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TPG reader Ulysses writes:
“Which airline’s elite status program offers the best chance of being upgraded on a flight? I fly several times a year, but not enough to earn elite status on more than one airline. I am particularly interested in long-haul, international flights since these are the sweetest upgrades to be had.”
Upgrades are a great benefit of elite status. However, international upgrade instruments (like systemwide upgrades) are generally only given to the top elite tiers (75,000+ miles a year). My opinion is that American Airlines has the best top-tier elite upgrades with 8 systemwide one-way upgrades that are eligible on pretty much any paid fare, including all international destinations. In second place is United/Continental with 6 systemwides that can be used on mid-tier (W and higher) fares.
As a casual or low elite tier flyer, you should focus more on which airline has the most generous international upgrade policy for using miles. As always, the “best” program will depend on your flying habits and what fare classes you purchase. In general, I think American and British Airways have the most lucrative mileage upgrade programs, but as we always say “Your Mileage May Vary.” For example, while Delta is generally known for being hard to upgrade internationally, their Hawaii upgrades can often be a good deal and they have plenty of availability. Here are the key details for the major frequent flyer programs:
Air Canada participates in the Star Alliance upgrade program, which means you have to buy expensive fare classes (Y, B). No co-pays and you have to call for award space.
American allows mileage upgrades from almost any class, but charges co-pays starting at $75 for domestic trips and up to $350 for long-haul (Europe/Asia) flights. Upgrade availability can be searched using ExpertFlyer.
British Airways allows upgrades from J, C, D, R, I, W, E, T, Y, B, H fare classes and its as low as 10,000 miles to upgrade from Premium Economy to Business class from the East Coast to London. Upgrade space can only be found by calling British Airways or trying to upgrade your reservation online. In my experience, upgrade availability usually matches up with award availability. I also generally find it more cost beneficial to buy World Traveller Plus (Premium Economy) and use half as many miles than buying coach and trying to upgrade to business class.
Delta allows domestic upgrades on all fares, except the lowest L,U,T fares with no copay. International upgrades are only eligible on expensive Y,B,M fares. Upgrade availability can be searched on ExpertFlyer.
United/Continental allows upgrades from any fare class, but requires higher cash co-pays and miles for lower fare classes. Co-pays start at $75 for domestic trips and go up to $600 for Australia (Europe is $300-$550 depending on the fare class). Upgrade space can be searched on ExpertFlyer.
US Airways allows upgrades using miles starting at 15,000 and no co-pay for domestic, but there is a co-pay of $300 for European and Tel Aviv awards, (and it is waived for full fare Y, B fares). To inquire about upgrade availability you have to call 800-428-4322.
Virgin Atlantic allows upgrades on W, S, Y, B, R, L fares. Roundtrip upgrades from economy to premium economy are 20,000 miles, Premium Economy to Upper Class is 40,000 miles and Economy to Upper Class (business) is 60,000 miles.