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How to get a mileage upgrade

Upgrades are one of the most confusing aspects of frequent flyer programs. There are several types of upgrades (mileage upgrades, complimentary elite upgrades, etc.), and each airline has its own policy about which fare classes can be upgraded at what mileage cost. Yet as upgrades may be one of the easiest and cheapest methods of getting an upper-class seat, it’s important for travelers to understand how these awards work.

We’ve taken a look at the most mainstream type of upgrades—mileage upgrades—in order to answer the biggest questions about how to upgrade to first or business class with miles.

How many miles do I need to upgrade a paid ticket?

Each airline has its own upgrade levels that can be found in the award section of its website. In general, you will pay 5,000 miles one-way to upgrade from full-fare economy to first class on domestic flights, and 15,000 miles to upgrade from discounted economy. For international flights, expect to pay 10,000 or 15,000 miles one-way to upgrade from full-fare economy, and 25,000 to 30,000 to upgrade from discounted economy. Mileage amounts will vary based on origin and departure countries.

Can I upgrade any coach ticket?

The major airlines have differing policies on which economy fare classes are eligible to be upgraded. American and United allow almost all fare classes to be upgraded; Northwest allows all but the most deeply discounted fare classes to be upgraded; and Delta only allows full-fare economy economy tickets to be upgraded. US Airways allows all fare classes to be upgraded on domestic flights, but does not allow upgrades on the deeply discounted economy tickets on international flights.

Continental has the most complicated policy. On domestic flights, elite members can upgrade all fare classes, while non-elites can only upgrade the most expensive economy fares (Y, H, K, N, or B fare classes). For international flights, all fares are eligible to be upgraded, but all fares other than full-fare economy will incur a $200 to $450 surcharge.

American also imposes a $250 co-pay, in addition to the required mileage, on upgrades to select international destinations.

Are mileage upgrades capacity controlled?

Yes. Upgrade awards are subject to the same capacity controls as standard awards. Even if there are empty business- or first-class seats, you may not be allowed to upgrade to one of those seats using your frequent flyer miles.

When can I confirm my upgrade?

You can book your upgrade award at the time of your reservation or any time after. However, Continental does not process upgrades to BusinessFirst or first class in the final 72 hours before a flight departs. Other airlines may impose a late fee on upgrades requested within the last few weeks prior to departure.

Can I use miles to upgrade on a partner airline?

This is another point where airlines have differing policies. American, Continental, and Northwest allow upgrades on certain partner airlines, while Delta allows upgrades on codeshare flights only. United and US Airways do not seem to allow upgrades on their partners.

Is an upgrade a good use of my miles?

An upgrade is an excellent use of miles. Given the hefty cost of first- or business-class tickets and the plummeting cost of domestic coach tickets, miles used to upgrade an economy fare often have a higher value than miles used for a free domestic flight. And especially on long flights, the extra space and increased comfort of the upper-class cabin can be invaluable. So now that you know how mileage upgrades work, you should feel confident about using your miles to snag some of the best seats in the sky.

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