Upgrading on Northwest

Reader Les took me up on my offer yesterday to explain specifics about upgrades. He wrote:

    Thanks for your wonderful site. I really look forward to seeing it every morning.

    Any specific Northwest suggestions?

Hi Les,

Thanks for the compliment.

Tell me where you fly to and how many miles a year you fly and I’ll make some specific suggestions.

In the meantime, I’ll say that Northwest really has an outstanding frequent flyer program. Their first class doesn’t really compare to some of the other airlines, but the loyalty program is really great.

The best way to get upgrades on domestic flights with Northwest is to be an elite — fly more than 25,000 miles. Even Northwest Silver (25k/yr) flyers have a really good upgrade percentage — especially out of DC (ed- I surmised the writer was from DC from his email address)(it would be harder living in Detroit or Minneapolis).

I know of one local Northwest silver who has about an 80% upgrade percentage. She flies mostly midday flights, though. It’s always best to avoid flights between 7 and 9 am and 5 to 7 pm which are peak business travel times and are going to attract the greatest number of very frequent flyers with higher status.

International upgrades on Northwest are much harder to come by. You need to use miles to upgrade — and you can only upgrade on “M” fares or higher (just below full fare). For instance, I just helped someone confirm upgrades all the way to Manila. The lowest priced flight was $1500 (higher than usual because the trip was over 30 days). The M fare was $2300. The full fare ticket was $2980. So you pay a premium and you pay miles to upgrade internationally on Northwest.

You can also upgrade domestically with miles — but no longer on the very lowest fares unless you’re an elite flyer. The good thing about mileage upgrades is that they’re confirmable at the time of booking if space is available, so you don’t have to wait until a few days before the flight (the “elite window”) to find out if you’re going to fly in first class.

What if you don’t fly Northwest 25,000 miles a year, since that really is the best way to upgrade?

Make sure that you give your Northwest frequent flyer number any time you travel on Northwest, Continental, Delta, Alaska, KLM (and their other partners). The aforementioned airlines all offer Northwest elite mileage credit. And if you’re still a little short, consider a mileage run. Take an extra trip purely for the purpose of qualifying for elite status. I recently saw a fare of under $200 on Continental from Washington National airport to Los Angeles and back that didn’t even require an overnight stay. You could do it in one day and sleep in your own bed and rack up about 5000 qualifying miles. $200 strikes me as worth it to get first class checkin on all your flights and upgrades on a large percentage of them.

Finally, Northwest does offer paid day of departure upgrades on some flights when space is available. A colleague who isn’t a Northwest elite was checking in online for a flight a couple weeks back and the website asked him if he’d like to pay $35 to sit in first class. Worked for him!

Of course you can’t ever bank on such an offer because anyone else (with status, miles, etc.) takes priority for being offered that first class seat. But it can still work out.

Let me know if I can explain more.



Update: A reader emails a slight correction to my post on Northwest upgrade policies.

    You had a great breakdown of NW’s upgrade policies, but one minor

    M fares are only upgradeable to Asia, excluding China and Hong Kong.
    Otherwise it’s Y/B fares only that are upgradeable.

Thanks, Steve!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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