Should I Book an Award Ticket, or Buy a Ticket and Upgrade With Miles?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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, 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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  1. Last time I used an upgrade on an overseas flight on United, I paid for an upgradeable fare because I had found flights where upgrades were confirmable at the time of booking. The flight was canceled and I wound getting re-accomodated on another flight in a middle seat in economy. I’m just doing awards on long flights from now on!

  2. Good topic and post. Having said what you have as an expert. What about using the cash+points type upgrade at booking like some carriers have. Are any of those worth it or better than others? Seems like a good way to maximize miles.

  3. Thanks for the good advice. The problem is that many of us business travelers can be reimbursed for a coach ticket (and maybe, but not necessarily, the co-pay), but otherwise cannot be reimbursed by our employers for using our own miles. If I’m traveling for pleasure, then sure, I’d use miles to buy an award ticket. But if I can get reimbursed for the appropriate coach fare, then I hate to use miles for the full trip. I’d be curious of Gary or any readers have suggestions for these situations.

  4. For your #3, isn’t it true that confirmable upgrades are actually exactly as easy (or hard) to get as award tickets? i.e. don’t they come from the same fare bucket usually?

  5. @aviators99 – upgrades may even come from an easier/more generous fare bucket but they’re harder because you’re for the most part limited to the airline whose miles you have for an upgrade rather than all of their partners as choices for an award

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