Topic of the Week: Are Upgrades Worth It?

Frequent Flier Programs

We’ve had a couple of interactions with upgrades lately and more often than not, mileage upgrades are becoming less useful.

First, we had someone flying Delta to Europe. The “M” fare that Delta requires you buy to use an upgrade with SkyPesos was so high that it was only a couple hundred dollars more to buy business class on Air France. Miles were useless.

Another effort looking at United to Hawai’i showed that the co-pays were so high that the First Class fares on other airlines were actually about the same price without having to use miles.

What have your experiences been lately? Are upgrades using miles still valuable to you?

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37 comments on “Topic of the Week: Are Upgrades Worth It?

  1. In short, no. Not for lower tier elites in any case. There was a ‘glory year’ of 2009 when I managed to fly three times in C by upgrading, but then the co-pays came in and it was pointless. Also, the free, unlimited domestic upgrades on UA are also totally pointless for anyone less than 1K/Global Services – at least with the 500-mile tokens you could have a fighting chance of occasionally sitting a little further forward, which was a nice treat every now and again (which is what I presumed they were initially intended for), but since they’ve come in on UA I’ve never received a free upgrade. I’ve even gone up to PE/Premier Gold, but doubt I’ll stand any more luck this year.

    So now that it’s nigh on impossible to book award travel when I need it, and I can’t justify the upgrade costs, it leaves me wondering what the feck my hundreds of thousands of miles are good for………..

  2. No. It’s totally insane what airlines want, and what some people are willing to pay for an upgrade (I’m thinking about international flights, but I suppose it applies to domestic as well). You’ve already shelled out money for your initial ticket, so why on earth would you pay $500 AND 30,000 miles on top of that?

    The bottom line is that even the longest flight just isn’t that much time out of your life…and most “longhaul” flights just aren’t that long. On most routes from the East Coast to Europe, you’re in the air no more than 8 hours, and there are a lot of flights that are less than 7 hours in the air.

    To me, if you’re paying for this yourself (as opposed to your company paying), it just doesn’t make financial sense to spend the kind of money required to buy a ticket that is upgrade-eligible, or to spend the kind of money they want in the form of a co-pay to use miles. Every time you have that impulse to drop an extra $500 for 7 hours of your life, put it in your investment account and you’ll be able retire a few years early.

  3. Miles are simply a currency which the issuer (an airline) can choose to devalue whenever it likes – in effect it’s like investing in a country whose Government is known to pursue policies which may lead to high inflation, and the Government has export controls on how much cash you can take out of the country.

    Miles (at least in Europe) are pretty lousy for short haul flights when you compare all the extra fees + taxes against the price of a ticket on an LCC. Upgrades for sub 3 hours are rarely worth the bother. So the only thing left really is
    1 – long-haul upgrades and
    2 – Buying tickets to destinations which have mainly business travelers and poorly served (i.e. high prices) but which you need to go to.

    Anyone fancy using miles to buy a ticket to Equatorial Guinea ?

  4. One of the best uses of BA miles is to upgrade from Premium Economy to Club World (Business Class).

    One way between LHR and the East Coast of USA is only 10,000 miles per person and you can upgrade from all Premium Economy fare classes (W, E & T).

  5. I’m in agreement with the other comments. The upgrade with miles days are gone. Even the pay at the gate to upgrade is getting crazy. DL now requires you to buy above a certain ticket class in order to have the pleasure of paying them to upgrade to first at the gate.

    I’m also a big detractor to the unlimited domestic upgrades. They leave people that buy at the last minute sitting in coach after paying a first class fare. It just isn’t a good impression when you pay that much.

    The award tickets have become a racket too for goodness sake! Unless I pay someone to find and book an award ticket it takes days, weeks, or months to find anything that works at a fair price.

    Offtopic question for you Cranky – Are you gracing this year’s State of DIA luncheon with your presence?

    1. Nope, I won’t be there. I was just there that one year when they invited me to be on the panel, but that was it.

  6. I haven’t used miles to upgrade a revenue ticket since, oh, 1999 or 2000. (Not a joke, I did it once in college…) But yeah, with the fare basis requirements + co-pay, it becomes steep.

    These days, it’s better to outright redeem miles for a premium cabin seat, skipping them altogether.

    That said, the wife and I are looking at flying VS upper class to LHR next year. Checking fares this year, I find something interesting: Round trip with miles is 80,000 miles + $1050 fuel surcharges/taxes/fees. However, an upgradable coach ticket is $1400 + 40k for the upgrade. (An el cheapo ticket is $1000.)

    1. are you saying a “free” ticket using miles to the UK is still over a grand! are all airlines this bad or is this a VS thing? if so, we will all have to significantly diminish the value of our miles… once again! yikes!

      1. The majority of EU airlines include YQ in redemption awards which makes Economy award tickets poor value as the actual price to purchase using cash is not much more (even more so if it includes LHR!).

        Value comes from flying Premium products (Business and First) class to and from Europe. Whilst you still have to pay YQ, you are getting better value for your miles.

  7. generally, upgrades are not “worth it” but sometimes you do what you have to do!

    off topic – i know i am obsessed with new routes but can’t wait for CF’s comments on these:
    – NK back to DEN w/ ORD, LAS, FLL and DFW
    – JAL announces NRT to SAN on 787… not sure i saw that coming. BOS and SEA made perfect sense, SJC seemed a little out of the box but smart considering the whole catchment area and ability to differentiate from the myriad NRT flights from SFO but this is definitely a big “get” for SAN IMO.
    – PeoplExpress from PHF – that’s gonna be fun!

    1. I can say that the DEN political community is happy about NK. The flight time to FLL is a bit strange. Depart 12a arrive 6a?! I’m sure some people will take it, but you are left without your hotel room until that afternoon and (if you are like me) too tired to want to drive to another destination. Perhaps a feeder flight?

      ORD and DFW are also a bit strange. I would see that as more business rather than ULCC fodder. LAS makes perfect sense and if they can depress prices on that route it would be nice.

      1. FLL is purely for the morning connections to everywhere Caribbean and Central America.

        @Bobber at least you can use miles to buy flowers. Flowers don’t have blackout dates :)

      2. besides connecting to spirit’s caribbean and latin american destinations, i would also speculate the flight to FLL is a redeye so it can function as a “cruise ship” flight.

      3. The big thing at DFW is, there really was a dearth of ULCC service until NK decided to set up shop there (Allegiant might have a flight or two, but I’m not sure). For that matter, there’s no ULCC service to speak of anywhere in the Metroplex, since WN ceased being “The Low Fare Airline” years ago. Although I’m not a particular fan of ULCCs, I have to imagine there’s some pent up demand for that kind of thing in a place as big as this.

        As an aside, it is kind of interesting seeing what NK is up to down here. NK’s operation is bordering on mini-hub territory. Just goes to show you how much relevance AA has lost since the days of Bob Crandall.

  8. Need to remember that airlines really don’t want you to upgrade. If you upgrade they loose the chance of selling that seat to someone willing to pay the price even up to the last minute before the flight departs.

    1. Only they frequently don’t sell that seat, and then we have the situation we’re in now where there are more ‘Air Miles’ in circulation than hard currency!

      The ability to upgrade is a reward for loyalty – if you don’t want people taking the piss out of the facility, then limit the number of times you can use miles to upgrade over a 24 month period, for example……

  9. I fly AA, and since you can still upgrade from any economy fare (for a $350 co-pay) I think they are definitely worth it. For example, I bought a $899 r/t from EZE-DEN, upgraded both legs for a total of $700 and 50,000 miles, and it still cost me thousands of dollars less than a J class fare. I’m afraid that this will change, but I hope it doesn’t!

  10. Upgrades themselves are among the most sought-after frequent flier benefits. As an industry analyst, I do not like the “free” domestic upgrades some airlines offer. This approach costs the airline money they’d otherwise collect from the sale of certificates/coupons (or reduction in liability from mileage redemption for the upgrade award), may create unrealistic expectations for loyalty program members, further demeans the value of the product, and further discourages the airline from investing in its premium product. I don’t mind airlines requiring the use of certain fare classes for upgrades, but when they add the co-pay, they undermine the appeal of their loyalty programs and, has been noted, do not really end up providing true financial value to the traveler.

  11. I recently dropped $100 to upgrade a 2 segment one-way from NYC to YUL on US and didn’t regret it. I got no meals and limited snacks but I DID have an entire cabin to myself on one (albiet short) jump between PHL and YUL. It was a last minute decision because weather was bad and I had a hunch that we’d be sitting on the ground for awhile at LGA…and we did (for more than an hour). I’ll admit that I’ve overpaid for an upgrade here and there but I think on occasion it’s worth the perks. I agree with the earlier comment that says it’s becoming a better value to just use miles outright to grab a first or business class seat.

  12. I am EXP on AA and have had great luck with upgrades, including the present time period. 95% on comp upgrades and 100% on SWU/Miles + Copay. As a Platinum a few years back I also had good luck, though on peak times and routes. AA will also allow you to upgrade off the cheapest fares, a benefit I dearly hope they don’t take away.

    As far as value, it’s of course dependent upon how you prioritize spending, but 25k miles and $350 on top of a cheap fare is worth it on flights over 8 hours… Plus don’t forget delays, etc… Was on a plane for 18 hours last year PEK-ORD, would not have been fun in coach…

  13. Unlimited upgrades have reduced my likelihood of upgrading from 80% to 20% and I’m premier exec on UA. I am NOT pleased. As for co-pays, the benefit of the miles upgrade for me was not having to pay actual $ for it.

  14. Depending on the airline, pricing and route. Also, once the new UA system is up, upgrades with miles and certs are ahead of unlimited elite upgrades on the waitlist.

  15. Being 1K on UA, I’ve reaped the rewards of the unlimited domestic upgrades. It’s really pretty sweet – I sometimes get upgraded days before a flight even when there’s not much space left in business (and I don’t mind flying econ). The Systemwide and regional upgrades are fantastic as well – by far the best perk. I go to BKK/SIN once a year through NRT, and I can use a single systemwide on the whole flight (~17 hrs). I’ve only ever used miles & copay to get into intl first from LHR to SFO, from business, but it worked. The copays are indeed steep, but if I’m travelling with family then it’s fun to splurge and have a bit of fun with the comfier seat/bed and better ‘service’. I can see how it would be different if I lived on the east coast – flight to Europe from there are only 6-7 hours, but from here they can be a killer outbound overnight so the upgrade is very much worthwhile!

  16. 1. To go somewhere in Europe, BA charges the Avios (miles) to LHR and then adds more Avios to the final destination. Example: Flying Economy DFW to LHR is 50,000 Avios to LHR and another 9,000 Avios to CPH (Copenhaven). Other airline, such as AA or DL, only charge a flat number number of miles to anywhere in Europe.

    2. The fees/surcharges to Europe on BA are so high that, without using any Avios, one could actually purchase a ticket for the same or less money.

    3. The fees/surcharges and Avios required for upgrades or booking higher grades are even more rediculous.

    4. I guess the best thing to do is to use BA Avios only for US domestic flights on AA. Unlike AA, BA charges more to go to Canada or Mexico than for US trips.

  17. No upgrades are ot worth it. I can fly economy over the Pacific, Atlantic, or cross country and survive. If there is little fare difference (i.e. – WN’s boarding early, B6’s EML, etc) then MAYBE I might take advantage of it. Otherwise, not really. The frequent flier programs have all revamped to my disadvantage.

  18. I agree; being a 1 K on United use to have major benefits; Now they are slowly disappearing. 50-50 shot on free upgrade with UA depends what Hub you are flying out of. If flying out of SFO or LAX or MCO almost impossible.. each flight has 25-30 1 K members on it. May 25 thru Sept 15 free upgrades are all but gone. But, I did just land a deal with UA using miles I got two rd trip Business Class ORD to Sydney Australia for 270,000 miles regular miles are 600,000 rd trip for 2. I save the system-wide upgrades for flying to Europe at night. Lets face it… The Good Ole days are gone everything is costing MORE FOR LESS SERVICE NOW..

  19. I wouldn’t mind paying the co-pay and miles to upgrade to business on long haul, but the problem is that this inventory is rarely available. You can get on a waitlist, but I hate the anxiety of not knowing for sure if your upgrade will clear. I’ve mostly done it on AA, and they often wait until the very last minute (at the gate prior to departure) to let you know. It’s just too much of a beta on a 9-10 hour flight to Europe to have no idea whether I’ll be able to sleep and get some decent food (in J) or suffer in Y.

    As many have pointed out, it’s often about the same price to buy a J ticket straight away than it is to buy Y and upgrade. Even if the J ticket is a bit more, I think it’s worth it to confirm J at time of purchase and you also get bonus miles for paying for a J ticket.

  20. The answer to this question is a healthy “it depends.” Its never worth it for flights under 3 hours. I would always compare the price of just buying biz across the pond to buying an upgradeable coach ticket and then paying the mile plus copay. Sometimes it’s a good deal to use miles to upgrade and sometimes it isn’t in that case. I’ve certain used miles to upgrade transcontinental flights. 15,000 miles and 75 bucks is a decent deal to me.

  21. Yes the airlines have all the fun with upgrades. We fly to TLV from EWR and the upgrades have gotten totally out of hand at $600. each way plus 35,000 miles. It’s a nice ride in Business First but hard to justify since the base el cheapo Economy ticket is already around $1200. I have begged Continental (now United) to offer a Seniors pass (we are Platinum Elite ….golden oldies) and feel like locked accordions by the time we land but it’s hard to convince my fellow pensionnaire that it’s worth $1200. one way for the little stretch room and the ice cream sundae. As to domestic upgrades, never worth paying for and only moderately interesting for free. Not much attraction there. We’ve embarked on a new use for all those miles we’ve accrued. Just came back from Panama where the miles paid for the hotel. May not be a good use of miles but we felt we were not paying for lodging and it’s a much better use than them lying around in Continental’s bank account.

  22. Upgrades are not worth it anymore, HK to SFO was 30k miles and 550 to upgrade to business. I am not renewing my United credit card anymore. There is no point in collecting miles if you can’t even use them anymore.

  23. Upgrading with miles with a copay is usually a waste, but not always. The miles + copay can be an OK deal on AA, which still allows upgrade awards from any coach fare. I once did a routing DEL-ORD-DFW-MAD-LHR-HYD where I bought the cheap seats and upgraded DEL-ORD and DFW-MAD. The coach ticket was about $1,300, and the upgrade was 65,000 miles + $700. If I had booked those sectors in J, the ticket would have been about $4,500, so your “value” is using 65,000 miles to save $2,500, or a redemption rate of 3.8 cents a mile. A saver biz class award on AA to India is 135,000 miles roundtrip. At the time, the discounted biz class fare was about $5,500, so the redemption rate would have been about 4.0 cents a mile. So, in this instance, the miles + copay really wasn’t a terrible deal. Your mileage, no pun intended, may vary.

  24. It all depends on your comfort and size. At 6″2′, 275 lbs – anything over 2 hours in the back is just plain torture for me – and worth the price of an upgrade. It is funny, though, when I get emails from TripIt telling me that I could exchange my ticket and pay less when I have to pay the higher fare codes to qualify for the upgrade.

    What is the WORST deal is the American Express Platinum Card International Companion program – buy one Business class – get one free with a companion flying with you. The fare class you have to buy is SO expensive you are better off purchasing two business class tickets at the lowest business class fare!!

  25. There are much better ways to spend Skymiles and upgrades are not one of them unless your business is paying for the ticket. With work 100k redemption even peak times is good and renting cars in with points can be a real value.

  26. It looks pretty clear from the responses that AA has the best deal when it comes to upgrades, domestically and internationally, thanks to its policy of allowing upgrades from any fare and any fare basis. As an EXP, I’ve been upgraded virtually 100% of the time since the first Clinton Administration. The quid pro quo is that I give AA 100% of my air travel dollars (and they are mine — I’m self-employed). My biggest concern is that AA will segment the Y cabin, as other airlines have done, and create a “premium” coach class, an oxymoron if I ever heard one.

  27. After flying 16 hours from Atlanta to Seoul in a middle seat in coach, crappy seats just don’t bother me anymore. I can zone out.

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