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? The short answer is: It rarely makes sense. And often it’s not even possible to upgrade with miles.
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. However, 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.
Further, each fare class has its own rules for pricing, earning miles, cancellations, upgrades and more. Oh, and it has its own price. Different fare classes are 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.
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. 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 domestic 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.
So take an upcoming 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.
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 to Upgrade with Miles
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. So while you could once upgrade from economy straight to business class, these days you generally bump into premium economy. There are some excellent premium economy products out there, such as Delta’s Premium Select cabin which we gave an outstanding grade.
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.
While it might seem straightforward to use miles to upgrade your cheap cash fare, beware that it’s not always possible. And 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 up front.
In most situations, you are better off using your miles to book into a premium cabin from the get-go.