How to use points to upgrade to first class on U.S. airlines

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One of the best things about being a miles and points enthusiast is helping friends and family experience travel for nearly free. Nothing beats the look on someone’s face when you show them the $1,200 cost of a ticket they just booked for $5.60 out of pocket!

Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends about how to use airline miles to upgrade their seats. 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.

Want to Use Your Miles to Upgrade Your Seat on a US Airline?  Here’s What You Need to Know!

A few words on upgrading with miles

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 that 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. 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.

How to upgrade into first class on American Airlines with miles

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 three segments, and you can only upgrade one class. So if you’re flying coach on a flight with three 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, 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 “Awards & Upgrades.”

Step 2. Enter your flight info

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 one date and one class of service at a time.

Step 3. Locate and book your ticket

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 waitlist.

Miles and fees needed to upgrade (one-way)

  • Domestic upgrade, including the U.S. Mainland, Hawaii, Alaska, and Canada – 5,000 to 15,000 American Airlines miles 
  • International flights – 8,000 to 25,000 American Airlines miles

Fees (One-way):

  • Domestic upgrades including the U.S. Mainland, Alaska, Hawaii, and Canada – Up to $175 co-pay
  • International upgrades – Up to a $550 co-pay

It’s nice that American Airlines has a simpler award upgrade chart compared to other airlines (looking at you, United). The prices, both in miles and fees, look to be slightly less than what United Airlines would charge for the same type of upgrade. too. 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. Because that is what you would save in miles 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 three segments. There is no co-pay on partner upgrade awards, but only the most expensive paid fares are eligible. And your upgrade will be subject to additional taxes and fees from the partner airline. So either way, you’ll end up paying.

How to upgrade into first class on Delta Airlines with miles

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.

While you are making your booking on the Delta website (or over the phone at 800-323-2323), you’ll have the option to “Upgrade With Miles” on Delta or Delta Connection flights within the U.S. But you’ll need to have enough miles to pay for the upgrade for all passengers and all flights on 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.

Step 1. Find and select your desired flights

When you’re searching for your flight, just remember, Basic Economy fares are not eligible for upgrades. 

Step 2. Locate the upgrade options at checkout

When you get to the checkout page, you’ll have the option of using your Delta miles to pay for your upgrade. As you can see, you’re getting 1 cent per mile in value by using your points this way. We estimate Delta miles value to be 1.25 cents on average, meaning this upgrade option is a poor use of points.

Miles and fees needed to upgrade (one-way)

  • Domestic flight upgrade – up to 35,000 Delta miles 
  • International flight upgrade – up to 80,000 Delta miles

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 (see Delta’s terms and conditions on their Upgrade With Miles page).

How to upgrade into first class on United Airlines with miles

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 two classes with miles.

Step 1. Click “Advanced search” on the United website

You can search for United Airlines upgrade awards on their website.  To start your search, go to the United Airlines homepage and click “Advanced search.”

Step 2. Choose “MileagePlus Upgrade Awards”

On the next page, scroll down until you see the drop-down for upgrades, certificates, and promotion codes. Select which type of upgrade award you’re looking for.

Step 3. Locate upgradable seats

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. If you see a red “Mixed Upgrade” note (such as in the examples below), it means one of the flights can’t be upgraded with a United Airlines upgrade award.  If you choose this option, you’ll have to pay the miles and cash for the upgrade, in full, upfront.

If you aren’t upgraded, you’ll get a full refund of the miles and 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 to book an upgrade with miles at the time you make the reservation, you can upgrade later if you’d like.

Miles and fees needed to upgrade (one-way)

  • Domestic upgrade, including the U.S. Mainland, Alaska, and Canada (but not Hawaii) – 4,000 to 20,000 United Airlines miles
  • International upgrades take up to 35,000 United Airlines miles

Fees (One-way):

  • Domestic upgrade including the U.S. 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 here. Or, you can search their interactive map for both United and Star Alliance partner upgrades. 

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 three to five times that amount. And certain (more expensive) fares will require fewer miles and have a smaller (or no) co-pay. 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. 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. thousands). 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 20,000 to 60,000 United Airlines miles per one-way nonstop flight. There is no copay on partner upgrade awards — but only the most expensive paid fares are eligible. So again, you’ll end up paying either way. And there are extra restrictions with certain partners.

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 one week and 12 hours in advance.

How to upgrade into first class on Alaska Airlines with miles

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.

The one and only step 

You can use ExpertFlyer to search for available upgrade awards on Alaska Airlines.  You’ll be looking for open “U” coded 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 and fees needed to upgrade (one-way)

  • Upgrade to first class – 15,000 Alaska Airlines miles

Upgrades cost 15,000 Alaska Airlines miles one-way, and you’ll need to book your ticket in a more expensive eligible fare class (Y, S, B, M, or H). Alaska Airlines doesn’t charge any additional fees for mileage upgrades!

You can also use Alaska Airlines miles to upgrade Money & Miles flights.

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.

Of all the major U.S. 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.

Other U.S. airlines

The rest of the U.S. airlines are mostly low-cost or ultra-low-cost airlines, where you won’t find many traditional business or first class experiences for which you can use your miles or points to upgrade.

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.

The one exception to all of this is JetBlue, which offers free WiFi, drinks, snacks, and lie-flat domestic Mint seats (their version of business class) on some routes! I’ve heard nothing but good things about JetBlue’s service.

Allegiant Air

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: You can’t do it. Allegiant doesn’t have a traditional frequent flyer program. There’s the Allegiant World Mastercard® Credit Card, which earns myAllegiant Rewards. But the points you earn can only be redeemed for one cent each toward certain Allegiant purchases. So it’s not a good deal.

Frontier Airlines

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

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 one 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.

Southwest

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 (it’s a normal seat), 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 Get Away 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 Get Away fares.

Spirit Airlines

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.

Have you had success upgrading your seat with any of your airline miles? If so, what’s your secret?

Jason Stauffer was a writer for Million Mile Secrets where he covered points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. His work has appeared in The Points Guy and NextAdvisor.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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