Editorial Policy

The Best Ways to Get Airline Seat Upgrades

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

December 3, 2012

QHi Eva,

If you have an airline rewards card, can you use your points to upgrade to first and business class? Is this a waste of points, and are there fees involved? I'm tall, so economy seats are a real pain, but I don't have much money, so I'm looking for a way to buy an economy seat and get upgraded. Are rewards cards the way to go? – Marco

ADear Marco,

The answer to your first question is yes, it is certainly possible to use mileage earnings to upgrade a ticket to a higher seat class. As for your second question (is it a waste of airline rewards points?) — well, as you probably guessed, it depends.

More tips and tricks for travel upgrades

If money wasn't an issue, I'd say yes, by all means use your miles for ticket upgrades. But since you mention that you don't have that much money, the question becomes whether using those precious miles for seat upgrades is really worthwhile.

To make it easier for you to decide, let's look at the actual value you'd get by upgrading. First of all, it's not as easy as it may seem to land that cushiony first-class seat using your airline miles. Airlines generally allow you only one upgrade to the next higher class of service. In short, if you have an economy ticket, you can upgrade to business class; if you have a business-class ticket, you can upgrade to first class. However, you can't use miles to upgrade from economy to first class.
Worse, airlines have different miles requirements for the upgrade depending on which economy class you are in. So, upgrading from the cheapest economy ticket you can find will cost you quite a bit more than upgrading from a full-fare economy ticket. For example, upgrading to business class with a full-fare American Airlines economy ticket on a domestic flight will cost you 5,000 miles, or the equivalent of about $50 (valuing airline miles at roughly 1 cent per mile). That's not really that bad for getting to stretch out and fly in comfort.

However, if you go with the most discounted economy ticket you can find, (which is what most of us prefer), that cushiony upgrade will cost you 15,000 miles, plus a $75 fee, or the equivalent of $225 (valuing the miles at $150). Ouch!

In other words, unless you fly full-fare economy seats, generally speaking, that upgrade is going to cost you. And my guess is that full-fare economy will rarely be your first ticket choice when you're bargain-hunting online.Ask Eva

It's also worth looking at what you'd give up. Since you can get a free roundtrip ticket starting at 25,000, paying 15,000 miles, plus a $75 fee for an upgrade doesn't make much sense.

You do have other options for comfort, however. Look into the Economy Plus seating that most airlines now offer. These are seats with a little more space to work and relax at the front of the plane. Most airlines now have Economy Plus seating available on overseas flight, and it is increasingly available on domestic flights as well.

Economy Plus options have different names, and terms differ from airline to airline, so do your own due diligence. Generally, if you have a frequent flier account with the airline, prices will be lower, particularly if you are an elite member of the airline's frequent flier program. To get you started, here is an overview of rules from the three major airlines:

Delta Airlines Economy Comfort: The Delta Economy Comfort seats are 36-inch seats, giving you four more precious inches above the usual 32 inch. You also get perks like priority boarding, 50 percent more recline on long international flights and complimentary beer, wine, HBO and Showtime on some international flights. This is a free service for Delta SkyMiles Gold and Diamond members. Silver members have access at a 50 percent discount. Without the discount, expect to pay between $9 and $99 per segment for the upgrade, depending on the length of the flight.

United Airlines Economy Plus: Seats in this section are 34 to 36 inches, depending on the plane. Economy Plus seats are free for elite-class fliers. For everyone else, prices range from around $9 to $163 per travel segment, again depending on the length of the route.

American Airlines Main Cabin Extra: American promises a full 4 to 6 inches of extra legroom in its Main Cabin Extra seats. Available on select flights only, the Main Cabin Extra seats come with most of the perks that Delta's and United's do, including priority boarding. The seats are complimentary for travelers with full-fare economy class tickets and for AAdvantage Gold members. For everyone else, prices range between $8 and $108 per segment, depending again, on the length of the flight.

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