Are Miles and Cash Upgrades a Good Strategy for New Zealand Travel?

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.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. Well awards on MP to Australia or NZ isn’t easy either.

    I checked for Sept to Dec. Admittedly, not 330 days out but 3-6 months out.

    Only things available were either OS flights routing through ICN and in that case, the ICN-SYD flight might be economy or flights through BKK.

    In either case, the outbound from LAX or SFO to SYD or AKL was something like 30-40 hours or more.

  2. Last year managed to use 110K Dividend Miles for J class R/T US-NRT-PVG-AKL-NRT-US on ANA, Air New Zealand. At the time I grabbed the opportunity of very rare ANZ J class availability, especially on two long haul flights which maximized the experience. Loved both ANZ and ANA. Note the route to AKL was via Shanghai. Both were 777-200s though, albeit with the old, but still lie flat seats. The good ole Dividend Miles is gone, but I agree, using award miles is the way to go, especially when you compare the asking price. The J fare for the route flown if paid would have been about 10K dollars; the cost of the miles/taxes bought was $1,900!

  3. As a Kiwi who is a UA 1k with lots of united miles this is definitely a toughie.

    One thing worth mentioning is the availability of the one up system of bidding for upgrades.

    Flying home this week from LA and snagged econ plus return for 2200 and then bid the min for one up which was ~350 each way. Didn’t expect to get upgraded but it worked!! Not as cheap as united economy to Melbourne plus a GPU or miles upgrade but much better schedule and included my NZ domestic flights.

    Air NZ award availability is non existent but their product is awesome!

  4. Glad you had a good trip Steve R. Air New Zealand does seem to be a highly variable airline: our last few flights with them have been really disappointing.

    You can read about one here:

    The flight boarded late in a very chaotic manner, the cabin was filthy, the main meal was pretty much inedible and we were disappointed in the service.

    In any event, you just aren’t going to get a route like that as an award. Perhaps the best way for your readers to get to Australia Gary is to redeem Delta miles after all!

  5. @Miles Down Under: I wouldn’t say that my ANZ flight experience was over the top; agree with cleanliness as the 777-200 seats were pretty well used. Service PVG-AKL wasn’t good, but much better on the AKL-NRT route.
    My entire reason for going to AKL was to try ANZ and also, foremost, get their via J class as a minimum. I would never attempt to voluntarily fly such a long haul in torture class seat economy. So, for the miles spent/cost the value was great. ANA J class 787 was much better btw. ANZ IMHO is doing a great media/advertising job by using the mystique branding concept. However, reality always is something entirely different as most of us know.

  6. wco81
    I thought OS was Austrian

    I find UA is great (if you are willing to spend extra miles) at the last minute
    We decided to go to NZ at the last minute last December and with MP were able to get there for 175k oneway and 80k return via SYD
    Economy was 3500 – add 350$ each way min to upgrade + 30k miles each way = 4000$ + 60k miles
    I looked at it that for return I would pay 160k at best
    Paying 115k more miles instead of paying economy and playing upgrade russian roulette was much better (although we did not get the EQMs)

    UA had great availability until the end when we decided to finally go at short notice
    It was still MUCH better than Delta and allowed stops

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *