An Upgrade That Cost More Than My Flight — Reader Mistake Story

Nov 9, 2017

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We often publish stories from readers that illustrate how points and miles can help you get where you want to go. However, it’s important to learn from our mistakes as well as our successes, so I’m calling on you to send us your most epic travel failure stories. Email them to and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls. If we publish your story, we’ll send you a gift to help jump-start your next adventure!

Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Brian, whose hopes of flying to Asia in first class were dashed by fees. Here’s what he had to say:

I recently found a great deal on a trip from Houston to Hong Kong for $699 round-trip in economy. I booked it as a giant mileage run, because I need those miles to retain my United Airlines elite status.

My plan was simple: book the flight, stay a couple of days in a place I’ve never been to, fly back home home and level up. And because I was booking in Economy, I was going to use miles to upgrade to business class — simple, right?

Unfortunately, once I booked the flight I saw that United mileage upgrades to South Asia come with a $600 fee EACH WAY. That’s on top of the 60,000 miles round-trip that I’d have to redeem. Unless I want to pony up an additional $1,200 — which is almost twice what I paid for the ticket itself — I’m stuck in K class. So I’ll be in economy for 15 hours across the Pacific. I’m not thrilled about it, but lesson learned.

United charges a large copay for most upgrade awards, but it’s not the only airline to do so. 

Many airlines (including United and American) charge hefty copay fees for upgrade awards. You can avoid those fees by booking more expensive full-fare tickets, but that tends to defeat the purpose of redeeming miles in the first place. Overall I think flight awards offer better value than upgrades. Unfortunately that’s not an option for Brian, since his trip is a mileage run to help him re-qualify for United status.

Ultimately, a total of $1,900 and 60,000 miles round-trip isn’t a terrible price for a flight to Asia in United’s Polaris business class. Those flights routinely cost over $5,000 per person, whereas Brian would be paying around $2,800 in cash and rewards based on my most recent valuation for MileagePlus miles. That’s a steep discount, but it’s still a lot to spend, especially compared to the inexpensive flight he booked initially.

If you’re equally concerned about staying on budget and taking a long-haul flight in economy, you could compromise by upgrading for $600 and 30,000 miles in one direction. Airlines generally award miles and elite credits based on the original fare class (not the upgraded one), so you’ll earn the same rewards in either case.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Brian for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels.

I’d like to do the same for you! If you’ve ever arrived at the airport without ID, booked a hotel room in the wrong city, missed out on a credit card sign-up bonus or made another memorable travel or rewards mistake, I want to hear about it. Please indulge me and the whole TPG team by sending us your own stories (see instructions above). I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured image courtesy of United Airlines.

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