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Today I want to share a story from TPG reader Alex, who used an upgrade award to help a family member:

My mother-in-law is an avid traveler but has never flown in business class. She immigrated to the US from Taiwan in the 1980s, and I think flying at the front of the plane seems out of reach to her. Knowing that she travels to Taiwan at least once a year, I thought it would be a great gift if I could use my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to let her experience this level of luxury at least once.

She had already booked a round-trip economy flight aboard EVA Air from New York-JFK to Taipei (TPE). I had read online that Star Alliance flights could be upgraded using United MileagePlus miles. However, the fare she booked wasn’t directly upgradeable, and United’s upgrade search engine can only search availability with an upgradeable ticket. I called EVA to inquire about availability in Z class (EVA’s upgradeable business class fare) on my mother-in-law’s dates. The agent I spoke with told me there was one seat in Z class left on her return flight in late May, but he thought it was only available for EVA’s own frequent flyers.

Knowing that a purchased fare is 100% refundable if canceled within 24 hours, I decided to check on the availability myself. I bought a ticket in B class (the cheapest fare eligible for an upgrade) and went onto United’s upgrade search engine. Lo and behold, there was upgrade availability for 30,000 United miles. I immediately called EVA, canceled my purchased ticket and upgraded my mother-in-law’s ticket from S class to B class for $300. After transferring 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points to United, I then used upgraded her B class ticket to EVA’s Royal Laurel Business Class!

In the end, the total out-of-pocket cost was $700 ($400 for the original economy ticket and $300 for the upgrade to B Class). But because the business class ticket was going for $4,700, the redemption value of the 30,000 points was 13.3 cents apiece! More importantly, my mother-in-law will, for the first time, get to experience something that she always thought was unattainable!

You can get excellent value from your points and miles by using them to book first and business class flights, but that’s not the only way to fly up front at a discount. Upgrade awards can be a more efficient way to redeem, because the initial outlay to buy an economy ticket is offset by lower mileage requirements. United charges 80,000 miles one-way for a Star Alliance business class award from New York to Taiwan, so the $700 out-of-pocket cost saved Alex 50,000 miles. That would have been a fair trade-off if Alex already had United miles on hand, but since he was transferring more valuable Ultimate Rewards points, the mileage upgrade was the better deal.

As Alex’s story indicates, not all fare classes are upgradeable, and you may not be able to upgrade with miles if you purchase a heavily discounted economy ticket. If you’re planning to book an upgrade award, make sure to research which fares are eligible ahead of time, and whether a cash co-pay applies. You should also verify that upgrade award space is available before you buy — award availability in the cabin you’re trying to upgrade to is a good sign, but not a guarantee. For more details, check out this two-part guide to upgrading flights on international carriers by Senior Editor Nick Ewen.

I love this story and I want to hear more like it! In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Alex a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award travel success stories to info@thepointsguy.com; be sure to include details about how you earned and redeemed your rewards, and put “Reader Success Story” in the subject line. Feel free to also submit your most woeful travel mistakes, or to contribute to our new award redemption series. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure.

Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Featured photo courtesy of Edwin Leong/Wikimedia Commons

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  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
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  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
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Regular APR
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Annual Fee
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Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
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