British Airways Avios: New York to London - 20,000 Avios from Premium Economy to Business
Alitalia MilleMiglia: US to Rome - 12,500 miles from Premium Economy to Business
Singapore KrisFlyer: New York to Frankfurt - 21,000 miles from Premium Economy to Business
Cathay Pacific Business Class
If you don't have the miles for a business or first class award flight, upgrading from a paid coach fare using miles is a solid option.

There are three primary ways you can upgrade to a better seat.

  • If you have elite status with the airline – Most frequent flyer programs offer complimentary upgrades to elite members
  • Paying cash to upgrade – Either when you buy the ticket or when you check-in, some airlines also let you bid for upgrades.
  • Upgrading with points and miles – Need to find upgrade availability, often requires purchasing a particular fare class, provides certainty over complimentary upgrades

TIP: If you pay for your upgrade, use the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®, Chase Sapphire Reserve℠, or Citi Prestige® Card to offset the cost with travel credits or fixed-value points. These cards also offer the best travel protection!

When Should You Upgrade a Paid Ticket with Miles?

Most of us have a minimum value in mind when redeeming miles for award flights, and we should apply the same principals to upgrades. There is no reason to upgrade a ticket with miles if it means purchasing a higher fare class at a significant premium, nor does it make sense to upgrade if the airline requires a hefty copay in addition to your miles.

The trick to determining value is to break down the price difference between the cheapest fare we would otherwise purchase and an upgradeable fare, combine the difference with the number of miles required for the upgrade, and calculate the return on your miles.

Confused yet? Don’t worry, below we've listed a few of our favorite upgrade options between the US and Europe and put together an example flying between the US and Japan on ANA to show how the numbers roll out, offer a few tips on finding upgrade availability, and show the available value.

Before we get into the details, it’s worth noting that some airlines allow you to upgrade multiple classes (e.g., straight from economy to business class), while others only allow you to upgrade a single class from the one purchased (e.g., from economy to premium economy). It’s important to understand the rules for each program before you purchase your ticket to ensure you can upgrade to your desired class of travel.

ANA Mileage Club Seattle > Tokyo for 25K Economy to Business

We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep pushing it until there's a devaluation, ANA has some of the best value awards of any frequent flyer program in the world, and this includes upgrades. The Mileage Club Upgrade Award Chart is sector-based and allows you to upgrade directly from economy to business.

The example we’ve put together is purchasing an upgradable economy fare from Seattle to Tokyo on ANA, and redeeming 25K miles upgrading to business class. Seattle > Tokyo comes in 4,769 miles, so we are safely within the 25K upgrade zone.

ANA=International-Upgrade-Award-Chart

The cheapest economy fares to Tokyo on our dates cost $663.10. But as they are a ‘Special‘ fare, we can’t upgrade those tickets to business class. Instead, we’ve got to select the ‘Basic Plus’ fare at $959.10, so we’re $296 out of pocket to purchase the upgradable seat.

ANA-Economy-Seattle-Tokyo

The cheapest business class fare for the same flight is $3,647.10. A difference of $2,688 between the cost of an upgradeable fare and the cost of a seat up the pointy end of the plane. To make it fair, we’re also going to deduct the $296 difference between the economy fares, as 99% of the time we’re likely buying the least expensive fares we can. Then we’ll divide the difference by the required mileage to upgrade, 25K miles.

ANA-Business-Seattle-Tokyo

Breaking down the numbers:

  • $3,647,10 – $959.10 = $2,688
  • $2,688 – $296 = $2,393
  • $2,393 / 25,000 = 9.6¢ per mile

Achieving 9.6¢ per mile for an award is an excellent redemption.

The next thing to get a handle on is upgrade availability. ANA lets you search with upgrade availability highlighted in the flight details section.

ANA-Economy-Seattle-Tokyo copy

Unfortunately, the majority of searches show the upgrade as ‘Waitlisted,’ not what you want to see before transferring over your hard earned MR or SPG points. The situation is compounded by ANA’s website, which forces you to look through each date manually until you find upgrade space.

The solution is finding ANA business class award space available to partners via the United website. If you can find Business Saver Award space on an ANA operated flight via United’s website, that space is available to book as an ANA International Upgrade.

Find-ANA-Award-Space-On-United

Don’t have any ANA miles? Mileage Club is a transfer partner of Membership Rewards and SPG, so you can transfer points from cards like the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express and The Blue Business℠ Plus Credit Card from American Express. Remember, when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints, you’ll receive an additional 5,000 miles in your ANA account, so your upgrade will only set you back 20K SPG points.

BA Avios New York > London for 20K Premium Economy to Business

Crossing the Atlantic, Avios provide a great hack if you can land cheap Premium Economy tickets on BA. To calculate an upgrade from Premium Economy to Business, deduct the number of Avios required for Premium Economy from those required for Business class. Remember, the Avios award chart is distance-based, so the price will vary based on where you're flying from, for example:

  • 60,000 (business) – 40,000 (premium economy) = 40,000 Avios to upgrade

Initially, the Avios required may look like a rough deal after you’ve paid out hard cash for a ticket. The value here is that you won’t pay carrier-imposed surcharges on upgrade awards which are the big killer on Avios business class redemptions to/from Europe; thanks, Gilbert from God Save The Points. Rather than paying roughly 60,000 Avios with an additional $500+ in fuel surcharges, if you can bag a one-way Premium Economy ticket in the range of $500/600, you can then upgrade with half the miles and pay no carrier-imposed surcharges.

You can find upgrade award availability on BA's website the same way you would search for standard Executive Club awards. Simply search for available award space in the cabin you want to upgrade to on the date you're booked. If there's availability, you can upgrade to the next class. All but the three lowest economy fare classes qualify for upgrades, so you can upgrade any paid premium economy or business class ticket.

Alitalia MilleMiglia US > Rome for 12.5K Premium Economy to Business

Despite tearing most of the value out of its award chart in 2016, one of the gems Alitalia left untouched can be found in the upgrade award chart. You can upgrade directly from Economy > Business for 25K or from Premium Economy > Business for 12.5K. Where Alitalia stands out from the crowd here is availability. There doesn’t need to be business class award availability to upgrade. As long as there are business class tickets for sale in the right fare class (down to the lowest fare bucket), you can upgrade your economy ticket to business class with miles. It’s a unique feature and takes some of the legwork out of searching for upgrade availability.

In a post on One Mile at a Time, Tiffany points out that although the English language version of MilleMiglia’s upgrade award chart states 12,500 miles to upgrade from premium economy to business class between North America and Italy, some reservations agents will charge the 15K miles quoted on the Russian version. While 2,500 miles isn’t going to tip the value into negative territory, YMMV depending on the booking rep. This is hands down the best value upgrade option between the US and Europe.

KrisFlyer New York >> Frankfurt for 21K Premium Economy to Business

Taking advantage of Singapore Airlines’ 5th freedom route between New York and Frankfurt, you can upgrade from Premium Economy > Business class for just 21K KrisFlyer miles. Again, this is dependant on landing a Premium Economy fare cheap enough to get a decent ROI on your miles. But with the cost of transatlantic travel dropping year on year, this is an often ignored award travel sweet spot that has become more valuable as the cost of flights has come down.

Singapore-JFK-FRA-Premium-Economy

You need to pick up a ticket in Y, B, or E booking classes to upgrade from Economy, but any Premium Economy or Business class ticket should qualify for an upgrade. In our example above, a round-trip premium economy fare tips the scales at $1273.88, plus we would need 52K miles to upgrade to business for the entire trip. Why 52K miles?

While you can only upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy if there's saver award space, KrisFlyer lets you upgrade from Premium Economy to Business (and Business to First) when both saver and standard space is available. In this case, the outbound flight has saver upgrade space available for 21K miles, and the inbound flight to JFK only has standard upgrade availability which costs an additional 10K miles or 31K miles. As a comparison, for the same dates, you can land a round-trip business class fare for $2503.88. The return isn't quite what you'd get from the ANA example above, but 2.4¢ per mile still comes in above our minimum redeemable value for KrisFlyer miles.

What makes this option valuable isn't so much the cent-per-mile value, but that KrisFlyer is a transfer partner of the four big transferable rewards currencies, allowing you to book an upgrade to business even when your points are spread thin.

When It's Not Good Value to Upgrade with Miles

Typically, if you’re thinking of upgrading to a higher class of travel using U.S. legacy carrier miles, or for domestic flights, you're throwing value out the window. Flying from the US to Europe on Delta, for instance, requires that you purchase higher fare classes if you want to upgrade on international flights with miles. These fare classes often cost more than the cheapest business class tickets for the same destinations. Delta then charges up to 60,000 miles to upgrade that flight one-way from Economy to Business class. To put this in perspective, you can fly round-trip to Europe in business on Delta by redeeming 80,000 Korean miles plus fees & taxes on a SkyTeam partner award.

The key is to treat upgrades the same as you would any award flight and only redeem miles for an upgrade if the value exceeds your baseline.

Final Thoughts

Getting up the front of the plane and into business or first class is the name of the game for most points and miles fans. But if you don’t have the miles for a premium cabin award flight, purchasing an inexpensive Economy or Premium Economy seat and upgrading with miles could be the perfect solution.

Under the right circumstances, upgrading a paid flight to a higher class with miles can offer an even better return than a straight-out award flight. However, be wary of the terms and conditions for each program as they vary widely between carriers.

There’s a lot of info to soak in, so if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments and we’ll do our best to provide an answer. If you've got a great use of miles to upgrade an economy or premium economy ticket, please share it with us, and we'll add it to the list!

When to Upgrade Airline Tickets With Miles
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