Points Principles: Can You Upgrade with Miles After Buying a Flight?

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Upgrade with Miles

Points Principles: Can You Upgrade with Miles After Buying a Flight?

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Editor’s Note: Welcome to our Points Principles series, a weekly post dedicated to explaining the basics behind the confusing world of frequent flyer miles and travel rewards points. Follow along as we lay out some of the building blocks to travel for nearly free. And check back to the Points Principles page to see what ground we’ve already covered.  

Readers ask us all the time: Can I upgrade the cheap flight I bought with miles? It’s a nice thought: Who wouldn’t want to buy a cheaper fare, then burn some miles to fly business class instead of sitting back in economy?

As with many things in the world of travel and points and miles, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. But the short answer is: It rarely makes sense – and in many cases, it’s just not even possible to upgrade with miles. Odds are your best bet is to book that business class fare from the start rather than angling for an upgrade.

American 787 business class 

Read on for an explanation of how it works and why it’s often the better value just to book your flight with miles outright.


All About Fare Classes

When you walk onto a plane, you see first class and economy. You might see business class and premium economy if it’s a long international flight, too. But behind the scenes, airlines have their own classifications for passengers’ tickets, breaking out into an alphabet soup of fare classes. It’s literally an alphabet, as most airlines have a fare class for every letter. Award fares booked with miles have their own fare classes, too.

Each fare class has its own rules for pricing, earning miles, cancellations, upgrades, and more. Oh, and it has its own price. This alphabet soup of 20-plus fare classes is often the reason why the price of a flight you’re eyeing might jump hours, if not minutes after you last looked. Once the airline sells a given number of tickets in the lowest-priced fare class, it will move up the list to a more expensive fare class.

Most airlines only allow a small subset of fare classes to be upgraded using miles. And in general, it’s far easier to upgrade a domestic flight than an international one.

Thrifty Tip: Having trouble finding what class your fare is? Expand a flight’s details or keep clicking through the booking process and look for a single capitalized letter in parentheses – for example, (Y).  That’s what you’re looking for. If you’ve already purchased the ticket, it’s on there.

For example, take a look at Delta’s rules. While the airline makes upgrading with miles possible, it is almost always a bad deal.

upgrade with miles 

So you might be hoping to upgrade a cheap economy ticket that you just scored to business or first class. More often than not, it’s simply not possible.

That’s because those cheap tickets are often what the airlines call “deep discount fares” – especially those sold through online search engines like Kayak, Expedia or Priceline. And they rarely are eligible for upgrades. In fact, you’ll find that many of the fares sold directly by the airline aren’t upgradeable, either.

Another fare class that doesn’t make the cut? Basic Economy. Most airlines won’t let you upgrade basic economy fares – and you often earn fewer miles on these flights as well.

Are Upgrades Worth It?

The difference between a fare that’s upgradable and one that isn’t is regularly several hundred dollars. Add in the miles you’ll pay for the upgrade – and with some airlines, a cash copay – and it can be tough to work out a good deal. This is true even with airlines that aren’t so stingy with upgrades.

American is among the most generous among the major U.S. airlines when it comes to allowing cabin upgrades with miles on a cash fare. More fare classes qualify for potential upgrades. But those cheaper fares require a copay.

upgrade with miles 

So let’s look at a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND). Every fare below is eligible for an upgrade. Considering a premium economy fare is $1,500 more than economy, it could easily be worth the 15,000-mile charge to upgrade from Full-Fare economy to Premium economy. 

But upgrading from Premium Economy to Business would cost 25,000 and an additional $350. Depending on how many miles you have and how much additional cash you are willing to burn, this may be a better deal than paying the additional $1,200 outright, but that will vary from person to person. It’s certainly not the best deal, and it would be far better value to book a straight award flight for 60,000 miles.

upgrade with miles 

Of course, it’s not just as simple as forking over some miles. You need to ensure there’s award availability on your flight, just as you would if you were booking it outright with miles. Read our guide on finding award availability for some pointers.


The Premium Economy Roadblock

The growth of premium economy cabins on international flights has made these upgrades a bit more tricky. 

Most airlines’ policies are clear: You can only upgrade one cabin at a time – or you’ll have to pay even more to upgrade not just one but two cabins. So while you could once upgrade from economy straight to business class, these days you generally bump into premium economy.

That may not be a bad move. There are some excellent premium economy products out there, such as Delta Premium Select, which we gave an outstanding grade. 

delta premium select seats 

And of course, you could buy a full-fare premium economy ticket with the hopes of upgrading into business class. If the route you’re flying doesn’t have premium economy seats, you may still be able to do a straight-shot upgrade to business class from economy.

But keep this in mind the next time you’re angling for a seat up front. In some cases, the best you can do may be a seat in the Premium Economy cabin.


Airlines with Upgrade Sweet Spots

You should never assume upgrading from your cheap fare up to business class is a slam-dunk strategy. More often than not, it won’t work out. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

More than anything else, it depends upon which airline you’re flying. Over time, we’ve seen more and more airlines roll out new ways to upgrade up to business class using cash or miles. Some have even rolled out the ability to bid for an upgrade to business class.

  • British Airways allows you to use Avios miles to upgrade one cabin – for example, from a paid premium economy seat to business class – on some paid fares – by paying the mileage difference in miles between the two cabins. Since Premium Economy from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to London-Heathrow (LHR) typically costs 26,000 Avios each way and business class is 50,000 Avios, you could upgrade your paid premium economy seat to business class using another 24,000 Avios and fees – so long as there’s award availability.
  • Delta Air Lines has made it much easier to upgrade to Comfort Plus, domestic first class or international business class using cash or SkyMiles … much to the chagrin of loyal flyers with Delta Medallion Status angling for a free upgrade. Unless you’ve got a Delta basic economy ticket, you’ll have the option to upgrade through the seat map. But you’ll almost never get great value using your SkyMiles to do so, as it’s based on the cash price of the upgrade.
  • We’ve seen Air France selling upgrades on to its business class seats from economy on long-haul flights to Europe for as low as $500, which isn’t bad.
  • A few airlines including TAP Air Portugal and Icelandair allow you to bid using cash to move to the front of the cabin. The prices vary wildly – and you can’t use miles to do it. You won’t pay unless your bid is accepted.


delta one suite

Bottom Line

While it might seem straightforward to use miles (or even some extra cash) to upgrade your cheap cash fare, it’s not always possible. And even when it is, only you can decide whether it’s worth the miles.

Crunch some numbers beforehand and figure out whether you’d be better off booking the flight with miles upfront. In most situations, you’d be better off using your miles to book into a premium cabin from the get-go.


Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

2 Responses

  • Fling to Africa in August and wondering what the best way to utilize my 400k Amex points to fly business class ie buy coach and upgrade, buy award tat etc

    • Depending on where you’re flying in Africa, I would highly recommend booking an award ticket outright with Qatar Airways flying their Qsuites. For example, you can book a one-stop flight from DFW to Johannesburg, South Africa for 90,000 miles via Cathay Pacific Asia Miles each way, which you can transfer from your stash of Amex points.

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