Editorial Policy

5 ways to get the most out of seat upgrades

Nick DiUlio

October 8, 2013

If you're a frequent flier and have a travel rewards card, chances are you amass a sweet cache of miles each year. That leaves you with a tricky choice: Should you use those miles to get free flights — or for seat upgrades?

“Deciding if it's worth using your miles for seat upgrades can be complicated,” says Rob MacLean, CEO of Points.com, a website that helps consumers get the most value from various rewards programs. “It all depends on a few factors, including where you're going, what you're paying and how easy or hard it will be to claim your reward.”

Whether you're a frequent business traveler, a habitual global explorer or just a casual vacationer, considering these five factors will help you be strategic with your seat upgrades.

1. How far are you flying?

Before redeeming miles for any seat upgrade, consider how long you'll be in the air.

“If you're planning on flying across the country or even internationally, redeeming your miles for a comfortable seat in business class may be the perfect way to treat yourself and enjoy the journey,” MacLean says. “But, if you're only flying a short distance, it might be worth it to skip the upgrade and save your miles for a bigger trip down the line.”

More tips and tricks for travel rewards

For instance, upgrading your seat on a typical flight from New York City to Boston could wind up costing about 15,000 frequent flier miles. For a 45-minute flight, that's probably not worth it, says Casey Ayers, editor of PointsAway.com, a website designed to help travelers determine the best ways to use their frequent flier miles.

“But if you're on a long, international haul and you can get a first-class seat with good food, Wi-Fi, entertainment and a general sense of more comfort, go for it,” says Ayers. “If I buy a $3,000 ticket for a flight from New York to London, I may spend 50,000 miles to upgrade my seat — but that's totally worth it for such a long time in the air.”

2. Look out for fees

Even if you have a boatload of miles stored up, you still may have to fork over some extra cash in addition to miles in order to upgrade your seat. These copays can get expensive, ranging from $25 to $150 for one-way domestic tickets. Some airlines base their copays on the type of ticket you bought (the cheapest economy ticket versus a pricier refundable ticket, for example). Others base them on the distance traveled.

“It gets really complicated because each airline imposes a different set of rules about copays for upgrading seats with miles,” says Ryan Lile, a travel expert and consultant who runs FrequentFlyerAcademy.com. “US Airways and United will waive copayments for some loyalty program members flying domestically, but often times copays are charged on a sliding scale, which means the more expensive your fair, the less expensive the upgrade.”

What's more, international copays can be even higher, says Ayers. You can expect to pay as many as 30,000 miles and a co-pay of $500 or more each way for a seat upgrade. However, if you can find an international flight that costs 30,000 miles each way, you might be better off cashing your miles in for the free flight.

“If you don't mind the economy seats,” Ayers says, “That might be a better deal.”

The bottom line, says Lile, is to make sure you understand your airline's copay policy before booking a flight.

“You may even find that if you buy a slightly more expensive coach seat from the start you won't have to fork over a copay,” Lile says.

3. Calculate the value of the upgrade

Every airline is going to determine the mileage value of seat upgrades differently, according to Pete Van Dorn, co-founder of  Pointshound.com, a hotel booking engine that rewards travelers with airline, hotel and retail rewards for each hotel stay they book. But there is a general rule of thumb every traveler should keep in mind: If you're not getting at least 2 cents of value for every mile, it's not a good deal.

For instance, let's say you have 30,000 redeemable miles. At 2 cents per mile, you should have roughly $600 worth of upgrade leverage.

“Most airlines are going to fall within a range of about 5 to 10 cents worth of value for every mile, but you really need to be rigorous and spend some extra time understanding the value of the upgrade, because it may or may not be worth it,” says Van Dorn.

For business travelers who are flying at the expense of the company, seat upgrades can be fantastic value, says Ayers.

“That's because you aren't paying for the ticket to begin with,” says Ayers. “Even if it costs you 50,000 miles for an international seat upgrade, that's still not a bad way to spend your miles.”

4. Consider reward cards outside the airlines

According to Lile, more and more companies are offering credit card rewards that can be redeemed for airline miles, which may be another way to score a sweet seat.

For instance, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which owns several popular chain hotels across the country, offers customers an American Express card the allows them to earn points whenever they stay at one of Starwood's locations. And those rewards can be transferred to airlines on a one-to-one basis.

“I recently used this while planning a honeymoon for a couple traveling from New York to Los Angeles,” says Lile. “We booked a coach seat on American Airlines, but they had no frequent flier miles with American. What they did have were 100,000 Starwood points. So they transferred those points to American, which gave them 100,000 frequent flier miles they then used to upgrade to first class.”

Lile cautions consumers, however, that not all rewards programs are created equal. Generic travel cards (those not tied to airlines) are often a popular choice, as they allow cardholders to redeem rewards on any airline. Yet redemption rates can be lower for these cards. For instance, the Capital One VentureOne card allows cardholders to cash in only 1 cent of reward value for every dollar spent.

“That means if you wanted to purchase a ticket or upgrade worth $1,000 you would have needed to spend $100,000 on other things already,” says Lile. “That's a terrible, terrible value.”

5. Remember: Availability is everything

Of course, none of this matters if there aren't any open seats available in business or first class, which is why Van Dorn suggests travelers book their flights as early as possible.

“If you have some flexibility in your travel plans, that's going to make this whole process easier,” says Van Dorn. “If you're going from Los Angeles to Hawaii for instance, try to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Chances are there won't be as many people flying then, which means there's a better chance for an open seat.”

Oh, and Lile says you can forget whatever urban-legend upgrade story you may have heard over the years.

“There's a lot of pop culture rumor out there about upgrades. Like if you dress nicely, smile at the gate agent or ask politely you'll get upgraded,” says Lile. “That may have worked 10 or 20 years ago, but not anymore. Airlines have gotten very conservative about upgrades, which is why this is such a complex topic.”