Reader Rose asked,
Looking at booking United or Star Alliance from Auckland to Tuscon Feb 15. Business class fare one-way is $3344. Economy fare $806 is available to upgrade for $600 plus 30,000 miles. Total spent for upgraded economy would be $1406 versus $3344. Would you say the value to use miles for upgrade are worth it in this case?
If it were a simple tradeoff of saving $1938 ($3344 business class ticket – $1406 coach plus co-pay) you’d be getting 6.5 cents per point in value for your 30,000 miles.
That ignores the extra miles you’d earn (‘class of service bonus’) for a paid business class ticket, but that wouldn’t change the equation. An upgrade would still be a fantastic use of miles, definitely worth it.
The problem is this: using United miles and a cash co-pay to upgrade is available only for travel on United. You need to find upgrade availability on United’s own flights, and that’s exceedingly difficult on the route.
Here’s the pricing for miles and cash upgrades on United. Judging from the price quoted in the question we’re talking about one of the lowest fare classes.
You can use United miles for Star Alliance upgrades, however the ‘miles and cash co-pay’ option isn’t available. Instead for Star Alliance upgrades you only spend miles — but you also need to pay for a full (Y or B) fare coach ticket or a E, U or O class ticket on Air New Zealand.
This is going to be more expensive than buying the cheapest coach fare. And only then are you allowed to spend 35,000 miles for the upgrade (but no cash co-pay).
Moreover you have to find upgrade award availability… and Air New Zealand almost never releases any between New Zealand and the US.
Air New Zealand used to allow upgrades only within 28 days of travel, but that restriction no longer appears to be in place.
At the end of the day you’re simply not likely to be able to buy the cheapest fare and spend miles and cash to upgrade between New Zealand and the US because finding confirmed upgrade space on United is tough and at that price point Air New Zealand isn’t an option.
In general upgrades aren’t as good a value as award tickets, both because of availability and restrictions but also because of the flexibility that awards offer to combine partner airlines to get to your destination. New Zealand remains one of the toughest awards out there. For most world destinations though you’ll be able to more easily find available awards than you will flights on which you can confirm upgrades.