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How to Upgrade Flights on International Carriers: Part Two

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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 continues his explanation of how you can get yourself into premium cabins on international flights with a relatively small number of miles.

Last week, I described how to upgrade flights on a variety of international carriers, including ANA, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific. Today is the second installment, where I’ll dig into the details of moving up a cabin on another set of major airlines. You can still enjoy the benefits of flying toward the front of the plane, even if you’re short the miles needed for an award ticket!

Think your elite status will upgrade you? Think again!
Don’t have enough miles for an award ticket? Use them to upgrade instead!

The same caveats apply as in the previous post. The policies described here 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!

JAL's first-class Sky Suite
JAL’s first-class Sky Suite

JAL

TPG recently flew in first class on JAL from San Francisco to Tokyo, and fortunately, there are ways to upgrade paid tickets using Mileage Bank miles. Full details are available here, and the required mileage can be accessed from this page. You must be booked in J, C, D, X, W, Y, E, B, H, or K fare class in order to upgrade, but the search results page from JAL’s website makes it easy to see the price difference between upgradeable and non-upgradeable tickets.

For example, here are my search results for Monday February 16th:

JAL SFO-HND
Upgrade availability on JAL

 

The early morning flight (which has award space at the time of writing, found via BritishAirways.com) only has a $210 premium for the ability to upgrade to business class. Using the International Upgrade Award Chart (link above), a one-way upgrade from economy to business class between North America and Japan will set you back 25,000 miles. That’s pretty good bad for a flight that retails for over $4,200.

Accumulating Mileage Bank miles: JAL is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, so you can use points earned from the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express to upgrade your flights. Remember that you get a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints transferred, meaning that the aforementioned upgrade would only require 20,000 Starpoints. As a member of Oneworld, you can also bank revenue flights from those partners.

The business class cabin aboard Korean Air's A380.
The business class cabin aboard Korean Air’s A380.

Korean Air

Back in 2012, TPG had an interesting experience booking an award ticket on Korean Air. Fortunately, it seems that their online capabilities have come a long way since then, as anyone can search for award availability (including upgrade space) before booking a ticket using this site. Unfortunately, Korean does have a peak season of travel, during which you’ll need 30-50% more miles to upgrade. Upgrades are also unavailable on discounted tickets, including G, D, I, H, E, L, K, Q, T, and V fare classes.

Like JAL, Korean makes searching for upgradeable tickets relatively easy. You’ll see a check box when searching online:

KE search results

Unfortunately, the upgradeable fares are quite pricey. For a one-way flight from JFK-Seoul on February 14, 2015, the lowest economy fare is $905.70, while the upgradeable fare is $1,694.70, a huge difference of $789. Still, you can pay that premium and use 40,000 Skypass miles to upgrade to a flight that retails for over $3,500 .

Accruing Skypass miles: Korean Air is a transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards, so you can use points earned from cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus to book this upgrade. Korean Air is also a SkyTeam member and Alaska Airlines partner, so you can credit revenue flights with those airlines to Skypass. Finally, you could open the Skypass Visa Signature card, though the sign-up bonus is currently only 15,000 miles.

Lufthansa gives you a variety of options for upgrading on their metal as well as Star Alliance partners.

Lufthansa

As a key member of Star Alliance, you can use Miles & More miles to upgrade flights on all Star Alliance carriers (along with non-alliance partners Condor and Luxair). This can be done online for Lufthansa, Austrian, and LOT Polish Airlines, or by contacting the Miles & More service center for other airlines. The number of miles required is shown here, but be sure to read the detailed terms & conditions (section four) to make sure you’re booked in an applicable fare class.

Lufthansa also indicates the difference between upgradeable and non-upgradeable flights on the results page:

IAD-FRA on Lufthansa
Lufthansa search results indicate which fares can be upgraded.

 

At the time of writing, the 6:05 pm flight from Washington-Dulles to Frankfurt on February 1, 2015 had availability for upgrades into business class. You would pay a $208 premium (plus 50,000 miles) for an upgradeable fare on their new 747-800 flight.

Accruing Miles & More miles: Lufthansa is a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, and you can earn miles from the Miles & More Premier World MasterCard (though the current 20,000-mile sign-up bonus isn’t nearly as lucrative as last year’s limited-time offer).

799px-Qatar_Airways_Logo
Qatar Airways is now a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou Rewards and SPG.

 

Qatar

Qatar Airways is the self-anointed “World’s 5 Star Airline,” and they actually have a variety of ways to upgrade paid tickets when traveling to (or through) their hub in Doha. The number of Qmiles required depends on the distance flown and the fare class purchased, though all economy tickets (aside from special promotional fares) are upgradeable. They do have a nice online calculator that shows you the one-way or round-trip mileage required. From the U.S. to Doha, you’re looking at 42,500-50,000 miles for a one-way upgrade from economy to business class.

For example, the cheapest one-way ticket from Miami to Doha on February 15, 2015 costs $986.95 and books into N fare class, which would require 50,000 miles for an upgrade to business class. A semi-flexible ticket carries a premium of $302, but still requires 42,500 miles to upgrade, meaning that you would essentially be purchasing those 7,500 miles saved at over 4 cents apiece, which is a very poor value.

Accruing Privilege Club Qmiles: Qatar is one of the transfer partners added to the Citi ThankYou Rewards program last year, so you can use points earned on cards like the Citi Prestige and Citi ThankYou Premier to upgrade Qatar-operated flights. Privilege Club is also a 1:1 transfer partner with Starwood Preferred Guest. Finally, Qatar Airways is a relatively new member of the Oneworld Alliance, so you can bank revenue flights to them and earn Qmiles that way.

Singapore is now a transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards.
Singapore only lets you upgrade from higher fare classes.

 

Singapore

Singapore Airlines regularly appears at (or near) the top of various “World’s Best Airlines” lists, and as a result, their upgrade policies are relatively restrictive, requiring flexible economy tickets booked in S, Y, B, or E fare classes. However, they do make it very easy to book these awards online, as you can simply log into your KrisFlyer account and search for availability for any eligible bookings. The mileage required varies based on the region of departure and arrival, and you’ll see three different mileage levels: Saver, Standard, and Full.

The search results page displays your different fare class options; note that only the full “Flexi” fares are eligible for upgrades with miles:

Singapore upgrade with miles
Singapore Airlines search results with upgrade options

 

You’ll definitely want to compare the upgrade chart with the regular award chart to verify that it makes sense to pay the upgradeable fare, as the mileage required for an upgrade is sometimes very close to the mileage required for a full award.

For example, if you wanted to fly from the West Coast of the U.S. to Singapore, a one-way saver upgrade in business class is 65,000 miles, compared with just 80,000 miles for the regular award ticket. You’d be spending just 15,000 (or 23%) more miles on the award than on the upgrade. On the other hand, if you wanted to fly Singapore’s fifth freedom route between New York (JFK) and Frankfurt, a one-way saver upgrade is just 30,000 miles, compared with 57,500 miles for the regular saver award ticket—a difference of 27,500 miles, or almost 92%.

Accruing KrisFlyer miles: Singapore Airlines is one of only two carriers that partners with all four major transferable points currencies: American Express Membership Rewards (earned from cards like the The Platinum Card from American Express), Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, and Citi ThankYou Rewards. As a member of Star Alliance, you can also earn miles from revenue flights on carriers like United and Air Canada.

Virgin Atlantic 787-9 Dreamliner
Virgin Atlantic lets you upgrade by paying the fare difference up to 3 days prior to departure.

 

Virgin Atlantic

Richard Branson’s quirky airline also gives you a few different options for upgrading your paid tickets. The first isn’t a true upgrade, but rather involves simply paying the fare difference between economy and Upper Class any time up to 3 days prior to departure. This could be a good option if you book a ticket far in advance and then notice a business class sale later on, or for business travelers who must book their flights in coach but don’t mind paying for an upgrade themselves.

A slightly better option is available using Flying Club miles. This is restricted to higher economy class tickets (Y, B, R, L, U, or M) and certain premium economy fare classes (W and S). From the U.S. to the U.K., you’re generally looking at 10,000 to 12,500 miles for a one-cabin upgrade, or 20,000 to 25,000 miles for a two-cabin upgrade. Make sure there’s award availability before booking the higher fare class! You can do that by selecting the “Spend your miles” option from the search page:

Virgin Atlantic search
The search tool shows you upgradeable fares, but not always at the best price.

 

Unfortunately, this standard search tool doesn’t make it easy to find the cheapest upgradeable fares, as the default search results page will give you the lowest (non-upgradeable) price and the highest (most flexible) price. You may be able to find availability for specific fare classes using this search page (and specifying the fare class you want), but I found that it was quite glitchy. Your best bet is to call Flying Club customer service.

Accruing Flying Club miles: Along with Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic is a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest, and (as of this week) Citi ThankYou Rewards. The airline also partners with Delta, allowing you to bank revenue flights to earn Flying Club miles (see the accrual chart here). This could be an especially attractive option given the new 2015 SkyMiles program.

Bottom line

While these options may not fit every budget or travel pattern, hopefully they have given you some alternate ideas for how to ride up front even if your mileage accounts are high enough for a full award.

Have you had success upgrading with miles on any of these carriers?

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