Despite seeming like an endless sea of red tape and "no, no, no", there are quite a few ways to find yourself sitting in the cabin of your desires. We're seeing more business class deals, more opportunities to upgrade using cash or miles, and on the whole, there are more seats available for award tickets. A common and tricky question is the thought of buying a ticket and using miles to bump yourself up. Is it a good value?
How much is that seat up front worth to you? If the lowest economy fare is $500, but the lowest premium economy fare, the lowest fare you'll need to buy for a one class upgrade, is $1500, is the upgrade worth more than $1000 and at least 20,000 miles? For some of the worlds longest flights the answer may be yes, others I would almost always say no, save the miles, earn miles and wait for a better, less costly opportunity to use them.
Why Not JUST Use Miles?
There used to be some great sweet spots in award charts, where you could upgrade many tickets for just 10,000 miles or so each way on international long haul flights. Those days are pretty much gone. You'll be looking at roughly 50,000 miles or more for a long haul round trip upgrade, whereas just getting a ticket using miles might run 100,000 to 125,000. For shorter or domestic flights you can often find better upgrade values, though the seat may or may not be worth it. I like using 12,500 Delta miles to upgrade flights between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco, which feature flat beds and allow moderately to low priced fares to upgrade.
YES On Some Airlines, NO On Others
American Airlines is eventually getting a premium economy, for now they don't have one. You can upgrade almost any economy fares on international flights for between $250-450 and 25,000 miles each way, provided that there is space. When you get a great economy deal, this can present a very good opportunity, especially on certain routes, like those to Asia, where there are almost never cheap tickets in business. Other airlines only offer upgrades on the most restrictive fares; going back to the original point, how much is the upgrade worth to you? If you're paying double, triple, quadruple what a decent ticket should cost, you might as well just buy the business fare at that point, it might even be cheaper!
Add Up Extra Cash + Two Cents Per Miles
I strive to always get at least two cents per mile, whenever I use miles. Let's say business class costs $2000, premium economy, which I'll need to buy to upgrade to business costs $1200, economy costs $800. I'm paying $400 more to get a chance to upgrade. If it takes 25,000 miles each way to upgrade, that's an additional $500 worth of miles if used well. Going on that logic it means that I am paying $900 each way for the opportunity to upgrade. I'd be much better off just paying $2,000 for the seats in the first place. I save miles, earn miles and end up spending a similar figure.
Of course, yes, there are huge exceptions. Sometimes business is ten times what premium economy or economy requires, you don't find much use for your miles and cashing in can be a perfect opportunity. I do find that people often think they are getting a far better deal than they actually are when discussing using miles for upgrades. Be wise, use math, investigate what paying for business would cost, investigate how much more premium is, and don't forget that your miles have value and sometimes that value is better used in other situations, such as actually free flights.
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