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Upgrading With Frequent Flyer Miles Still Possible, But Pricey

Like to escape the discomfort and hassle of flying cattle-car coach/economy? Unless you’re very wealthy or an elite-level frequent flyer, your only practical approach is to use your frequent flyer miles for either an upgrade or a “free” premium seat. Buying a premium class ticket costs three to twenty times as much as buying the cheapest ticket, and all the other upgrade avenues—mile certificates and such—are available only to elite-level members or on expensive coach/economy tickets. That’s why so many of you view upgrading to first (domestic) or business (international) class as the “highest and best” use of your frequent flyer miles. And because upgrade awards generally require no more than about half the number of miles as a “free” seat in premium class, they allow you to stretch your miles further.

Unfortunately, most big airlines have been tightening up on frequent flyer upgrades (as well as on premium-seat awards). This situation apparently prompted a reader to ask:

“Is upgrading a cheap ticket still an attractive option?”

The short answer is, “Yes, but not as attractive as it once was.”

The Upgrade Scene

Originally, the process was very simple: You bought a cheap ticket, then had the frequent flyer program upgrade it, usually with no hassle. Now, however, the big airlines act as if they want to discourage ordinary coach/economy traveler from upgrading. They applied two main barriers:

  • Many of them now limit upgrades to some of the more expensive coach/economy fares.
  • More recently, they’re adding cash payments along with miles to upgrade.

Along with shrinking seat allocations, these rules have made upgrading both harder and more expensive than in earlier times. Still, you can do it.

Upgrading limits and costs

Here’s a rundown of the current upgrading situation on the five largest airlines, as illustrated by the three most popular awards routes: domestic (the lower 48 plus a few nearby points), Hawaii, and Europe. All mileage requirements are shown one-way, as applied to the least expensive upgradable coach/economy tickets; all apply to one-class upgrades (coach/economy to first class on two-class planes, coach/economy to business class on three-class planes):

American: Mileage needed, domestic: 15,000 miles plus $50; Hawaii 15,000 miles plus $150; Europe 25,000 miles plus $350. Upgrades apply to “most discount economy”; website does not allow fare search for lowest upgradable fare.

Continental: Mileage needed, domestic: 15,000 miles plus $50 on Q/U/V/G fares, $100 on W/E/S/ fares, and $150 on T/N/L fares; Hawaii 17,500 miles plus $250 on B fares, $350 on H/K fares, $400 on Q/U fares, $450 on V/G fares, and $500 on others; Europe 20,000 miles plus $250 on B fares, $350 on H/K fares, $400 on Q/U fares, $450 on V/G fares, and $500 on others. Website permits fare search by individual category.

Delta: Mileage needed, domestic 10,000: Hawaii, 15,000 miles; Europe, 25,000 miles; applies only to “select” economy fares, not specified; website permits search by fare category but not for minimum upgradable fare.

Northwest: Mileage needed, domestic, Hawaii 15,000 : Hawaii, 17.500 miles; Europe, 30,000 miles; applies only to “select” economy fares, not specified; website permits search by fare category but not for minimum upgradable fare. Presumably, the Delta and Northwest award schedules will be rationalized in the near future.

United: Mileage needed, domestic or Hawaii 15,000 on M/H/Q/V/W/S/K/L/T fares; Europe, 30,000 miles on M/H fares only; website allows fare search to upgradable fares.

US Airways: Mileage needed, domestic, 15,000; Hawaii, 17,500; Europe 30,000 miles, available only with base fares of at least $1400 round-trip or $700 one-way.

Using some combination of limited qualifying fares and additional payments, these airlines have effectively raised the cost of upgrading from the ticket you might usually buy.

As usual with such matters, seats are limited and may not be available on all flights.

Booking the upgrade

Apparently, the big lines seem to have concluded that most of you believe upgrades are a “nice” feature, when available, but not a requirement. Thus, the standard approach is to have you first make a firm booking and buy your ticket on your preferred flight—most likely nonrefundable—then check to see if an upgrade is available. Presumably, if you find the flight you selected has no upgrade seat, you’re supposed to shrug your shoulders, sigh “kismet,” and accept your fate in the cattle car.

Obviously that system doesn’t work very well if you don’t want to buy a nonrefundable ticket on any flight until you’re certain of getting the upgrade. As far as I can tell, Continental is the only airline that allows such a conditional search online; on all the others, your only option is to call the reservations center and have the agent confirm both the base-fare seat and the upgrade before you buy the ticket. You’ll have to pay the phone-reservation charge, but that’s usually modest.

I can’t see any reason why all the big lines don’t make it easy to do a combined fare and upgrade search online. But asking “why” about any airline matter is usually leads just to frustration.

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