Booking a flight, then using miles to upgrade is rarely a winning strategy to score a seat up front. But to fly Emirates first class – one of the world’s best and a bucket list item for many travelers – it’s one of the best and easiest ways to make it happen.
With an onboard shower, a bar at 40,000 feet, and incredible food and service, Emirates first class has earned its reputation as one of the best ways to fly. But all that luxury can make it hard to book. Even with all the points and miles in the world, finding the award availability can be a tall task – especially for more than one seat.
But Emirates offers a little-known option to upgrade by one cabin using a miles … including at the check-in desk on the day of your flight. And that means booking an Emirates business class ticket from the get-go could be the easiest path if you want to fly Emirates first class to Dubai (DXB) or even over to Europe.
That’s exactly what I did on a recent trip – not just once, but twice. Here’s how it works and why the best way to fly Emirates first class often involves asking to upgrade at the airport.
Read our full review of Emirates First Class flying from Los Angeles (LAX) to Dubai (DXB)!
- The Basics of Upgrading to Emirates First Class
- How Many Miles Does it Cost to Upgrade to Emirates First Class?
- Don’t Bother with the Emirates’ Auto Upgrade Feature
- Upgrading at Check-In (or at the Gate) Is the Best Option
- Top Tips for Upgrading to Emirates First (or Business) Class
- The Current State of Emirates Award Tickets
The Basics of Upgrading to Emirates First Class
Emirates allows you to upgrade a ticket you have booked with either cash or miles by one class of service, assuming there is space available in that cabin.
That means if you booked an economy ticket (using cash or miles), you would be able to upgrade it to business class. If you booked a business class ticket, you would eligible to upgrade to first class. That’s pretty rare, especially for award tickets: Few airlines allow you to upgrade with miles if you booked using miles in the first place. Generally, upgrading any ticket using miles is rarely a good deal. But Emirates is the exception.
To be clear, you’ll wind up using more miles booking an Emirates business class award, then upgrading to first class than you would by booking a first class award outright. But the upgrade route is often much easier, as it can be tough to find Emirates first class award availability.
Additionally, thanks to a recent partnership between Emirates and Air Canada, it’s now possible to book Emirates award tickets via Aeroplan. However, it doesn’t appear these tickets are eligible for upgrades. You’ll need to book directly through Emirates to have this option.
There are two ways to upgrade:
- Emirates allows you to waitlist a business class or first class upgrade in advance – more on this in a bit. But if no more award seats open up (and they often don’t), the request will be denied 48 hours before departure and your upgrade request will be canceled.
- But on the day of departure, it’s a free-for-all: If there are still seats open in the first class cabin, you can use miles to upgrade at check-in, at the gate, or even once you board the plane!
How Many Miles Does it Cost to Upgrade to Emirates First Class?
It depends on the Emirates route you are flying – and what kind of fare you purchased. But it’s often reasonable.
Thankfully, Emirates makes it pretty easy to determine with the Emirates miles calculator on their website. Just search for a one-way business class fare on your route and click the option to upgrade.
For example, I recently flew from Emirates’ home base in Dubai (DXB) up to Frankfurt (FRA). Since there was no first class award space available at the time, I booked an Emirates business class flex fare for 72,500 miles, which I transferred from American Express Membership Rewards.
If it were available, I would have been able to book directly into first-class for 85,000 miles. That’s not a bad deal at all, at least when you can find it.
But as you can see with the Emirates mileage calculator, if you search in business class, the upgrade tab will show you the price in miles to upgrade to first class for your specific flight. If you’ve booked a one-way business class fare at the outset, you’ll almost always be charged the “Business Flex Plus” upgrade rate: 30,000 miles, in this instance.
Flying with an infant in arms under the age of two? Emirates will charge lap children 10% of the cost to upgrade. So in this example, it would have been an additional 3,000 miles to upgrade an infant ticket. That’s incredibly cheap, especially compared to other airlines who often charge a percentage of the cash cost for adding a lap child to an award ticket.
In the example of my flight from Dubai to Frankfurt, booking into first class directly would have cost 85,000 miles. Booking into business class and then later upgrading to first class cost 102,500 miles: 72,500 miles + the 30,000 miles to upgrade.
While this is, of course, a more expensive way to get into an Emirates first-class cabin, in my experience it’s also much easier. And the amount of miles it takes to upgrade is far less than what you will find from many other airlines – if they offer it at all.
Here’s a quick list of the upgrade mileage rates for Emirates first class after booking a one-way business class award on a few popular routes: (Note: These rates have been updated after a recent increase in late January 2023)
- New York City (JFK) to/from Milan (MXP): 39,000 miles (or 50,700 if you booked a roundtrip saver award for 108,000 miles)
- Newark (EWR) to/from Athens (ATH): 39,000 miles (or 50,700 if you booked a roundtrip saver award for 108,000 miles)
- New York City (JFK) to/from Dubai (DXB): 70,200 miles
- Washington, D.C.-Dulles (IAD) to/from Dubai (DXB): 70,200 miles
- Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to/from Dubai (DXB): 70,200 miles
- Los Angeles (LAX) to/from Dubai (DXB): 81,900 miles
- San Francisco (SFO) to/from Dubai (DXB): 81,900 miles
Don’t Bother with the Emirates’ Auto Upgrade Feature
After you make a booking with Emirates, you’ll have the option to set up your reservation for an auto upgrade by logging into your Emirates account and clicking the “Upgrade with Miles” button. It may not be worth it.
For my Dubai to Frankfurt flight, Emirates confirmed that my business class itinerary was eligible for the auto upgrade feature to first class for 30,000 additional miles. But since there was no first class award space, no upgrades were immediately available.
In order to join the queue for this auto-upgrade feature, you need to have the required miles in your Emirates account.
I transferred another 30,000 points from my American Express Membership Rewards account into my Emirates account. Once those miles were available in my account, I clicked on the “Auto upgrade” button to join the waitlist. At this point, you can enter your phone number so that if your auto upgrade clears, you’ll receive a text message informing you of the good news.
But there are some important things to know before you set up an auto upgrade which are as follows:
- You must have the appropriate number of miles in your Emirates account to use the auto upgrade feature. In my case, that means I needed at least 30,000 miles in my account.
- To use the auto-upgrade feature, you have to set it up at least 72 hours before your scheduled departure.
- Auto upgrades will clear (assuming there is award space) between 60 days and 48 hours prior to your scheduled departure.
- If your auto upgrade doesn’t clear at least 48 hours prior to your flight, the upgrade request will be automatically canceled.
Keep in mind: open seats in first class is not the same thing as open award availability. That’s why, even though there were plenty of open first class seats on our flight, my upgrade never cleared. In fact, everyone in our group struck out over multiple trips with Emirates with this auto-upgrade function.
Your mileage may vary, but we found this option wasn’t worth the trouble. That’s especially true since it requires you to have the Emirates miles in your account in order to join the upgrade waitlist. If your upgrade doesn’t clear, that means you might wind up with thousands of miles stranded in your account.
There’s a better way.
Upgrading at Check-In (or at the Gate) Is the Best Option
Emirates also allows you to upgrade to first class on the day of departure. And in our experience, it’s a much safer bet.
On three recent Emirates flights, our team has had a 100% success rate of upgrading business class tickets into Emirates first class at the check-in counter or at the gate. In fact, you can even upgrade your ticket in an Emirates lounge at the entry desk on your day of departure. That’s what our founder and CEO Jared did on a recent Emirates flight from New York City (JFK) and Milan, Italy (MXP). That meant that he didn’t have to leave the secured area from his inbound flight to go to the ticketing counter and then later re-clear security, saving a bunch of time.
But in many cases, asking to upgrade is easiest at the check-in desk. That’s what we did just a few weeks ago, when four of us made our way from Washington D.C.-Dulles (IAD) to Dubai (DXB). Two of us were already ticketed in first class while the other two were ticketed in business class – there were only two first class awards seats available at the time we booked.
We made sure to get to the check-in counter at Dulles right when it opened – about three and a half hours before our scheduled departure – to give us the best shot of scoring an upgrade.
The seat map for our flight was still showing plenty of open seats in first class: Less than half the 14 first class seats on Emirates’ Airbus A380 were shown as occupied. I liked our chances.
The two travelers with business class tickets told an agent they’d be interested in upgrading to first class. The woman at the check-in desk confirmed a few things and told them that it would be possible for 54,000 miles each – the same Business Flex Plus rate listed on the Emirates mileage calculator.
Here’s the real beauty of upgrading day-of: Emirates is a transfer partner with Chase, American Express, Citi, Capital One, and Bilt Rewards … and all those points transfer instantly. That means you can inquire about an upgrade, then transfer your points on the spot if one is available.
One of my friends transferred the 54,000 points he needed from American Express instantly, while the other already had those miles in his Emirates account after a failed upgrade attempt on the waitlist. Once the gate agent confirmed the 54,000 miles were in their accounts, she was able to issue the first-class tickets. The entire process took about five minutes.
Our experience in Dubai before flying to Frankfurt was a bit different, but nonetheless, it ended with the same result: yet another first-class upgrade.
This time there were only two of us traveling from Dubai (DXB) to Frankfurt (FRA): I was booked in business class while our founder and CEO Jared had managed to book a first class award from the outset. This flight was operated on one of Emirates’ new Boeing 777 equipped with their Game Changer first class suites, which was good and bad news. On the plus side, I was dying to fly it. On the downside, with just six first class suites onboard, I assumed it might be more difficult to upgrade.
We arrived at the Dubai airport at 6 a.m. for a flight that departed at 8:40 a.m. There were only two passengers ticketed in first class at the time, which left still four empty seats. The agent told me it would cost 30,000 miles to upgrade.
But instead of completing an upgrade at check-in, the agent added me to a waitlist: She explained that travelers with Emirates’ Platinum Status – its top-tier – would be upgraded immediately. Since I had no status with Emirates, I would clear so long as no one purchased a walk-up first class fare or if a passenger with higher status didn’t request the same upgrade. I was told that the upgrade would occur at the gate before boarding.
We got to the gate about 10 minutes prior to the scheduled boarding time and, sure enough, all four of those first-class suites were still open. I stopped at the desk and the agent confirmed I was on the waitlist, pushing through my upgrade for 30,000 miles.
It may simply be harder to get these day-of upgrades when flying out of Emirates’ Dubai megahub, filled with ultra-frequent flyers with status. But in this case, I made it work again.
Top Tips for Upgrading to Emirates First (or Business) Class
While the process is pretty simple, I learned a few things on my recent Emirates flights about how it works. Here are our tips to successfully pull this off:
- Emirates allows you to upgrade one class of service. So if your goal is to fly Emirates first class, you’ll need to book a business class ticket. You won’t be able to upgrade from Emirates economy to Emirates first class.
- Don’t bother with the auto-upgrade feature. Assuming you are transferring points from one of Emirates’ credit card transfer partners, you run the risk of stranding those points if your upgrade doesn’t clear.
- Don’t transfer any points into your Emirates account until you confirm that the upgrade is possible. All credit card points transfer instantly to Emirates Skywards. Confirm the upgrade is open, transfer your points, and get that first class seat.
- Get to the airport early! The sooner you get to the check-in counter, the less competition you will have. I would suggest arriving at least three hours before your flight, as that’s when most airline check-in desks open.
- Keep an eye on the seat map for your flight. The more empty seats there are, the better your chances of an upgrade will be.
- Thanks to a recent partnership between Emirates and Air Canada, it’s now possible to book Emirates award tickets via Aeroplan. However, it doesn’t appear these tickets are eligible for upgrades. You’ll need to book directly through Emirates to have this option.
If there’s one route to pick here for the quintessential Emirates First Class experience, it’s the flight from Milan back to New York. That’s because Emirates flies its signature Airbus A380 on this route between the U.S. and Italy, meaning you can head to the back of the upper deck for a drink at the onboard bar and rinse off in the shower before landing.
The flight from New York (JFK) to Milan (MXP) is an overnight flight which means it’s hard to use many of the amenities that make Emirates first class what it is – especially if you want to get some sleep. Not to mention, the flight is blocked at only 7 1/2 hours … but in reality, it’s even shorter. Airlines always block off more time than they need: The flight over to Milan typically clocks in at 6 1/2 hours or less.
That makes enjoying everything that makes Emirates First Class so excellent tough. But if you want to maximize your sleep on a transatlantic flight, you really can’t beat the Emirates first class seat on the Airbus A380.
Our suggestion? Opt for the flight from Milan (MXP) back to the states and give yourself more time to soak it in. These flights are scheduled to depart Italy in the afternoon, so you’ll be flying through the rest of the daytime and arriving when it’s nearly time to go to bed in the U.S. It takes about 8 1/2 hours total.
Thanks to the earth’s rotation and the jet streams it creates, flying west always takes longer than flying east. The difference is substantial here, as it allows you to enjoy more time in one of the best first class cabins in the sky.
The Current State of Emirates Award Tickets
Over the past few years, Emirates’ own Skywards mileage program has emerged as the best way to book many Emirates flights using miles – especially first and business class. Thanks to transfer partnerships with all the major credit card companies, Emirates miles are incredibly easy to earn. And back in 2020, Emirates drastically slashed the amount of taxes and fees you’d pay on award tickets – by as much as 80%.
So when we booked these flights in December 2021, a first-class ticket from Washington D.C.-Dulles (IAD) to Dubai (DXB) cost 136,250 miles plus $161.20 in taxes and fees. That’s a pretty amazing deal, but things have changed.
After a series of increases to fuel surcharges earlier this year, it now costs over $800 in taxes and fees for that same flight – or even more if you connect onward somewhere beyond Dubai. Flying home to the U.S. from Dubai, the cash cost for first class taxes and fees clocks in at $882 USD. Ouch.
That’s why Emirates’ funky fifth-freedom routes between the U.S. and Europe really shine right now. To date, these fuel surcharges have only risen slightly on these routes.
So you can fly Emirates nonstop from New York City (JFK) to Milan, Italy (MXP) as well as Newark (EWR) to Athens, Greece (ATH). And it’s much cheaper on both fronts: Just 85,000 miles in first class and about $100 of taxes and fees for the one-way to Milan or Athens.
Emirates makes it pretty easy to upgrade an existing flight with Skywards miles. Better yet, it is a pretty incredible deal when you factor in what you get.
And since Emirates business class award seats are fairly easy to come by, booking one and then later upgrading it to first class can be a great option. Just remember: You can only upgrade one class of service. So if your end goal is to upgrade to first class, you’ll need to book a business class ticket.