Award Tickets are a Better Use of Miles than Upgrades

Probably the most frequent misconception I run across (although perhaps tied with the idea that you can productively use Capital One points for premium cabin international travel) in my award consulting practice is that upgrading with miles either opens up a world of options beyond what booking award tickets gets you, or that mileage upgrades are a better value.

So I wrote a column fpr Conde’ Nast Daily Traveler on why award tickets are a better use of miles than upgrades.

Here’s the lead-in:

Conventional wisdom has always said that the most lucrative way to use miles was to confirm upgrades from coach to business class on paid international 

That’s because you would accrue miles for the paid travel, plus earn status. And because upgrades require fewer points than a free ticket, you stretch your miles further. 

Unfortunately, that age-old advice no longer holds because of changes that most frequent flyer programs have made. Upgrade awards have become more difficult to get your hands on, while free tickets have become more valuable. These changes have reversed the advice—free award seats are almost always a better deal than paid travel with upgrades. Here’s why:

As they say, read the whole thing.

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. Agree 100% with
    “Airlines are holding back upgrade inventory. Airlines no longer make as many seats available for upgrades in advance because they prefer to hold availability until closer to the flight.”
    So how do we best use AA SWU’s???

  2. Certainly if you are a United traveller you are right. Horribly expensive ‘W’ fares or miles+co-pay coupled with no international availability on many routes has made upgrades very unattractive. In particular, with what seems like regular business class sales being good value, it is often best to wait for one of those – if you are travelling off-peak.

  3. What if you do not travel internationally, what is the best way to use your miles?

  4. Still disagree you as a general rule-I use my miles for upgrades all day long-it’s about selection and doing your homework….apples vs. oranges

  5. I think for the most part this is true; except for travel on BA. Using miles to upgrade a World Traveler Plus ticket to CW is a good value. But, this is primarily the case because BAs award tickets carry such high surcharges….

  6. Sadly, I’m using more and more of my miles to upgrade domestic flights. Half the time, it’s the only way I’m going to get upgraded on a DL transcon (and I’m a Diamond!), and it’s just about the ONLY way I’m going to get upgraded on United (and I’m 1K!) after I’ve run out of GPUs and RPUs. I’m afraid that American won’t be far behind…say bye-bye to loyalty.

  7. This might make sense in the US. It doesn’t elsewhere.

    On British Airways the best use of miles is to upgrade from Premium Economy (World Traveller Plus) to Business (Club World).

  8. @Robert as I’ve observed elsewhere that’s about the only time that upgrades make sense [Flying Blue to a certain extent as well, but that BA upgrade option is great]

  9. However, Business class or First Award seats are getting harder to obtain. I believe that if you save over $1000. for using 30,000 miles to upgrade, the value is there. Additionally, you can still earn the miles for traveling. I am looking to travel in FEB from SYD to TUS. I cannot find a business class award seat. Would not want to be stuck in coach for 12 hours. In this case, the upgrade award could be a good deal.

  10. I think for the most part this is true; except for travel on BA. Using miles to upgrade a World Traveler Plus ticket to CW is a good value. But, this is primarily the case because BAs award tickets carry such high surcharges

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