Are International Upgrades Still the Best Use of Frequent Flyer Miles?

I wrote a short piece last year for Conde’ Nast on why the conventional wisdom for getting the best value out of your miles has changed over the past several years.

It used to be that the best use of miles was for international upgrades (buying a coach ticket and using miles to upgrade to business class).

And for the most part that’s no longer true at all because upgrades have gotten much more expensive, and international award tickets have gotten much easier to book. Those two developments, in most cases, flip the value proposition between upgrades and award tickets.

It’s easier to book alliance and partner award tickets. Upgrades have gotten more difficult to snag, but the growth of airline alliances has made it simpler to mix and match partner airlines on a single award ticket. That opens up plenty more possibilities to redeem miles for the award seats that you want.

  • Awards have gotten easier. International award tickets are easier than they used to be, because of alliance, alliance awards let you combine different partners on a single award ticket making it easier to find seats to get where you’re going.

  • Upgrades on partners haven’t gotten as easy as awards have. Upgrade awards using miles from one airline to upgrade on another airline in an alliance aren’t nearly as integrated and seamless as alliance award tickets — take Star Alliance for instance where you have to redeem miles separately for each partner airline segment, not for a single one-way. And these upgrade awards require first buying full fare tickets, you can’t upgrade on alliance partners from the lowest fares.

  • Upgrades require buying expensive tickets, or topping off with lots of cash. While using miles to upgrade is usually cheaper on the airline whose miles you have, rather than on partners, it’s rarely cheap — airlines like United and American require a cash co-pay that may run $1200 roundtrip when upgrading with miles ($1200 on top of the lowest coach fare), and Delta doesn’t let you use miles to upgrade at all unless you’re on an international “M” fare which is nearly full fare and often about the price of advance purchase discount business class!

A USA Today piece from Tuesday asks, is it worth it to use miles for upgrades? and includes some of this analysis.

Passengers who want to use miles to upgrade to a premium cabin often need to be prepared to pay cash, as well. Co-payments can soar as high as $1,200 per person for some international round trips, says Gary Leff, co-founder of the frequent-flier community, However, US Airways will waive the co-payment on domestic flights for some members of its loyalty program, as will United .

Additionally, many airlines won’t allow passengers traveling abroad to use their miles to upgrade if they’ve paid the cheapest coach fares. Alaska and Delta have a similar restriction on their domestic flights, Leff says.

..Leff of says his general rule of thumb is “miles are best used for pricey international travel, and for last-minute and pricey domestic trips.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever buy tickets and upgrade. If you need earned miles to requalify for status, you need paid tickets, and miles can be a good way to get into a premium cabin. Most people aren’t booking award tickets for business travel paid for by an employer or client.

And there are exceptions to the low value upgrade rule — European airlines, especially British Airways but also Virgin Atlantic, offer good values (no cash co-pay, modest mileage cost) for upgrades especially when buying premium economy tickets and upgrading to business class. Upgrades from “World Traveler Plus” to “Club World” are actually a really good value with BA, though of course you’re paying the premium – which isn’t always that significant – for premium economy rather than straight coach.

Still, for US-based programs at least international upgrades are rarely the best way to use your miles.

And this is about international upgrades, domestic upgrades are a bit of a different story. They are easier to get, especially on American where mileage upgrade availability is very very good on most routes especially through Dallas. And co-pays are generally lower for flights — lowest on US Airways, waived for elites on United (except a handful of Hawaii routes operated by international aircraft) and US Airways.

Of course domestic flights are shorter than most international ones, and you get less and usually less comfortable seats, so they’re in less demand. International upgrades tend to be in greater demand, where clearing the upgrade can often be tough without status. I find award tickets much easier to get.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’ll disagree with the premise that award space is easy to book on partners. It’s gotten a lot harder in many markets. Carriers like American and Delta have very little saver award inventory, which is the only kind that can be booked from partner carriers like British Airways and Alaska. Air New Zealand has essentially closed down award inventory between North America and Australasia.

    And for those booking flights on their home airline, mileage requirements generally double when saver award space isn’t available.

    Sure, you might as well give up on partner upgrades, but are partner award seats next?

  2. I agree 100% with you!

    One thing to also add is that airlines have increasingly made changes to allow one-way booking such as American a couple of years back (and it looks like this is a trend with other carries such as Alaska Air). So you can also book oneway on say American and the return on United.

    I have noticed American has MUCH less upgrade space then they used to. Before as a non-elite you could find plenty of flights to Europe on American where you could purchase a cheap ticket and upgrade with miles. I read a thread on Flyertalk that there was only something like 52 seats for the next year on the route Dallas-London. That is 52 of the over 15,000 seats that they have on the route for the year. So if you are a non-elite and want to buy a ticket today on American Dallas to London you have a very small 52/15000 seats available that COULD even possibly be used to upgrade today!

  3. Let’s not forget that airlines have cut capacity and the economy is improving. Before more money spills into consumers hands, businesses will be investing, and spending dollars on Biz class seats. So demand is up at the same time as supply is down. It’s no surprise that upgrades are much more difficult to find.

  4. For the business traveler who flies paid J, the ability to upgrade from (even discount) business into F on an international flight can be a tremendous value when considering the cost of paid F.

  5. The only downside to using miles for free C/F international tix is that you don’t get EQM, which can be significant. But I’d rather keep my cash.

  6. @Boraxo there is a way around that sort of on UA . Book the mileage ticket and choose to buy the mileage booster and select the pqm box to get pqm. It really makes sense for F awards and possibly C awards.

  7. When holding both miles and GPUs I would not usually consider using miles unless I am holding a high fare ticket for which there is no copay. Even then would tend to use the GPU. Without the GPU I would use miles only for low copay fares and tend to save them for pure award fare flights.

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