Why International Mileage Upgrades are So Expensive and Hard to Get — And What a Better Strategy Would Be

A couple of reader questions about upgrades.

JC said,

Hi there! Love the insights you share.

I know award ticketing requires of me a lot of foresight and planning, but what would really make a difference on my end is how to most efficiently book award tickets/upgrades on the web.

And Joy asked,

For Star Alliance or Oneworld, what’s the cheapest way to upgrade an Economy flight booked into a cheap fare class (like K or L)? It seems quite expensive on United, for instance, because you have to pay some $300 in addition to the miles you use. Can you do it with a partner airline’s miles for cheaper?

Conventional wisdom has always said that the best way to use miles was confirmed international upgrades to business class (buying a coach ticket, using miles to upgrade).

That used to be true: you would accrue miles for the paid travel, earn status, spend fewer miles.

Sadly that’s no longer nearly as good a value proposition as it used to be because upgrades have gotten harder and more expensive — at a time when ‘free’ award tickets have become more flexible. International premium cabin awards are now in most cases a much better deal than upgrades.

  • Cash co-pays are often required. When you buy the cheapest ticket on United or American, you can’t just use your miles to pay for an upgrade. Assuming you aren’t on a full fare ticket you are going to have to pay a cash “co-pay” as well that can be more than $500 per person each way — so it’s $1,000+ extra cash for the privilege of using your miles to upgrade.

  • Not all fares may be upgradable. Delta requires you to buy an “M” fare or higher to be eligible to use your miles to upgrade. That’s often about as expensive as a discounted advance purchase ticket. If you cannot confirm the upgrade at booking, you may have to spend substantially more for the ticket (M fare rather than cheapest coach) for the chance of an upgrade. You’re spending a lot of money to bet on the roulette wheel that you’re going to land on green for an upgrade. You could be significantly out of pocket and your upgrade doesn’t even clear.

  • Full fares are usually necessary to upgrade on partners. Although it’s increasingly possible to use one program’s miles to upgrade on an airline partner’s flights, that generally means buying a full or nearly full fare coach ticket — again, about as expensive as an advance purchase, discount business-class ticket in the first place.

  • Upgrade availabiltiy is harder to get these days. Airlines are holding back upgrade inventory more than they used to, both a product of full flights and also changing revenue management philosophy that tries to squeeze out maximum revenue from each flight (fair, but not helpful for upgraders). Because the upgrade list is generally sorted by status, waitlisting for an upgrade usually means non-status passengers wind up in back.

At the same time it has become much easier to book alliance and partner award tickets. The growth of airline alliances has made it simpler to mix and match partner airlines on a single award ticket. That opens up more combinations of flights for redeeming miles to get where you want to go.

In other words, partner and alliance awards are much more seamless than partner and alliance upgrades.

There are exceptions, of course. Upgrading from premium economy to business class on British Airways can be done for very few miles (half the miles of a coach award ticket for the same segment) and no cash co-pay. If it’s available, it’s a great value.

And when your company is buying your ticket, upgrades are a useful tool.

So it’s worth paying attention to how upgrades work. In general it’s much easier to use an airline’s own miles to upgrade on that airline, rather than trying to upgrade on partners. Star Alliance has the most advanced upgrade options, though not all airlines are going to be possible, and usually the upgrades are coming out of the same inventory as awards. As mentioned, you need to be on a Y or B (basically full fare) ticket. And each award is generally good only for a single segment.

United is pretty good (within their IT limitations) about processing upgrades online. American doesn’t offer that option — either on its own flights, or on joint venture partners British Airways or Iberia. You can generally only upgrade one cabin, which means that a coach ticket on British Airways that American issues can only be upgraded with AAdvantage miles to premium economy.

Most readers — those that do not have United’s global premier upgrades or American’s VIP upgrades which in each case are given to top tier elites and can be used without co-pay on less than full fare tickets (in American’s case, currently, on any fare) — are going to be better off searching for award tickets than buying paid coach international travel and upgrading.

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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. “And when your company is buying your ticket, upgrades are a useful tool.”

    Unless your company is buying you full-fare tickets I disagree. It is still a lot of cash & points to be spending to upgrade, especially on a work assignment.

  2. @Wandering Aramean – I agree, it is still a lot of cash and miles but it may represent a better option than award tickets (unless you can work creatively with your company to turn that award ticket into cash)

  3. What I find even harder to fathom is how to book paid tickets on partners to accrue miles to keep status on an airline (in my case AS).
    There are so many rules about what percent you accrue and which type of inventory you need to book to be eligible. A post on those rules would be really helpful.

  4. Gary – The Miles and More program offers promotions on using miles for upgrades,and not only on full fare economy tickets. Assuming one could use United miles for this, would 30,000 miles for an upgrade to business (on a non-full fare ticket)on a transatlantic flight be considered a good use of miles, in your opinion?

  5. We were “allowed” to purchase with miles and cash an upgrade from MSP-SYD on United and as we had scored one of the $500 RT fares last month, we felt with even the addition of the expensive miles and cash it worked out to be still a good deal to go business and flat bed seats for those flights!!

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