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

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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.

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