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How to Upgrade with Miles on AA, Delta, United and Alaska

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Even if you don’t have enough miles to cover a premium award ticket outright, you may be able to access first and business class through other means. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr looks at alternative options for using miles to sit up front on several domestic carriers.

We all want to get more for less. That’s often my goal when I upgrade with miles, because I can (hopefully) get a premium-class award ticket without blowing a large portion of my loyalty account balance. With the seemingly nonstop changes to frequent flyer programs, the value of mileage upgrades is in flux, and many award travelers are unsure whether they’re still viable. Today, I’ll cover your options for upgrading with miles on US airlines, and offer some tips to help you get the most out of your upgrade awards.

Basic Rules

At face value, upgrading with miles on US airlines is fairly simple. Upgrades cost a certain number of miles, and sometimes involve a cash co-pay based on the fare class of your ticket. Upgrading from a cheaper fare class will generally cost you more miles and (if required) a larger co-pay. US airlines charge upgrade prices on a one-way basis, and allow you to upgrade with miles in advance so you can skip the complicated, anxiety ridden and overfull airport standby upgrade lists. The bad news is that there has to be upgrade space available on your flight, which is becoming harder to find and differs by airline. With the common rules in place, let’s look at mileage upgrade policies for each of the major domestic airlines:

You'll now be able to use
Starting next year, Delta One transcon upgrades can cost as much as 45,000 miles one-way.

American Airlines

The AAdvantage program represents what I believe to be the most lucrative mileage upgrade opportunities. Though the policy for upgrading between American and US Airways flights will remain a bit confusing until the last US Airways flight in October, the rest of the program is straightforward. You can upgrade from any paid fare, with cheaper tickets requiring a co-pay in addition to miles.

The AAdvantage upgrade award chart.
The AAdvantage upgrade award chart.

The chart’s listed prices are valid for one-way trips with up to three segments. Fare classes A and C represent upgrade space availability on American flights. To me, 25,000 miles plus $350 is a fair price to be in business for a 14-hour flight from New York to Tokyo.

Unlike with other carriers, uncleared mileage upgrade requests transfer to American’s airport standby list, but only for flights operated by American. For flights operated by US Airways, you must confirm the upgrade immediately or continue to check inventory leading up to the flight, either by calling or through ExpertFlyer. The Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard currently has a sign-up bonus of 75,000 miles after spending $7,500 within the first three months of account opening. This could upgrade me three times between Japan and the US.

Delta Air Lines

Lately, new announcements about the SkyMiles program seem to be endless. A few weeks ago, Delta announced a few positive changes, including the news that more fare classes will be eligible for mileage upgrades beginning in June, 2016. However, the negative quickly followed, as Delta then announced an increase in the cost of mileage upgrades. Since we don’t know what upgrades are supposed to cost, it’s strange that Delta would bother telling passengers this in the first place. Devaluing a secret award chart definitely qualifies in my book as rubbing salt in the wound.

Lucky for all of us points and miles enthusiasts, Delta isn’t as tight-lipped as it means to be. The notes and chart below describe one-way upgrade policies and prices (beginning in June of next year) pulled from an internal Delta memo that was leaked and posted on Flyertalk. Here’s the gist:

  • Within North American and Northern South America, L/U/T fares are now eligible. (Previously only Y/B/M/S/H/Q/K.)
  • For all other markets, S/H/Q/K fares are now eligible. (Previously only Y/B/M.)
  • SkyMiles Upgrade Awards will also require more miles. (Pricing is one-way.)
Destination (Departing US) Cost (Y/B/M fares) Cost (S/H/Q/K fares) Cost (L/U/T fares)
Domestic (except JFK-LAX/SFO, Hawaii, etc.) 15,000 20,000 30,000
Domestic Premium Routes (JFK-LAX/SFO) 25,000 35,000 45,000
Hawaii 30,000 45,000 55,000
Canada 15,000 20,000 30,000
Puerto Rico, Caribbean, Mexico, Bermuda 15,000 20,000 30,000
Northern South America 30,000 45,000 55,000
Southern South America 60,000 80,000 N/A
Europe 60,000 80,000 N/A
Northern Asia (Japan/Korea/China) 60,000 80,000 N/A
Southeast/Southwest Asia, Micronesia, Southwest Pacific 80,000 115,000 N/A
Africa (incl. South Africa) 80,000 115,000 N/A
Middle East 80,000 115,000 N/A

For a one-way upgrade from the US to my current home of Japan, Delta wants 80,000 SkyMiles on top of a $1,000+ ticket. At present, I can just redeem 65,000 United miles for a free one-way business-class ticket. The same 80,000 miles is required for an upgrade to Europe, on what might be only a six-hour flight. In some cases, these new prices are the same as what you would pay for a free Level 1 award ticket.

If you’re a Delta Medallion elite striving for complimentary upgrades, your competition should decline significantly, as these new mileage upgrades will be prohibitively expensive for many flyers. For now, you need to call Delta to find out how many miles are required to upgrade once you actually confirm that there’s upgrade space available for your flight. Fortunately, the new prices don’t go into effect for roughly a year; in the meantime, make sure you check these sweet spots in the Delta upgrade award chart.

United’s upgrade process is fairly straightforward.

United Airlines

Unlike Delta members, MileagePlus loyalists have a chart to work from when determining how much an upgrade will cost (in miles and co-pays). You can upgrade from any paid fare with United, but cheaper fares require a co-pay as well as miles. Upgrade space must be available for the flight you’re booking, and can be seen in the booking process when using Expert Mode on Look for space in ON (Business to First), PN (Global Service members) and R (all other upgrades).

You will to zoom in when you go to read the Mileageplus upgrade chart.
You’ll need to zoom in when you read the Mileageplus upgrade chart.

Upgrades can be confirmed if space is available, or you can be waitlisted if space is currently unavailable. Miles and co-pays will be charged immediately upon requesting the upgrade; if it fails to clear, your account will be refunded in 7-10 days.

With upgrades costing 20,000 miles + $75 one-way on discounted domestic tickets, I would skip this option entirely and book a free domestic flight for 10,000-12,500 miles. Booking tickets in the middle fare classes and paying 20,000 miles plus ~$500 could be a nice way to subsidize otherwise expensive transatlantic business-class tickets.

As military personnel, I’ve upgraded on transpacific flights with United several times, since (depending on the route) government fares are often recognized as full Y fares, and require only 20,000 miles and no co-pay. This helps me avoid the nerve-wracking gate upgrade experience and having to worry about my upgrade priority. Studying United’s upgrade chart and doing a quick comparison of co-pays versus revenue business-class fares will help you decide whether using miles and cash to upgrade is worthwhile.

Alaska Airlines

Sitting upfront for 5.5 hours for only 15,000 miles is a tempting offer on Alaska transcons.
Sitting up front for 5.5 hours for only 15,000 miles is a tempting offer on Alaska transcons.

Using miles for an upgrade with Alaska is a simple as can be, and you don’t have to worry about all the other upgrade strategies that put you in competition for upgrade priority. If you don’t currently hold elite status with Alaska Airlines, you’ll need to book a ticket in Y, S, B, M or H classes, and you’ll need to look for U inventory, which represents that upgrade space is available on your flight.  You can also use these upgrades on Alaska’s Money & Miles awards.

Once you’ve purchased your ticket (and confirmed that your flight has U inventory), you’ll need to call Alaska Airlines Reservations at 1-800-252-7522. Each one-way upgrade will cost you 15,000 miles. Once you’re within 24 hours of departure, you can request upgrades via web check-in or at the airport kiosk. If you have to book a more expensive last-minute fare on one of Alaska’s transcon routes like Seattle to Orlando, 15,000 miles could represent a solid value for the added comfort on a long flight.

Tips and Bottom Line

You can use miles to book upgrades on some partner airlines, but I find availability and eligible fare classes for such upgrades to act as choke points. Using miles for award tickets on partner airlines is a much easier proposition. TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Nick Ewen offers the following tips when looking to upgrade with US carriers:

  • Look for transcontinental flights — Upgrade award charts don’t differentiate between short- and long-haul flights (for now) 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 co-pays 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 co-pay), 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).
25,000 miles plus $350 to take American's new Dreamliner in business from Chicago to Narita is a proposition I am currently weighing.
25,000 miles plus $350 to take American’s new Dreamliner in business from Chicago to Narita is a proposition I’m currently weighing.

Much to the chagrin of us all, mileage upgrades usually aren’t quite the deal we’re looking for. However, depending on the airline, upgrades are still worth exploring. In addition to mileage upgrades, frequent flyers also use elite upgrades, award ticket upgrades (paying the additional mileage difference — make sure you’re familiar with the United waitlist strategy), involuntary or voluntary bump upgrades, paid upgrades and upgrade bids in order to get into a business or first-class seat.

In my opinion, the value received when upgrading with miles simply can’t compete with what you get by redeeming miles outright for a free premium-class ticket. When I want to guarantee my spot up front, mileage upgrade space is harder to find than business and first-class saver award space.

What has your experience been when upgrading with miles?

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