The Everyday Person’s Guide to Upgrading With Miles on US Airlines!
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One of the best things about being a miles & points enthusiast is helping friends and family experience Big Travel with Small Money. Just this year I took my family to New York and the Statue of Liberty over the holidays with Hyatt points. And I’ve been helping my parents and aunt & uncle book a 3-week cross country train trip with points.
Nothing beats the look on someone’s face when you show them the $1,200 cost of a ticket they just booked for less than $100 out of pocket!
Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends about how to use airline miles to upgrade their seat. And you know what, I don’t know the answer!
I’ve never had gazillion-miler-super-elite status with any airline. And I’ve never actually used miles to upgrade a flight! So I decided to do a little research and share with you what I find along the way.
Every airline has different rules for upgrading with miles. And trying to figure out what they actually mean feels, to me, like learning Chinese. So I’m going to do some homework and update this post every other week based on which airlines y’all want to learn about.
If you’ve got questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll add the information to the post! Also, please share any tips you have! Y’all shared some great money saving tricks on a recent post on how to save on car rentals.
My plan is to start by covering all of the major US airlines, and then move on to the major international airlines. This week I’ve added details on how to upgrade with Alaska Airlines miles.
How to Upgrade Your Flight With Miles & Points
Upgrading with miles will cost fewer miles than booking an award ticket on the same flight in a “premium” cabin. But you’ll be paying for the cost of a coach ticket, and you’ll usually pay a hefty fee on top of that, too. So upgrading with miles probably isn’t very useful to the true budget traveler, because you’ll likely spend more cash than you would for a cheap coach flight.
But from my research so far, award upgrades are a potentially great way to use your miles to pay a lot less for Business Class seats. They can also make sense if your travel dates aren’t flexible. Because even if you’re not upgraded, you’ll still have a ticket to your destination.
Upgrade awards are similar to regular award flights (for most airlines) in that there must be an upgrade award seat available (and they can be limited!). These awards are usually separate from other types of award seats. So even if there is an open seat in Business or First Class you can book with cash or miles, you won’t always be able to use miles to upgrade to the same seat.
Also, finding an upgrade on partner flights can be more difficult. And the partner upgrade award rules can vary with each airline. I won’t be able to cover all of the partner upgrade award rules in detail. So if you’ve had good (or bad) luck finding partner upgrades with a specific airline, please let me know and I’ll add the information to this post.
That said, if you have elite status with an airline, you’ll typically have a much easier time getting upgraded (i.e. potentially lower fees, higher priority on the waitlist, etc.). Sometimes even without having to use miles or pay any extra fees!
For simplicity, I’m not going to cover the benefits of elite status in regards to being upgraded. This one’s just for us “normal” folks.
Major US Airlines Upgrade Award Rules
I’ll start this project by covering the upgrade award policies of the major US airlines. These miles & points are the easiest for most folks to earn and use. So it makes sense to start there.
1. United Airlines Upgrade
You can use United Airlines miles to upgrade most fares paid with cash (you can’t upgrade a Basic Economy ticket) for United Airlines, United Express, and Copa Airlines flights. But you can’t upgrade 2 classes with miles.
You can search for United Airlines upgrade awards on their website. To start your search, go to the United Airlines homepage and click “All search options.”
On the next page, select which type of upgrade award you’re looking for.
When looking at the search results, you’ll notice little colored arrows above the upgrade award price. A green arrow means there is an open upgrade award and you can book it. A yellow arrow means you can be added to the upgrade award waitlist. If you choose this option, you’ll have to pay the miles & cash for the upgrade, in full, up front.
If you aren’t upgraded, you’ll get a full refund of the miles & cash you paid for the upgrade. But if you have multiple connections and even just a single leg of your flight is upgraded, you’ll likely be charged the full upgrade price.
And remember, you don’t have book an upgrade with miles at the time you make the reservation, you can upgrade later if you’d like.
If you see a red “Mixed Upgrade” note (like in the search above), one of the flights can’t be upgraded with a United Airlines upgrade award. In this particular case, it’s because the flight is operated by a partner airline.
Miles Needed to Upgrade (One-way):
- Domestic upgrade, including the US Mainland, Alaska, and Canada (but not Hawaii) – 7,500 to 20,000 United Airlines miles
- International upgrades take up to 35,000 United Airlines miles.
- Domestic upgrade including the US Mainland, Alaska, and Canada (but not Hawaii) – Up to $250 copay
- International upgrade – Up to $600 copay
You can see United Airlines’ upgrade award chart on pages 4 to 5 of this document (Star Alliance partner upgrade chart is on page 6). Or you can search their interactive map.
Good Deal or Not: For a round-trip domestic flight award upgrade you could pay up to $500 more, or up to $1,200 extra for a round-trip international upgrade! That’s on top of the cost of the airfare!
But the price of a Business or First Class seat could easily be 3 to 5 times that amount. And certain (more expensive) fares will require fewer miles and have a smaller (or no) co-pay. So you’ll want to do the math and see if it makes sense for your particular situation.
Because you can only upgrade one class with miles, in my opinion, it makes the most sense to upgrade from coach to Business Class. Because if you want to upgrade with miles from Business Class to First Class, you’ll have to pay cash for an expensive Business Class ticket (i.e. $1,000s). And that’s something I’m not going to do unless someone else is paying for it. 😉
Partner Upgrade Rules: You can use miles to upgrade on some Star Alliance partners, but not all of them. Partner award upgrades cost 10,000 to 60,000 United Airlines miles per one-way, non-stop flight. There is no copay on partner upgrade awards. But only the most expensive paid fares are eligible. So either way, you’ll end up paying. And there are extra restrictions with certain partners.
Tips & Tricks: Reader RnC has had success upgrading with United Airlines miles by getting added to the waitlist and calling back to check on the upgrade status regularly. RnC says the upgrade usually clears between 1 week and 12 hours in advance.
Have you had success upgrading your seat with United Airlines miles? If so, what’s your secret?
2. American Airlines Upgrade
American Airlines upgrades with miles are valid on any paid published fare class (in other words, no award flight upgrades with miles) on an American Airlines or American Eagle flights (except Basic Economy fares). Mileage upgrades are valid for a single one-way trip with up to 3 segments. And you can only upgrade 1 class. So if you’re flying coach on a flight with 3 cabins, you may use an American Airlines upgrade with miles to Business Class, NOT First Class.
If you are an Executive Platinum elite, you can see whether or not upgrades are available when you’re searching for flights on the American Airlines website. But for less frequent travelers, like myself, the only way to find upgrade awards is to call American Airlines, or search for them using ExpertFlyer.
To search on ExpertFlyer, you’ll need an ExpertFlyer Basic ($4.99 a month) or Premium (~$10 a month or $99 a year) subscription to be able to search for award and upgrade seats. Once you’re logged into your account, follow these steps to search for an American Airlines miles upgrade.
Step 1. Click “Awards & Upgrades”
Under “ExpertFlyer Tools“, click the top link.
Step 2. Input Your Travel Information
Now you can enter the departing and arriving airport, dates, airline, and class of service you want to upgrade to. If you have a Basic account, you’ll only be able to search 1 date and 1 class of service at a time.
Step 3. Find Available Seat Upgrades
On the right side of the search results you’ll see the number of seats available (or “0” if none are open).
Once you’ve found seats you can upgrade to with your American Airlines miles, go ahead and book your ticket. Then once your ticket is issued, you’ll have to call reservations (800-433-7300) to apply the AA upgrade.
If there are no available award upgrades on dates or flights you want, you can be added to the wait list.
Miles Needed to Upgrade (One-way):
- Domestic upgrade, including the US Mainland, Hawaii, Alaska, and Canada – 5,000 to 15,000 American Airlines miles
- International flights – 8,000 to 25,000 American Airlines miles
- Domestic upgrades including the US Mainland, Alaska, Hawaii, and Canada – Up to $175 co-pay
- International upgrades – Up to a $550 co-pay
You might also be charged a $75 fee if you requested the upgrade within 21 days of departure. This fee is waived for certain American Airlines elites and some folks have been able to get it waived for asking nicely. 😉
Good Deal or Not: It’s nice that American Airlines has a simpler award upgrade chart compared to United Airlines. And the prices, both in miles and fees, look to be slightly less than what United Airlines would charge for the same type of upgrade. And it looks like there are some deals to be had.
For example, it only costs 5,000 American Airlines miles (with no fee) to upgrade from a domestic full-fare coach or Premium Economy ticket to Business Class. Of course you’ll want to do the math and be sure that the increased price for these fares are worth more than 10,000 American Airlines miles + $75. Because that is what you would save in miles & fees compared to paying a discount coach fare.
If you’re not sure which American Airlines fare codes are discounted or full-fare, here is the list.
And finding the fare class of the ticket you’re looking to buy is easy. From the search results on the American Airlines website, just click “Details,” which is on the left below the flight’s departure and arrival times.
Then an information box, like the one below, will pop up with the information you need.
Partner Upgrade Rules: You can use an American Airlines miles upgrade on partners British Airways and Iberia. Partner award upgrades cost 12,500 to 70,000 American Airlines miles per one-way flight, with up to 3 segments. There is NO copay on partner upgrade awards. But only the most expensive paid fares are eligible. And your upgrade will be subject to additional taxes & fees from the partner airline. So either way, you’ll end up paying.
Check the American Airlines partner award chart to see how much it would cost for your flight.
Tips & Tricks: Have you had success upgrading your seat with American Airlines miles? If so, what’s your secret?
Update: Delta has eliminated Mileage Upgrade Awards for flights in the Americas. But they should still be available for flights operated by Virgin Atlantic, KLM/Air France, and AeroMexico. They have also expanded the option to upgrade with miles. Now you can log into your account and upgrade any of your flights by paying with miles. This option is also available in the Delta mobile app.
Delta offers 2 ways to upgrade with miles. You can “Upgrade With Miles” or book a “Mileage Upgrade Award.” The names are close enough to make it confusing. So let’s look at how these methods differ and when you should use each one.
Upgrade With Miles
Link: Delta Upgrade With Miles
While you are making your booking on the Delta website (or over the phone 800-323-2323) you’ll have the option to “Upgrade With Miles” on Delta or Delta Connection flights within the US. But you’ll need to have enough miles to pay for the upgrade for all passengers and all flights in the reservation.
The number of miles you’ll need is determined by taking the difference in price between your current fare and the class you want to upgrade to, and then covering that cost with Delta miles at a value of 1 cent each. This is the same value you would get for your Delta miles if you used the Pay With Miles option for your entire flight.
When you’re searching for your flight, just remember, Basic Economy fares are not eligible for upgrades.
When you get to the check-out page, you’ll have the option of using your Delta miles to pay for your upgrade.
The advantage of booking this way is that you won’t have to worry about finding a Mileage Upgrade Award (the alternative upgrade option). And if the price difference between classes is low, it could end up costing fewer miles than booking a Mileage Upgrade Award.
Mileage Upgrade Award
The only way to book a Mileage Upgrade Award is to call Delta (800-323-2323) and have them add the award to an existing reservation. If there is an available upgrade award and you have enough Delta miles, then you can book the upgrade.
Mileage Upgrade Awards are only available for Delta operated flights in the following fare classes:
- Within North America (US, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean) and Northern South America (Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela): Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, or T.
- For all other international flights: Y, B, M, H, Q, or K.
You can search for specific fare classes using the “Advanced Search” option on Delta’s site.
Next, scroll to the bottom of the following page and select “fare class.“ Then choose the specific fare class you want.
Unfortunately, you can’t search for available Mileage Upgrade Awards on Delta’s site or any other site, like ExpertFlyer. But you can search for Delta saver level Business and First Class award seats on ExpertFlyer. And if you can find one of those, there’s a better chance an upgrade award will be available.
The other issue is, similar to regular award tickets, Delta doesn’t publish an award chart for their Mileage Upgrade Awards. The upgrade award prices I’ve listed here are based on what some folks have paid in the past and shared on miles & points forums. But they could change without notice.
Miles Needed for Mileage Upgrade Awards (One-Way):
- Domestic flight upgrade – up to 35,000 Delta miles
- International flight upgrade – up to 80,000 Delta miles
Fees (One-Way): Delta does NOT charge any additional fees for Mileage Upgrade Awards!
Good Deal or Not: Mileage Upgrade Awards can be a great deal because you won’t have to pay an extra fee to book them! And it looks like you could save bunches of miles booking these awards compared to booking a Business or First Class award.
But Delta is a bit more restrictive with which fare classes are eligible for Mileage Upgrade Awards. So you’ll be paying more for a ticket that can be upgraded. And the process could end up being far more tedious, because you can only book these awards with a phone agent.
Partner Upgrade Rules: You can use Delta miles to book Mileage Upgrade Awards on certain Virgin Atlantic, Air France, KLM, and Aeromexico flights. But there are stricter limitations on which fare classes and routes are eligible for an upgrade.
Tips & Tricks: Have you had success booking upgrade awards with Delta miles? If so, what’s your secret?
4. Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines miles are some of my favorite miles to use for partner Business and First Class award flights on great airlines like Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. But they can be useful for upgrading flights, too!
With Alaska Airlines miles, you’ll only be able to upgrade to their First Class (which is essentially Business Class). But the process to upgrade with miles is straightforward.
Upgrades cost 15,000 Alaska Airlines miles, and you’ll need to book your ticket in a more expensive eligible fare class (Y, S, B, M, or H).
You can also use Alaska Airlines miles to upgrade Money & Miles flights.
You can use ExpertFlyer to search for available upgrade awards on Alaska Airlines. You’ll be looking for open “U” class seats. Or, you can search for upgrade awards on the Alaska Airlines website and easily compare the cost of booking an upgrade eligible fare class.
To see if the flight you want has available upgrade award seats select “Mileage” under the “Upgrade fare type” heading on the left side of the ticket search screen.
Flights that have open upgrade award seats will have an “F” in a blue box next to them.
It couldn’t be any easier to compare the cost of upgrading with Alaska Airlines miles. The website shows you the cash price of a coach seat, First Class ticket, and the price of booking an upgrade eligible fare.
Miles Needed for Mileage Upgrade Awards (One-Way):
- Upgrade to First Class – 15,000 Alaska Airlines miles
Fees (One-Way): Alaska Airlines doesn’t charge any additional fees for mileage upgrades!
And if you’re out of Alaska Airlines miles, but you still want to upgrade, you can pay $29 to $199 + taxes per one-way flight.
You can pay to upgrade if your ticket was booked in any of the following fare codes: B, G, H, K, L, M, N, Q, R, S, T, V, W, Y, and Z. These booking codes include award flights, so you can book with Alaska Airlines miles and then pay for an upgrade to First Class.
But you can only upgrade this way within 24 hours of your flight. So you might have a tougher time finding an available First Class seat.
Good Deal or Not: Of all the major US airlines, I found Alaska Airlines to have the most straightforward process for upgrading with miles.
You can easily see how much more you’ll pay for an upgrade eligible fare and compare that price to the cost of paying cash for a First Class or cheaper coach ticket on the same flight. So you can always be sure you’re getting the best deal.
Partner Upgrade Rules: You can’t use Alaska Airlines miles to upgrade partner flights.
Tips & Tricks: Have you had success booking upgrade awards with Alaska Airlines miles? If so, what tips and tricks can you share?
5. The Rest of the US Airlines
The rest of the US airlines are mostly low-cost or ultra-low-cost airlines. Where you won’t find many traditional Business Class or First Class experiences that you can use your miles or points to upgrade to.
You also won’t find much in the way of in-flight entertainment, WiFi, or complimentary food. And you’ll often pay for everything from seat assignments to carry-on bags with these low-cost carriers.
That said, you can sometimes book a bigger domestic First Class style seat for a decent price because you’re not getting all the frills that typically come with those tickets. And the one exception to all of this is JetBlue, which offers free WiFi, drinks, snacks, and lie-flat domestic First Class seats on some routes!
I’ve heard nothing but good things about JetBlue’s service.
Allegiant doesn’t offer Business or First Class on any of their planes. On select flights, they do have seats with extra legroom and “Giant Seats,” which are similar to domestic First Class seats.
The biggest hurdle to booking these seats with Allegiant miles is they don’t exist. Allegiant doesn’t have a traditional frequent flyer program. There’s a Bank of America Allegiant credit card, which earns myAllegiant Rewards. But the points you earn can only be redeemed for 1 cent each toward certain Allegiant purchases. So it’s not a good deal.
The best seats you’ll find on a Frontier Airlines flight are their Stretch Seats, which are regular coach seats with extra legroom and the ability to recline.
You can’t book these seats with Frontier miles. However, you can pay cash to upgrade your seat on an award ticket.
JetBlue has some of the nicest domestic Business Class seats you’ll find – Jetblue Mint. These seats are available on about a dozen routes and a handful of seasonal flights.
JetBlue doesn’t have a traditional award chart. The price you pay in points is tied to the cash price of the flight, so they don’t have blackout dates. If you can book a seat with cash you can do the same with JetBlue points!
You can upgrade to a Mint seat with JetBlue points, but you can only use 1 type of payment for your ticket. So, if you booked a ticket with JetBlue points, you can only upgrade with points. And if you paid with cash, you can only upgrade with cash. You can’t use JetBlue points to upgrade a ticket paid with cash and vice versa.
The cost of an upgrade is the difference in price between your current seat and the seat you want to upgrade to.
Just like JetBlue, Southwest doesn’t have an award chart or blackout dates. Instead, the number of Southwest points you’ll pay for a flight varies depending on the cash price of the ticket.
Southwest doesn’t have Business or First Class seats. Every seat is the same. You can purchase a Business Select fare. But these fares typically aren’t worth the extra cost. You’ll only get benefits like more Southwest points for your flight, a better boarding position, and a fully refundable fare (as opposed to the fare being refundable for a travel credit).
You can use points to book Business Select fares, but you’ll get less value per point than if you book the cheaper Wanna Getaway fares. I priced out a couple of different flights and Southwest points were worth ~1.4 to ~1.5 cents each toward Business Select fares and ~1.6 to ~1.75 cents per point toward Wanna Getaway fares.
Spirit doesn’t have separate Business or First Class seats on their flights. But they do have the Big Front Seat. This is just a fancy (or not fancy at all) way of saying the seats are sized like typical domestic First Class seats.
You can’t upgrade to a Big Front Seat with Spirit miles. But you can book a Spirit award ticket and then pay cash to get into a Big Front Seat. And given that Spirit is pretty stingy with their legroom, this isn’t a bad idea.
Sun Country Airlines
Sun Country has domestic First Class seats (on select flights) and you can upgrade to those seats with points!
That said, they recently announced they will be removing these seats by the end of 2018 and replacing them with a premium economy option.
If you have Sun Country points you want to use to upgrade to First Class while you still can, there are restrictions you’ll want to be aware of.
You can redeem 110 Sun Country points during off-peak dates or 130 Sun Country points during peak dates for $1 toward flights, vacation packages, baggage fees, upgrades, and more.
You can only upgrade to First Class with points within 24 hours of your departure. You can do this online or by calling reservations, but you aren’t allowed to upgrade with points at the airport or on the plane. The number of points you’ll need will vary depending on the price of the upgrade, which is the difference in ticket price between the coach ticket you purchased and the price of the First Class seat at the time of upgrade.
First Class upgrades with Sun Country points are not allowed on international flights. You also can’t use points to upgrade a seat you paid for with points. The FAQ says:
If points are redeemed in the initial reservation, then points cannot be redeemed at any other point in the reservation.
You can use Sun Country points to pay for part of a reservation and pay the rest in cash. But if you do you won’t be able to use points to upgrade your seat.
While booking award Business or First Class flights with miles & points is usually the cheaper way travel, there are times when it makes sense to upgrade a paid flight with miles instead. But the process for using miles & points to upgrade isn’t straightforward. And the fees can really add up!
So, I’m going to be digging into each airline’s award upgrade rules (i.e. upgrading with miles) to figure out when it’s worth it to use miles to upgrade and when it’s not.
If you have any helpful tips or specific questions you would like answered, please let me know in the comments. I’ll add the best ones to this post!
Which major US airline would you like me to cover next?
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