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Here's how to use airline miles for a first class upgrade

April 14, 2021
15 min read
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The most coveted perk in the frequent flyer world is an upgrade to a comfier seat with better legroom, more recline and better food and beverage options. While it's easy to envy the elite members who get "complimentary" upgrades, anyone who's ever taken an economics class will tell you that there's no such thing as a free lunch upgrade.

Elite members pay for their "complimentary" upgrades through extended periods of loyalty (and revenue generation) to a single airline and alliance. But even if you don't have elite status, many airlines will give you the option to upgrade eligible tickets using your miles. Today we're going to take a look at general guidelines for upgrading with miles, as well as specific rules for a few major airlines.

We'll run you through mileage upgrade options with all the major U.S. airline programs and discuss their pricing, flight eligibility and other nuances. Plus, we'll discuss whether or not upgrading with miles is a good idea.

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Upgrading airfare with miles

American A321T business class (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

Let's start with the basics. As the name suggests, upgrading with miles involves redeeming your frequent flyer miles to upgrade your ticket to the next service class. For example, moving from economy to business class or from business to first.

As airlines switch to a more revenue-based model for earning and redeeming miles, they're willing to accept miles instead of a cash payment for all kinds of services, including upgrades and even lounge access. Upgrading with miles sometimes presents a good way to fly in comfort without shelling out hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars for a seat at the front of the plane.

When and how to upgrade with miles

One common misconception that people have about upgrades of all types is that if there's an empty seat in the next cabin, you can upgrade to it if you're willing to pay. Airlines make a large chunk of their revenue selling premium cabin seats — especially full-fare ones to last-minute business travelers. In some cases, they'd rather gamble that someone will buy that seat close to departure rather than offering it for an upgrade, even if it ends up going out empty.

Each airline has a revenue-management department that controls how many seats are available for upgrades, just like they control how many are available for award redemptions. This means that when you're upgrading with miles, your upgrade won't clear before the flight unless there's upgrade inventory in the cabin you're trying to upgrade to. For example, on American Airlines the "C" fare class is for upgrades from economy to business class on two- or three-cabin planes, while the "A" class is for Flagship first-class upgrades on three-cabin aircraft.

If you're still unfamiliar with the general process of upgrading tickets, you should start by reading TPG's guide to getting upgraded on the following airlines:

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You should do your best to search for upgrade inventory before trying to initiate an upgrade request. If you're using a mileage upgrade and it doesn't clear before departure, you'll likely fall below all the elite flyers on the upgrade waitlist at the airport. If you're intent on upgrading a ticket, you may want to start searching for upgrade inventory before you book your flight.

The good news is that mileage upgrades can almost always clear in advance of departure if there's upgrade inventory, so there's no incentive to wait until closer to the flight. If you have the miles and you see the upgrade space, you should go ahead and lock it in while it's still available.

What types of tickets can I upgrade?

Exactly which tickets you can upgrade will vary from airline to airline, though there are a few overarching commonalities in terms of what tickets can't be upgraded using miles. The first exclusion is award tickets — all three US legacy carriers (Delta, American and United) do not allow mileage upgrades on award tickets.

You may still see an offer to purchase a cash upgrade on award tickets, but this varies heavily by route and the prices are often high. The second exclusion is basic economy tickets. All three legacy carriers prohibiting you from upgrading these ultra-cheap, bare-bones fares with miles.

While some airlines will have a list of upgrade-eligible fare classes, others will take the opposite approach and list the excluded fare classes that are excluded. Many of the deeply-discounted economy fares are not eligible for an upgrade.

Normally the average traveler doesn't have to pay too much attention to their specific fare class. If you're not chasing elite status with American Airlines, it doesn't matter if your economy ticket falls into the Y, G, N or Q fare class beyond the ticket price. However, if you're looking to upgrade your ticket with miles, the fare class can determine whether your ticket is eligible for an upgrade and how much it will cost.

Domestic versus international

There aren't many differences between domestic and international mileage upgrades, but international business-class seats are usually harder to come by and cost more.

Perhaps the biggest thing to be aware of is that many international planes now feature a premium economy cabin. While the terms and conditions of most upgrades reference a "one cabin upgrade"— in most cases — you can upgrade directly from economy to business class.

United's Premium Plus cabin aboard a 777-300ER
United's Premium Plus cabin aboard a 777-300ER. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

Related: Is it worth traveling in domestic first class?

How to upgrade with airline miles

Now that you understand the basics of how mileage upgrades work, let's dive in and look at the specifics for each airline.

We'll cover the four most popular American carriers that offer mileage upgrades. If you're looking for more detail or other upgrade options (including cash or elite benefits), you should check out our full upgrade guides at the links below:

Related: How to ensure an upgrade on your next flight

American Airlines

(Photo by JT Genter / The Points Guy)

American Airlines offers the most straightforward chart for mileage upgrades. Depending on the route you're flying and the original cash ticket you booked. Note that whether you're upgrading from economy to business or from business to first, deeply discounted fares include a cash copay. Meanwhile, full-fare tickets only require additional miles to upgrade.

TPG values American Airlines miles at 1.4 cents each, so when you factor in the $350 copay, you're looking at about ~$700 to upgrade to business class on some of AA's longest flights. This is not a bad deal, but upgrade inventory is tough to come by.

If you’re wondering what exactly American counts as a “discount economy ticket,” here are the relevant fare codes for each category of upgrade pricing:

  • Discount Economy with published fares booked in H, K, M, L, V, G, Q, N, O, S and Military or Government fares booked in Y
  • Full-Fare Economy with published fares booked in Y
  • Discount Premium Economy with published fares booked in P
  • Full-Fare Premium Economy with published fares booked in W
  • Discount Business with published fares booked in I
  • Full-Fare Business with published fares booked in J, D or R

Related: Every American Airlines premium seat ranked from best to worst

United Airlines

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

United doesn't publish an award chart and instead calculates the mileage upgrade cost flight by flight, based on your region of travel, fare class and Premier elite status. For example, TPG writer Ethan Steinberg is a United Premier Silver elite (thanks to his Marriott Titanium status and the RewardsPlus crossover partnership) and had a flight from Washington D.C. (IAD) to Detroit (DTW) in L fare economy. United wanted either $104 cash or 20,000 United miles for an upgrade. This works out to 0.52 cents per point, well below TPG's valuation of United MileagePlus miles at 1.3 cents each.

You can estimate the number of miles you'll need for an upgrade using this calculator on the United website. You're required to pay a co-pay for United upgrades unless you're booked in O, Y, or B classes. Co-pays are waived for United elites on specific flights — here's a look:

(Screenshot courtesy of United)

You can upgrade partner flights by requesting a Star Alliance Upgrade Award. This is actually better than upgrading United flights as the airline doesn't charge upgrade co-pays on partner flights. Only some fare classes are upgradeable, including:

  • Air Canada – O class
  • Air China – J and G class
  • Air New Zealand – E, U and O class
  • ANA – J, Z, E, G, M and U class
  • Austrian – G, E, M and U class
  • Copa Airlines – M, H, Q, K, V, U, S, O, W, E, L, T and A class
  • Ethiopian Airlines – G and S class
  • EVA Airways – K class
  • Lufthansa – J, E, G, M and U class
  • SAS – S class
  • Shenzhen Airlines – M and H class
  • Singapore Airlines – S, Z, J and U class
  • South African Airways – M class (domestic only)
  • SWISS – J, M and U class
  • Turkish Airlines – M, A, H and S class

It's also worth noting that some specific flights aren't upgradable. These includes:

  • SAS – intra-Scandinavian flights and flights to/from Finland
  • ANA – intra-Japan flights and all flights operated by Air Japan
  • Singapore Airlines – all A350, A380 and 777-300ER aircraft flights and D class

These can be a pretty great deal if you find a low-cost fare in a participating fare class. For example, this flight from New York-JFK to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) costs $2,462.25 in U fare economy class on ANA. According to United, you can upgrade this flight to business class for 50,000 miles round-trip.

(Screenshot courtesy of ITA Matrix)

The same flight in business class costs $9,150.32 round-trip, so you'd save thousands of dollars by using your miles to upgrade.

(Screenshot courtesy of ITA Matrix)

That said, you'd need to make sure your ANA flight has available I class award space before you upgrade. This is the fare class that ANA assigns to business class upgrade and award space. This is where ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG's parent company, Red Venture) comes in handy since you can easily search for upgrade inventory.

(Screenshot courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

Related: It’s now easier than ever to upgrade your flight to Japan using United miles or certificates


(Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

Delta has two upgrade options — "Upgrade with Miles" and "Mileage Upgrade Awards."

The first allows you to buy cash upgrades at a value of 1 cent per SkyMile. This is a pretty awful redemption, while the latter is the standard mileage upgrade award we've been discussing throughout this post. Unfortunately, these upgrades are no longer available on Delta-operated flights within the Americas and can only be used for international markets. You can also upgrade select partner-operated flights, not just flights on Delta metal.

(Screenshot courtesy of Delta)

Here's what you need to know about Delta's Mileage Upgrade Awards:

  • As of February 2019, Mileage Upgrade Awards are not available on Delta-operated flights in the Americas.
  • SkyMiles Award Tickets are not eligible for Mileage Upgrade Awards.
  • For international markets, Mileage Upgrade Awards on Delta-marketed and operated flights may be used to upgrade on the following paid fare classes: Y, B, M, H, Q, or K.
  • For flights marketed and/or operated by Air France-KLM, Mileage Upgrade Awards may be used for a one-class upgrade when the paid fare class is Y, B, or M.
  • For Air France-operated flights, Mileage Upgrade Awards are available from economy to premium economy to business only on transatlantic joint venture flights between U.S. cities and Paris (CDG and ORY).
  • For Delta-marketed flights operated by Virgin Atlantic, Mileage Upgrade Awards are available from economy to premium economy or Upper Class. You can also upgrade from premium economy to Upper Class. Mileage Upgrade Awards are available from Y, B, M, H, Q, and K paid fare classes from economy cabin and P, A, and G paid fare classes from premium economy.
  • For Delta-marketed flights operated by Aeromexico, Mileage Upgrade Awards are available on Delta’s published fare classes in Y, B, M, H, Q, K, L, U or T for travel between the U.S. and Mexico.

Unfortunately, the only way to use these upgrades is to call a Delta reservations agent for a quote. If you're trying to upgrade on a Delta flight, many will tell you that the only option for upgrading with miles is to accept whatever offer shows up on your My Trips page. If this happens to you, politely end the call and call back for a new agent.

Related: The ultimate guide to Delta One Suites

Alaska Airlines

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

While many TPG readers prefer to use Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles for low-cost premium-cabin awards on international partner airlines like Cathay Pacific and JAL, you can also use them to upgrade eligible Alaska Airlines flights to first class. No matter how long your flight is, it will cost exactly 15,000 miles to upgrade to first class, worth $270 based on TPG's valuations.

You can only upgrade cash tickets booked into one of the five most expensive economy fare classes Y, S, B, M or H, and you need "U" inventory for your upgrade to clear.

(Screenshot courtesy of ExpertFlyer)

That said, upgrading with Alaska miles is generally a poor use of miles. Alaska only operates domestic U.S. flights and limited flights to Canada and Mexico. You can use moderately more miles to book a first-class ticket outright. Likewise, you can often find paid Alaska first-class tickets for a reasonable price, even on transcontinental routes.

(Screenshot courtesy of Google Flights)

Related: Flight review: Alaska Airlines first class from New York JFK to Seattle on an A321neo

Bottom line

Traveling the way you want to requires a good amount of flexibility, and it helps if you can keep several different tools in your belt. These include leveraging transfer partners to book premium cabin awards at lower rates, hunting for low cash fares and learning the different types of upgrades available to you.

While the value isn't always great, mileage upgrades are a good option to consider if you don't have elite status with an airline but still want to score a better seat on your upcoming flight.

Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg

Featured image by Kevin Song
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.