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Can I Use Credit Card Miles to Upgrade My Seat?

Dear Tim,

I will be traveling in two weeks with tickets already purchased. Can I use my Capital One miles to upgrade to business or first class?

Sharon G.

Dear Sharon,

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

While credit card programs such as Capital One’s were modeled after the highly successful mileage programs of the airlines, they are independent of the airline programs and differ from them in important respects.

In particular, miles earned with a Capital One card and miles earned in the airline’s own program are unique currencies. They cannot be combined.

Although miles earned with a Capital One credit card can be redeemed for airline tickets, they cannot be redeemed for upgrades. Only miles earned in an airline program can be used to upgrade to business or first class.

In general, if you are a frequent traveler and have an opportunity to regularly earn miles for flying, hotel stays, car rentals, and so on, you would probably be best served by participating in an airline program, including earning miles with the program-affiliated credit card. You’ll be able to use those miles for free tickets and for upgrades.

On the other hand, if you are at the frequent-buyer end of the spectrum—someone who earns most of her miles by charging purchases to a credit card—using a credit card with an independent rewards program, like Capital One’s, is your best bet. These cards have the advantage of allowing you to cash in your miles for tickets on most airlines, without the maddening award restrictions imposed by the airlines on members of their own programs. But again, upgrades just aren’t part of the bargain.

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