Can You Book a Coach Award Flight and Upgrade Using Cash or Miles?

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Million Mile Secrets reader, Matt, commented:

Is there a way to get a coach flight with miles and then use cash or miles to upgrade to Economy Plus?

Great question, Matt!

Each airline has different rules for upgrading your seat on an award flight.

In many cases, you can pay cash to upgrade at the time you book your flight.  Or you’ll have the option to upgrade when you check-in.

And some airlines allow you to use miles or points to upgrade to a more comfortable extra legroom seat on a coach award flight.

Upgrade Award Flight
For Coach Award Flights, Sometimes You Can Use More Miles or Pay Cash to Get a Better Economy Plus Seat. With Certain Airlines, This Means Free Drinks & Snacks!

I’ll explain the upgrade policy on coach award tickets for Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, and United Airlines.

Upgrade Award Flight

Recently, I shared a step-by-step guide that explains how to purchase a seat upgrade from coach to Economy Plus on paid flights.

But what if you use miles instead of cash to book a coach award flight?

Unless you have elite status with an airline, you’ll usually only have the option to select a regular coach seat.  To upgrade to Economy Plus, you’ll have to pay cash or use more miles.

1.   Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines introduced Economy Plus seats in January 2017.  They call it Premium Class.  In these seats, you’ll get:

  • 4 inches of extra legroom
  • Complimentary drinks (including alcohol) and snacks
  • Early boarding

You’ll be able to pay cash to upgrade your award seat to Premium Class.  The cost depends on the length of the flight, but will range from $15 to $79.

There’s no option to use Alaska Airlines miles to upgrade to Premium Class.  But the program is just starting out, so there’s hope for the future!

2.   American Airlines

When you book the cheapest American Airlines award flights (“MileSAAver” rate), you will NOT be able to upgrade to Economy Plus seats, even if you’re willing to pay cash.

This is unfortunate, because most other airlines give you the option to at least pay for an upgrade.  Although I understand it’s a way to save extra legroom seats for folks with American Airlines elite status.

One suggestion for an Economy Plus seat is to befriend the gate agent on the day of your flight.  You never know what can happen if you ask nicely!

3.   Delta

Delta gives folks the option to use miles to get an Economy Plus seat.

At the time of booking an award flight, you’ll have the option to choose between a seat in coach (“Main Cabin”) or Economy Plus (“Delta Comfort+”).

For example, I searched a one-way flight from Seattle to Los Angeles.  To get an Economy Plus seat, you’ll pay an extra 4,000 Delta miles on this flight.

Upgrade Award Flight
Book an Economy Plus Seat at the Time of Booking Your Award Flight

You can NOT pay cash to upgrade to Economy Plus on an award flight!

4.   JetBlue

When you book a JetBlue award flight, you can pay cash or use points to upgrade to an Economy Plus seat (aka “Even More”).

The amount you pay will depend on the flight.

For example, I searched a one-way award flight from New York (JFK) to Orlando.  The award flight costs 18,000 JetBlue points.

When selecting a seat, there’s an option to pay $40 or use 500 JetBlue points to upgrade to an Economy Plus seat.

Upgrade Award Flight
You Can Pay Cash or Use Points on a JetBlue Flight to Upgrade to an “Even More” Economy Plus Seat

Using 500 JetBlue points to get even more legroom is a terrific deal!

5.   United Airlines

You can only upgrade an United Airlines coach award flight to Economy Plus by paying cash.  The cost of the upgrade varies on each flight.

United Airlines even charges different amounts for certain Economy Plus seats.  For example, Economy Plus seats in the front rows might be more expensive than later rows.

Here’s a sample award flight that was previously booked.  To upgrade to Economy Plus on this flight, you can pay $39+.

Upgrade Award Flight
Pay Cash to Upgrade to Economy Plus on United Airlines

Instead of paying for an upgrade on each flight, remember you can also purchase an Economy Plus subscription.

Of course, do the math to see if you’ll save money with a subscription.

Get Free Upgrades When You Pay With Certain Credit Cards

These credit cards offer statement credits for travel and airline incidentals that can cover your seat upgrade cost

With the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card, you can use Barclaycard Arrival miles to offset the cost of a seat upgrade.  Just pay for the upgrade.  Then redeem your points online!

The Chase Sapphire Reserve card offers a credit of $300 for travel purchases each card member year.  So you’ll see an automatic statement credit after paying for an upgrade with this card.

Upgrade Award Flight
You’ll See an Automatic Credit on Your Sapphire Reserve Statement When You Pay for Travel Purchases, Like Seat Upgrades

The Citi Prestige card offers folks a $250 statement credit for flight related expenses (including upgrades!) each calendar year.  The credit is automatically applied to your statement after you make eligible purchases.

Or you can use the $300 annual travel credit with the Chase Ritz-Carlton card to cover the cost of your seat upgrade.

But remember the credit is NOT automatic.  You’ll have to contact Chase at the number on the back of your Ritz-Carlton card to request a statement credit.  And the request MUST be made within 4 billing cycles of the purchase date.

It’s also possible to apply the AMEX Platinum $200 airline fee credit for a seat upgrade.  Technically, upgrades are excluded from earning the credit.  But many folks report getting reimbursed for upgrades in the past.

Bottom Line

Each airline has a different policy for upgrading your seat on a coach award flight to Economy Plus:

  • Alaska Airlines and United Airlines allow you to pay cash to upgrade
  • Delta lets folks use miles to book an Economy Plus seat
  • With JetBlue, you can pay cash or use points to get an extra legroom seat
  • And American Airlines does NOT allow folks to pay cash or use miles to upgrade to Economy Plus

When paying cash for an upgrade, consider using cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Prestige.  Because these cards offer automatic statement credits for seat upgrade purchases.

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