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What Is the Most Generous Airline for Upgrading From Economy to Business Class Using Miles?

by on August 25, 2013 · 16 comments

in British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Sunday Reader Questions, Video Blog Post

TPG reader Ramsey wrote in to ask:

“My work requires me to travel internationally several times a year, but because I work for a university, my employer books us in economy class. From your blog, I collectively have over 500,000 miles/points on American, US Airways, United, Amex Membership Rewards, and Chase Ultimate Rewards and would love to use these points to upgrade to business class. It seems I can never find a way where this makes sense. I’m in Washington, DC, and usually have flexibility with airline options. We often fly United or Emirates, but lots of options are available in the DC market. 

My next trip is to Singapore in May, but I also travel to all over Europe and the Gulf during other times of the year. What is the most generous airline for upgrading from economy to business that doesn’t have tough booking code restrictions? Any favorites you have?”

First off, the general rule of thumb is you want to accrue miles in the program of the airline you want to upgrade on. Airlines do allow upgrades on alliance partners but generally you need to buy higher (more expensive) fare classes and more miles are required.

For example, if you’re flying United, you’re going to want to use United miles to upgrade your flight. That being said, upgrading these days, especially internationally is not cheap, even if you’re doing it on your airline of choice and using your miles to do so.

BA’s formula for calculating the number of Avios needed for upgrades.

BA’s formula for calculating the number of Avios needed for upgrades.

I think the best airline to upgrade on, though, is British Airways, since they let you buy a Premium Economy ticket and then upgrade to Business Class. Your ticket needs to be in one of the following fare classes: J, C, D, R, I, W, E, T, Y, B, H. The amount of Avios you would need to upgrade from one class to the next is half the amount of Avios you’d need for an economy award ticket on the route you’re flying.

For example from Washington, DC (where you’re based) to London to upgrade it would only be 10,000 Avios each way to go from Premium Economy to Business. The airline charges for upgrades per segment, so if you are carrying on beyond London, you’re going to be paying more for your additional flights if you want to upgrade on those as well.

So if you applied for the British Airways Visa right now, which is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Avios when you spend $2,000 in 3 months, the sign-up bonus alone would be enough to score 5 one-way upgrades from Washington to London. Plus, if you can put the tickets on your card, you’ll earn 2.5 Avios per dollar spent and maybe your university would be willing to let you purchase tickets in a higher fare class since your card also gets you a 10% discount on US-originating BA flights (see this post for more info).

Strictly in terms of upgrading from Economy to Business and skipping Premium Economy, you can upgrade two classes of service and use twice the Avios (so 20,000 Avios each way in this example), but it can’t be done online so you’d have to call. Your ticket would also have to be in one of those expensive Y, B or H fare buckets – not the most discount economy fare classes – so you might be paying almost as much as for a Premium Economy ticket.

British Airways Club World seat 62A on the 747

You could use your Avios to relax in a British Airways Club World seat.

The one big downside to British Airways, however, is that if you’re flying through London, you’re going to have to pay the luxury surcharge on tickets in premium classes, even when you upgrade, but in general, that tends to be a couple hundred dollars and still cheaper than upgrading on most other airlines.

I notice you fly with Emirates also – good luck there since they do not make it easy to use other airlines’ currencies, even partners like Alaska, unfortunately.

If you’re going to be flying a lot with Singapore Airlines, I would recommend getting an American Express card such as the Amex Platinum or Premier Rewards Gold, so that you can transfer the Membership Rewards points you earn on them over to your Singapore KrisFlyer account (you can also transfer Amex points to British Airways at a 1:1 ratio and fund your Avios account that way for the upgrades I mentioned above).

Here is the airline’s saver level upgrade chart. As you can see, upgrading from Economy to Business one-way from Washington to Singapore would cost 67,500 (135,000 miles roundtrip), but your Economy ticket must be purchased in S, V, B or E classes, so be sure to double check your tickets.

The airlines have made international upgrades a lot more expensive and a lot more difficult and more expensive than they used to be so redeeming your miles for upgrades is not always a great value since you’re shelling out both miles and money. However, I think British Airways is a good bet for you. Also check out my post Maximizing British Airways Avios: Using Avios to Upgrade Paid Tickets which goes into the details of the booking process on how to upgrade these.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author.s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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  • Matthew Smith

    I think it’s worth noting that to upgrade with miles you still need to find award inventory. So as you plan your trips, you may want to leverage expertflyer or KVS (for BA) to look at availability before you book your trip through the university.

    And I’ve found award inventory varies greatly by airline…for the London example, you will find loads more availability on BA than AA as they have seemingly colluded to reduce AA availability on these routes. (Just an unproven as yet assertion).

  • Brandon

    If I’m booking through American Airlines, but flying a British Airways flight, would I use Avios to upgrade?

  • sfomsp

    Actually Virgin Atlantic lets you upgrade to Upper Class from a regular economy fare – ‘M’ or higher, with ‘M’ being a mid-level fare. So you’re paying for a closer to $1000 base ticket instead of nearly $2000 for premium economy. This breaks some of it down for London at least:

    http://milecards.com/5844/business-class-upgrades-to-london-analyzed-virgin-the-best-value/

  • Gary Leff

    “The one big downside to British Airways, however, is that if you’re flying through London, you’re going to have to pay the luxury surcharge on tickets in premium classes, even when you upgrade, but in general, that tends to be a couple hundred dollars and still cheaper than upgrading on most other airlines.”

    The Airline Passenger Duty (aka “Premium Cabin Departure Tax”) is charged on all departures from the UK, not flights through London. It is substantially higher on premium cabin tickets than on economy tickets, and is charged based on distance bands (the farther you’re flying, the higher the charge).

    If you are connecting through London to, say, Paris you do not pay the APD. Los Angeles – London – Paris – London – Los Angeles avoids the luxury tax.

    And since it’s a departure tax, you do not pay it on UK arrivals either. Los Angeles – London does not pay it.

    So Los Angeles – London // Paris – London – Los Angeles does not incur the APD.

  • freqflyer

    It took e over 30 minutes for each of the last two trips I upgraded. They were very nice and professional each time, it just took them long time to figure out the taxes.

  • Chad2013

    The article says “airlines do allow upgrades on alliance partners”—however, my understanding is that Qantas flights can’t be upgraded with any partner miles. I fly Qantas frequently (international and within Australia), I have a stash of over 600,000 AA miles, but I’m not able to use them to upgrade my Qantas flights (which were purchased as economy by my corporate travel agent).

  • Stephan

    Sorry but the taxes on the upgrades are huge!Try going from west coast to LHR and upgrade from PE to CW – if space is available. The taxes are over $2000pp!

  • Miles

    He should have probably qualified that with “some alliance partners.”

    AA only has agreements to do this with a few of their OneWorld partners, like BA and IB.

  • Miles

    BA levies heavy fuel surcharges, while AA does not. So AA award seats disappear a lot faster.

  • Jerry

    the worst companies for upgrading using miles are AF-KLM

  • Stephan

    No

  • MM

    I am planning on booking an upgrade and was wondering the same things whether to do it through AA or BA. It seems however AA while cheaper to upgrade requires more points for the same flight…is this typical? Or is AA points system different then BA?

  • Nate

    Just to clarify, most companies/universities with a economy policy have thatthat policy to ensure that you pay the cheapest fare, and every place I’ve worked has had a travel portal that we were required to use. Booking a class of ticket that costs more just isn’t an option, even if it is technically ” economy”. If I bought a $1500 ticket when there was a $900 ticket available then I would need to manually override the system with an explanation.
    For those of us who are forced to get the cheapest ticket from the airline (I.e. we don’t need to use Priceline or Hotwire), is there any way to get international upgrades?

  • Chloe

    “Strictly in terms of upgrading from Economy to Business and skipping Premium Economy, you can upgrade two classes of service and use twice the Avios (so 20,000 Avios each way in this example), but it can’t be done online so you’d have to call.”

    FYI, I just called to try and do this, and they said it is not possible to upgrade 2 classes of service – no matter what fare class your economy seat is in, you can never upgrade it to Club World.

  • Kumar

    Good point, Nate. Author should research and show cognizance of university and corporate policy.

  • Kumar

    Yes, taxes and surcharges. Why did the author not consider those?

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