Reader Megan asked,
What’s the best way to travel first class to Asia? Buy a ticket and upgrade, or go with miles?
Great question, because it gets at understanding several key issues about international airline travel, and about miles and points.
First of all — although once upon a time American Airlines used to allow double upgrades — no airline is going to permit upgrading from coach to first class. Business class is a different story, although many people use the terms interchangeably. If you want first class you need to buy a business class ticket (say, $3000 to $8000) and upgrade.
So for the rest of this post I’m going to read the question as, “should I book an award ticket, or buy a coach ticket and upgrade to business class?”
If you’re an American Airlines 100,000 mile flyer you get (8) confirmed upgrade certificates a year valid on any fare for any American flight, including international — provided upgrade space is available. Delta’s 125,000 mile Diamond flyers now get an option for a benefit of four such upgrades a year. United gives their 100,000 mile flyers six international upgrades, although there’s a minimum fare requirement attached.
Using these upgrade instruments it can make sense to buy a coach ticket and upgrade. You’ll earn miles and elite qualifying miles. But for a transpacific flight I’d only be interested in doing this is confirmable upgrade space is available at booking, not if I had to waitlist, because I wouldn’t want to risk having to take the flight in coach if my upgrade didn’t clear.
For anyone else, not using these certificates I recommend using miles for an award ticket rather than buying a ticket and upgrading. This is the opposite of the prevailing wisdom from a decade ago. That’s because several things have changed:
- Awards have gotten easier. Airline alliances have made it possible to spend miles easily across carriers, even combining multiple airlines on a single ticket. Upgrades across alliance partners haven’t kept pace, and at a minimum where it’s possible to use one airline’s miles to upgrade on another airline, purchase of full fare coach will be necessary.
- Upgrades have gotten more expensive. If you aren’t on a full fare ticket, American and United will charge you a cash co-pay (that may be more than $1000 roundtrip) in addition to the cost of your ticket and in addition to spending miles. That makes upgrades expensive. Delta will require you to buy a nearly full fare ticket to be eligible to even waitlist for an upgrade with miles. I never recommend playing that lottery.
- It’s harder to upgrade than get an award ticket. With flights full, upgrades that don’t get confirmed at time of booking can’t be counted on to clear — if you aren’t a top tier elite, your chances of getting the upgrade on a flight that wouldn’t have otherwise gone out with empty seats in business class may be low.
As a result, award tickets are – for most people – a better approach to premium class travel than paid tickets with a mileage upgrade.
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