Emirates First Class Upgrades Are Easy, Great Deal

Emirates is considered a premium global airline, but that may be more because of their ultra luxe first class, with celebrity spokespeople rather than anything else.

  • Emirates business class is weak. They still fly planes with angled business seats. Their Boeing 777s don’t even have direct aisle access from all of the business seats. The A380 business class seats are just ‘ok’.

  • Emirates was among the first airlines in the world to squeeze 10 passengers across in a single aisle of a Boeing 777. Of course that’s largely become world standard, but they led the race to the bottom in coach seat width.

The airline’s first class is magnificent. On a limited number of Boeing 777s they probably have the world’s best first class. Not even probably. Even still, the bulk of their fleet offers a first class seat that was remarkable a decade ago but has been passed by. Still, even on an Airbus A380 Emirates has:

  • Shower spas. They’re one of only two commercial airlines with inflight showers, and theirs as far better than Etihad’s.

  • A really outstanding food and beverage program, that’s top line in every way, think Chateau d’Yquem as a dessert wine and Hennessy Paradis cognac.

Yquem in New Emirates First

The Emirates Skywards frequent flyer program is extremely weak, offering poor value by design. Yet there’s an are where I have to give them credit: upgrades, especially from business class to first class, and even after January’s devaluation.

  • You can upgrade award tickets! This isn’t limited to buying business class with cash and upgrading with miles.

  • If your upgrade doesn’t clear in advance, you can upgrade at the airport. And there there are no capacity controls.

  • And there are no cash co-pays in addition to miles for the upgrade.

  • Plus their first class is a special product.

Emirates A380 First Class Suite

Emirates A380 First Class Shower

I recently helped a friend upgrade New York JFK to Milan from business class to first class on board their Airbus A380 for 30,000 Skywards miles. So excited by the prospect he came back to me and asked if he should upgrade Newark – Athens (on their lesser Boeing 777) with 38,000 points?

Emirates tends to clear these upgrades fairly close to departure. For instance, the New York – Milan flight cleared 72 hours prior to travel.

Emirates stops clearing upgrades 48 hours before flight. If it hasn’t cleared at that point, it will not process automatically.

However you can ask for mileage upgrades at check-in (and, technically, even on board if someone cancels at the last minute or no shows). There it’s first come, first served. There are no capacity controls, no need for ‘upgrade seats’ to be available. And flights usually do not go out full in first class. So get to the airport on the early side.

What’s interesting is that Emirates first class upgrades usually clear in my experience. That’s even more true recently, as Emirates has been especially stingy making first class award space available. When they do offer first awards, it’s almost always just a single seat. But when they don’t clear in advance you can probably get it done in person. And you have easy access to their points because literally every major U.S. flexible points currency transfers to Emirates.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. An important piece of info that’s missing is how quickly transferrable currencies post to Emirates accounts for those that might look to make a last minute upgrade request at the airport and would need to xfer points.

  2. @ Can you cancel your business class award for free if the uograde doesn’t clear? Not really interested in flying EK J.

  3. Can you upgrade an award that was from a partner redemption? or must the original award be from EK directly?

  4. I flew Düsseldorf to Dubai on the a380 last year with my family of five. Booked economy seats for $500 and then used 30k emirates points each to upgrade at the time of booking (I found flights with the little chair icon showing biz upgrade available). Was a pretty good deal.

  5. My wife and I were cleared for
    First upgrade on the EWR-ATH flight- but the crew was adamant that they will not cater first class meal service for us.

    So we passed on what basically was a seat upgrade. Pretty disappointed.

  6. @StillAsleep

    I upgraded two tickets JFK -MCP at check-in last month (to J). I checked availability with the agent, transferred from Amex instantaneously, and booked, all within 15 minutes or so.

  7. @LarryInNYC – Do you mean MCT airport? MCP is in Brazil and that would be a seriously circuitous routing. Great DP on transfer time.

  8. Interesting how the article says the A380 business class is “ok”. I was fortunate to fly business on Emirates for the 1st time from IAH to DXB on the A380 this year. 14 hrs in that seat and the plane lounge, no American airline offers that kind of comfort and luxury. Wish I could fly that seat often enough to just call it “ok”. And the flight home was able to upgrade to 1st class 2 weeks before the flight when the app notified me if I wanted to upgrade.

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