This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen explains how you can get good value (and great legroom) out of your miles by using them to upgrade your next domestic flight.
We tend to focus on full award redemptions here at The Points Guy. However, if you’re a casual traveler without huge balances in your frequent flyer accounts, you may not be able to afford an expensive first- or business-class redemption (like TPG’s recent award flight to Nice). Fortunately, upgrade awards offer you an alternative means to ride up front on your next flight, and in this post I’ll walk you through the general process for upgrading with miles on the three major domestic carriers: American/US Airways, Delta and United.
American and US Airways integrated their frequent flyer programs back in March, and the carriers plan to start merging reservation systems in July. Until the two are under a single system with all flights operated by American Airlines, the mileage upgrade process will remain a bit confusing. To upgrade with miles, the first thing you need to do is book flights marketed and operated by the same carrier. This actually applies to all kinds of upgrades, not just those with miles.
American’s More About Upgrades page has a useful guide to accomplishing this, but it boils down to a couple of simple rules: Do not book an US Airways flight number operated by American, and do not book an American flight number operated by US Airways. Booking those flights will disqualify you from using miles to upgrade, because the separate reservation systems won’t be able to recognize flights that are marketed and operated by different carriers.
Fortunately, you can use your AAdvantage miles to upgrade any paid ticket on either American or US Airways, though some of the discount fare classes require a cash copay in addition to miles. Not surprisingly, long-haul flights require the most miles and have the highest copays. AA.com has full details on these mileage upgrades, but the following table provides a quick overview:
In order to confirm these upgrades, you must find flights with availability in specific fare classes:
- Economy to First (on a two-class plane) — A
- Economy to Business (on three-class planes or two-class international flights) — C
- Business to First (on three-class planes) — A
If inventory isn’t available at the time of request, you can only be added to the waitlist for American-operated flights, and these requests will be transferred to the airport standby list. Flights operated by US Airways must be confirmed at the time of request, as the waitlist/standby option is “not available at this time” (per AA.com). Fortunately, you can use ExpertFlyer to search award inventory on both American and US Airways. As I wrote about earlier this month, you can set alerts to receive an e-mail when these two fare classes open up on your desired flight, so even if you can’t upgrade immediately on US Airways, you can still be notified when space becomes available.
In addition to these options, American allows you to upgrade on British Airways and Iberia flights, though the eligible fare classes are much more restrictive. You must be in full-fare economy (Y or B) to upgrade to premium economy or business, W class in British Airways World Traveller Plus (premium economy) to upgrade to business, or full-fare business (C, J, D or R) on British Airways to upgrade to first. Here are the details:
For more information on where you’ll fall on the upgrade list, check out my post on American Airlines upgrade priority.
Unfortunately, upgrading with miles is significantly more challenging on Delta than it is on American. For starters, the airline recently removed both standard and upgrade award charts from its website, meaning that you must call to find out how many miles it would take to upgrade your flight. More importantly, the airline only allows certain fare classes to be upgraded using miles:
- For travel with the US and Canada — Y, B, M, S, H, Q or K
- For all other international travel — Y, B and M
- For transatlantic Air France flights — S or W
Unfortunately, these tickets tend to be more pricey than the lowest available coach fare, and in some cases, they can actually be more expensive than discounted first or business class. For example, I recently booked a round-trip ticket for my wife to visit a friend in Atlanta, and I found a great price for first -lass flights. Amazingly enough, searching for K class or higher using the Advanced Search feature on Delta.com indicated that upgradeable economy tickets were $10 more expensive than discounted first class:
This is exacerbated even further for international tickets, as Y, B and M class flights are the priciest coach fares out there.
If you do book an eligible fare class, you’ll need to find RP (first) or OP (business) inventory for the upgrade to clear. These classes used to be listed on ExpertFlyer until Delta pulled all information from the site last year. You now have to call in order to inquire about upgrade availability or to process the upgrade.
In addition to this traditional method of upgrading with miles, Delta has also recently started offering the option to confirm an upgrade from coach to first class by using miles to cover the price difference between the two classes of service. You’ll see this option (when available) during the checkout process on Delta.com. This is only available on flights within the US, and you must be logged in and have enough miles in your account to cover the cost of the upgrade.
For some suggestions on the best ways to upgrade with SkyMiles, see my post on sweet spots in the Delta SkyMiles upgrade award chart, and to get a feel for where these requests fall on the upgrade list, see my post on Delta upgrade priority.
If you want to use MileagePlus miles to upgrade your next United flight, you’ll find the process similar to upgrading on American. Any paid fare class can be upgraded with miles, though you will need to cough up a copay and potentially use additional miles to upgrade cheaper fares. Unlike Delta, United actually posts award charts online, and page 4-5 of that document displays the mileage and copay required for all flights operated by United and Copa.
These upgrades clear into the following fare classes:
- Business to first class (on three-cabin flights) — ON
- Global Services members — PN
- All other upgrades — R
Finding this inventory has become significantly harder since United removed this information from ExpertFlyer back in 2013. Fortunately, there is a workaround on United.com. It’s called Expert Mode, and here’s how to enable it:
- Go to United.com.
- Sign in to your MileagePlus account.
- Go to the My Account page.
- Click on Manage Profile at the bottom.
- Click on View All Flight Search Preferences at the bottom.
- Read the T&C of Expert Mode, check the box and click Save.
Enabling this feature allows you to see all fare classes available for a given flight. When you search for a regular revenue ticket, you’ll see a link for Fare Class that will list all available inventory (including ON, PN and R). Here’s what that looks like for a flight from Chicago-O’Hare to London-Heathrow on August 5, 2015:
And here are the same search results when I’m not logged into my United account:
Fortunately, United allows you to request an upgrade online during the booking process, and if you want to wait until after the reservation is finalized, you can go back and easily add the request online. For complete details, be sure to check out the Request an Upgrade section on United.com.
One final thing to be aware of is that if you want to upgrade a flight that doesn’t have inventory at the time of your request, you can be added to the waitlist. However, according to the FAQ page of the MileagePlus Upgrade Awards section on United.com, miles will be deducted and the applicable copay will be collected at the time of your request, even if you aren’t immediately confirmed into first or business class. These payments will be refunded automatically within 7-10 days of travel if you wind up not clearing from the waitlist.
For more information on where you’ll fall on this waitlist, check out my post on United upgrade priority.
Is upgrading worthwhile?
I’m sure this question is on many readers’ minds; unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer. Everyone has a different way of valuing their points and miles, and some simply don’t see the need to use them for a higher class of service. However, for those of you who are interested in making the most of your miles when upgrading flights, here are some general tips:
- Look for transcontinental flights. All three carriers provide premium service from the New York area to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and offer many other long flights from East Coast hubs to West Coast airports (or vice versa). Upgrade award charts don’t differentiate between short- and long-haul flights within the US, so using miles to upgrade a cross-country flight gets you more time up front. You also may find aircraft configured for international flights operating these routes (like ATL-LAX on Delta or MIA-LAX on American).
- Upgrade last-minute flights. Sometimes booking flights within a week or two of departure forces you into higher fare classes. Since American and United charge copays for deeply discounted economy tickets (and since Delta doesn’t allow upgrades on these fare classes at all), last-minute tickets often give you additional flexibility when upgrading with miles.
- Upgrade just one leg. One of the nice things about these policies is that upgrades are processed on a one-way basis. If you don’t have enough miles for upgrades in both directions (or if you want to avoid a second copay), consider whether you’d rather score an upgrade on your outbound or return flight. On transatlantic trips, many feel like the upgrade is more useful on the overnight flight (so you can sleep), while others feel the opposite (so you can actually enjoy the upgraded amenities). Wherever you fall on this spectrum, upgrading just one of your flights can still be a great use of your miles.
As you can see, the exact process to upgrade with miles on the three major US carriers varies significantly, but there are definitely ways to ride up front on your next flight beyond purchasing a premium fare outright. Hopefully this post has given you some ideas for how to make it happen!
What are your experiences using miles to upgrade flights?
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
|Intro APR||Regular APR||Annual Fee||Foreign Transaction Fee||Credit Rating|
|None||15.49%-19.49% Variable||$0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95||0%||Excellent Credit|