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How to Upgrade Flights on International Carriers: Part One

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There’s more than one way to maximize your award travel, and sometimes the less obvious ways are the most valuable. Today, TPG Contributor Nick Ewen explains how you can get yourself into premium cabins on international flights even with a relatively small number of miles.

Part of what first drew me to The Points Guy and award travel in general was the allure of flying in first and business class on some of the world’s finest airlines. These top-tier award redemptions offer fantastic value, but what if you don’t have enough miles to cover your entire flight? Are there ways to pay for a coach/premium economy ticket, and then upgrade to a higher class of service?

The answer to that is a resounding yes! Today I’ll look at some of the top international carriers and their upgrade policies to help you see how you can travel abroad in the utmost comfort. This post is the first of two in this series (see part two here), so if you don’t see your favorite airline listed, it will likely be included in the next installment.

Pre-departure pic of my Newark-Singapore nonstop flight before the route was axed
You can still enjoy first or business class by using miles to upgrade paid tickets.

As you read through this post, keep in mind that these policies are the published and accepted ones for upgrading a flight. There will always be reports of last-minute operational upgrades (op-ups) when coach is oversold, free upgrades as compensation for irregular operations or Voluntary Denied Boarding (VDB) offers, or other one-time opportunities that don’t fit within the published upgrade criteria. However, there’s no way to plan for those in advance; the strategies presented here can pay off long before your flight begins boarding.

Finally, the vast majority of these upgrades are based on availability and generally correspond to an award ticket fare class. In other words, if you want to pay for a premium economy ticket and upgrade to business class, you’ll almost certainly need to have business class award inventory available on your flight. I’ve tried to give examples below of flights that have upgrade space available at the time of writing, but those seats may be gone by the time you read this, or it may not have been possible to find availability!

I recommend calling the airline (or using a tool like ExpertFlyer for certain carriers) to find upgrade space before you purchase your ticket. It’s pretty disappointing to pay a premium for an upgradeable fare class only to discover that there isn’t a seat to which you can upgrade!

640px-Aeroplan_logo.svg
Upgrade opportunities are relatively limited with Aeroplan and Air Canada.

Air Canada (Aeroplan)

If you’re traveling on Air Canada, unfortunately, the upgrade options are relatively limited. For starters, they have the eUpgrade program for elite (Altitude) members. This allows you to earn upgrade credits that can be applied toward future travel. While these credits are limited to Altitude members, you can “share” them with a friend or family member and upgrade his/her ticket, even if you’re not on the same reservation.

Air Canada flights can also be upgraded as part of the Star Alliance Upgrade program, and you can use Aeroplan miles to upgrade flights on other Star Alliance members. Aeroplan actually makes the search process very easy using this page. You can also access the Star Alliance Upgrade Award Chart and the eligible fare classes.

Accruing Aeroplan miles: Aeroplan is a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, so you can use points earned from cards like The Platinum Card from American Express, Amex Everyday Preferred, and Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express. You can also earn miles for flights on other Star Alliance carriers.

Travel in style by using your FlyingBlue miles to upgrade your Air France or KLM flights
Travel in style by using FlyingBlue miles to upgrade your Air France or KLM flights

Air France/KLM

FlyingBlue, the loyalty program of both Air France and KLM, allows you to upgrade paid tickets using miles, and they don’t restrict you to only the highest fare classes (though more expensive tickets require fewer miles to upgrade). Here are the tickets eligible for upgrades:

  • Economy: Y, B, M, U, K, H, L, and Q
  • Premium Economy: W and S
  • Business: J, C, and D (note that upgrades from business to first class are only available to FlyingBlue elites)

This document shows you the mileage required for a one-way flight; generally speaking, upgrading to Premium Economy requires A class availability, and upgrading to business class requires O class availability. The good news is that ExpertFlyer shows both of these fare buckets, making it easy for you to verify upgrade space before booking:

Amazingly enough, these Air France flights have 9 upgradeable seats in both premium economy and business class!
These Air France flights have 9 upgradeable seats in both premium economy and business class!

In addition to upgrades on Air France and KLM, this extends to flights operated by Delta, Kenya Airways, Air Europa, and Aircalin. However, in those cases you must purchase expensive coach tickets in order to be upgrade eligible. View the fare classes and the mileage requirements for Delta and Kenya Airways here, and find the same information for Air Europa and Aircalin here.

Accruing FlyingBlue miles: FlyingBlue is partners with SPG and Membership Rewards, and became the 9th airline transfer partner of the Citi ThankYou Rewards program back in August of 2014, allowing you to use points earned on cards like the Citi Prestige and Citi ThankYou Premier for upgrades.

ANA planes at Haneda Airport.
ANA gives you a variety of distance-based upgrade options.

ANA

As a leading carrier based in Japan, ANA has direct flights from Tokyo to various North American destinations, including Chicago, Houston (starting June 12), Los Angeles, New York-JFK, San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle (on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner), Vancouver, and Washington-Dulles. They actually have two different types of upgrade programs:

  1. International Upgrade Awards, valid on ANA flights
  2. Star Alliance Upgrade Awards, valid on all Star Alliance partners

Each one requires ANA Mileage Club miles on a segment by segment basis, with a minimum of 12,000 miles per segment. Like ANA’s regular award chart, their upgrade charts are distance-based, with slightly different ranges for ANA vs. Star Alliance tickets. (Note that ANA will change to a zone-based award chart in April, 2015.) You can upgrade from economy to business class, or from business to first class, but not from economy to first). Finally, select routes and aircraft may not allow these awards (e.g., Suites Class on Singapore Airlines’ A380), and only certain fare classes are eligible.

You’ll generally find the best options on ANA flights, as the required fare classes aren’t too expensive, and the search page will actually show you which flights are upgradeable:

ANA JFK-NRT
The ANA search results show you which flights are upgradeable.

Since JFK-NRT clocks in at 6,745 miles, you would need 28,000 miles to upgrade this flight to business class. Not too bad for a $200 premium over a non-upgradeable economy ticket!

Unfortunately, Star Alliance flights are a bit trickier, as they tend to require full-fare economy tickets (see this page for the specific fare classes). Still, if you can find availability, there are definitely some options there!

Accruing ANA Mileage Club miles: ANA is a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest, so you can use points earned from cards like The Platinum Card from American Express, Amex Everyday Preferred, and Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express.

The Asiana A380 planes will start flying to Los Angeles on July 30, 2014.
If you’re lucky, you can use miles to upgrade to first or business class on Asiana’s A380, which took to the skies last year.

Asiana

This South Korea-based carrier is often overshadowed by it’s fellow country-airline Korean Air, but it does have some terrific first and business class products flying to and from North America. You can use Asiana miles to upgrade paid flights, though keep in mind these two important items:

  • Upgrades only apply to the higher fare classes (Y, B, M, H and E for economy, and J, C, D, and Z for business)
  • There must be award space available (I for business, O for first)

The easiest way to search for Asiana award space is by using another Star Alliance partner (like United or ANA); if they display an award ticket for business class, you can upgrade a paid economy ticket using Asiana Club miles.

For example, at the time of writing, I see a business class award ticket on the JFK-ICN flight on February 15. If I search for an economy ticket on Asiana’s website, it displays the discounted (non-upgradeable) price and the flexible (upgradeable) price on the same page:

Asiana upgrade
Asiana search results show both upgradeable and non-upgradeable fares.

This page shows the round-trip cost of upgrading flights (one-ways are available for half the mileage), so in this case you’d be paying a $456 premium plus 30,000 miles for a flight that retails for $2,593.

Accruing Asiana Club miles: Asiana is a transfer partner of SPG, and as a member of Star Alliance, you can also bank partner flights to Asiana. Finally, Bank of America actually has an Asiana American Express that gives you 10,000 miles after your first purchase (and 10,000 miles every year after renewing the card).

Club World seats aboard BA's Dreamliner
A great use of Avios is upgrading from World Traveller Plus to Club World, like the pictured seat on British Airways’ new 787 Dreamliner

British Airways

As one of the most egregious offenders when it comes to imposing exorbitant fuel surcharges, British Airways Avios are actually quite useful for upgrading flights. TPG wrote a detailed overview of this strategy back in 2012, and not a whole lot has changed since then, but you can check out this page for the latest details. The British Airways website is a bit buggy at times, but it makes searching for upgrade awards pretty easy. Here’s how:

  1. Log in to your Executive Club account at BritishAirways.com.
  2. On the left side, search for flights where you will “Book with money, upgrade with Avios.”
  3. Search for the class you want to book (one class below the one you want to fly).
  4. The results page will then display available flights that you xan book with money and upgrade with Avios.

The number of Avios needed to upgrade is the difference between full award tickets in the two classes of service. In other words, if a coach award normally costs 20,000 Avios and a premium economy award normally costs 30,000 Avios, you would need 10,000 Avios to upgrade. This is a great way to experience British Airways’ World Traveller Plus product (which made my list of top international premium economy products last month). A quick search of flights from New York (JFK) to London Heathrow for the next few months shows a fare difference of over $1,000 between the coach and premium economy, meaning your Avios would be worth more than 10 cents apiece if you used them to upgrade!

Upgrading paid premium economy tickets to business class is a great use of Avios.
Upgrading paid premium economy tickets to business class is a great use of Avios.

Another great option is upgrading paid World Traveller Plus tickets to Club World. For example, at the time of writing, I see an available upgrade on Flight 174 (JFK-LHR) on February 20. A regular one-way World Traveller Plus ticket would set you back $2,442.80, but you could purchase the same ticket for $2,627.80 (a premium of just $185) and use 10,000 Avios to immediately confirm yourself into business class.

Note that you can also upgrade Iberia and American flights when available, though they generally require very high coach fares, since neither carrier has a “middle ground” of premium economy to which (or from which) you can upgrade.

Accruing British Airways Avios: The British Airways Visa Signature Card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Avios (after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months) with a $95 annual fee. British Airways is also a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, and Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Cathay Pacific upgrades from premium economy to business class are another great use of miles.

Cathay Pacific

This Hong Kong-based carrier has many North American gateways (plus a lovely transcontinental flight from JFK-Vancouver), and TPG has reviewed both their first class and business class products before. They too allow upgrades through their loyalty program Asia Miles, with both one-way and round-trip options. Round-trip upgrades are valid on Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, American, and British Airways, while one-way upgrades are only valid on Cathay and Dragonair. The program also uses a distance-based method for calculating the mileage needed to upgrade, ranging from 5,000 miles for a short-haul upgrade (600 miles or less) from Economy to Premium Economy, to 120,000 miles for an ultra long-haul upgrade (over 10,000 miles). There are several restrictions in terms of fare class and route, and you can find all of them on this page.

One of the best options here is upgrading Premium Economy to Business class. On long-haul flights from the West Coast to Hong Kong, you’re looking at just 30,000 miles round-trip! For travel on Cathay Pacific, you’ll need to book into W or R class, which are typically listed as “Premium Economy Flex” when searching online. For example, here are the two options for a round-trip flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong, departing February 18 and returning March 11:

CX SFO-HKG
Cathay Pacific upgrade options

On these dates, at the time of writing, business class upgrades were available on the evening flight from SFO and the early morning flight from HKG. For a premium of just $429 plus 30,000 Asia Miles, you can confirm directly into business class—flights that would cost over $6,500!

Accruing Asia Miles: In addition to partnering with Starwood Preferred Guest and Membership Rewards, Asia Miles is also one of the new transfer options added to the Citi ThankYou Rewards program last year.

emirates-logo
Emirates allows you to upgrade just about any paid economy ticket using miles.

Emirates

If you want to experience first class on the over-the-top luxurious Emirates A380, the good news is that you can upgrade any paid ticket. The bad news is that it will cost you a pretty penny (in Skywards miles, at least). TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele did a terrific overview of upgrading on Emirates back in November 2013, and the number of miles needed varies by route. You can use Emirates’ online miles calculator to determine exactly what it would cost for your flights.

There are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Saver tickets require more miles than Flex tickets.
  • You can only upgrade one class, and the mileage cost is the same (regardless of whether you’re upgrading from economy to business or business to first).
  • Upgrades are only valid on Emirates-operated flights, not codeshares.
  • In some cases, you’ll need to pay additional government-imposed taxes & fees.

ExpertFlyer is the best place to search for these awards, as both first (Z fare class) and business (D) are listed there:

EF EK upgrade
Emirates availability on ExpertFlyer.

In addition to these advance upgrades, Emirates also has an Instant Upgrade program at check-in, and Skywards Silver, Gold, and Platinum members can even upgrade once onboard the flight, though again it’s all subject to availability.

Accruing Skywards miles: Emirates was added as a Membership Rewards transfer partner back in October 2013, and you can also transfer from SPG. You can earn miles for flights flown on numerous partner airlines, including Alaska, JetBlue, and Virgin America.

There are a few ways to upgrade.
There are a few ways to upgrade on Etihad.

Etihad

The other main airline in the United Arab Emirates is Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, and they actually have four different upgrade options:

  1. Etihad Select Upgrade, a bidding process for upgrades
  2. Etihad Guest Miles Upgrade
  3. Push Upgrade, which can be purchased 48 hours before departure
  4. Instant Airport Upgrade, requested at check-in

Like Emirates, Etihad has a mileage calculator that allows you to see the number of Guest Miles needed to upgrade your flight (just make sure to click on the “Upgrade” tab at the top before searching). Also like Emirates, the cheaper economy tickets will cost more miles to upgrade to business class. For example, here’s what you get when searching for Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi:

Etihad LAX-AUH upgrade miles
Etihad upgrade calculator

Note that upgrades don’t apply to award tickets, and certain promotional fares in T and X class are also ineligible. However, if you got in on Etihad’s amazing Christmas Day deal, chances are you booked into E class, so your flight is upgradeable—it just takes a lot of miles! Check out this post from TPG for more information on these options.

In order to upgrade, you need to have I (for business class) or O (for first class) inventory available. This is the same inventory that American uses for booking award flights on Etihad with AAdvantage miles. The easiest way to find this inventory is by creating an Etihad Guest account and searching for “GuestSeat” availability.

Accruing Etihad Guest miles: Etihad is a transfer partner of SPG, and you can accrue miles through various airline partners, including American. They also allow you to pool miles into a family account.

Bottom line

Using miles for first or business class tickets can offer some incredible value, but if your mileage account balances aren’t high enough, you can still make your miles work for you with these upgrade options. Stay tuned for the second installment, where I’ll continue on to other carriers, including Lufthansa, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic.

What experiences have you had upgrading flights on international carriers?

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