The first step to travel happiness is collecting miles. I mean, at the worst you can redeem them for magazines and free champagne. The second step is choosing a program to earn miles which lets you unlock the most from your loyalty. Upgrades are incredibly important with a loyalty program because they require far fewer miles than using miles for a “free” award ticket, yet still offer the ability to elevate your travel. The third and final step is actually scoring one of these upgrades and realizing that business is so much more than a seat, it’s a luxurious experience from start to finish.

an airplane seat with a seat and a screen

First, an ESSential Tip

People have a terrible habit of thinking about upgrades as the actual date of travel closes in and far after they’ve actually booked their tickets. Be proactive. Finding flights that are instantly upgradeable takes all the guess work, change fees and other prohibitive issues out of the process and ensures you booked into a ticket class that is upgradeable without being an expert. Of course, if you can’t find upgrade space at the time of booking for your dates, things can change for the better closer to flight date. Never give up, even at the boarding gate. In general do your very best to upgrade at the time of booking either on the phone or online and if not, stay diligent. It’s important to remember that many types of airline miles can be created using American Express, Chase or Citi points so even if you’ve never flown a specific airline, in many cases you can create enough miles to upgrade with them in seconds, like I said, even at the gate.

a man holding a knee of another man

International Upgrades

These are the holy grail because international flights can be brutal on the body. I go to every legal measure (and then some) to do my best to turn my economy ticket into business. Trust me, trading 17” width and 32” pitch and green mush for a flat bed with champagne and fine dining never gets old. 

an airplane on the runway

Airlines That Go From Economy Straight to Business Most airlines only allow you to upgrade one class of service. If you are flying on American, Delta, Swiss, United, and a few others, there is no proper “Premium Economy” and therefore you can upgrade straight to business. Nice! Arguably the BEST upgrade policy comes from American Airlines and United where you can upgrade most economy fares directly to business class for 20,000-35,000 miles and $250-$500. The copay, especially on the lower $250 end, is a reasonable sum for an entirely changed travel experience. For example, an American flight between the US and Europe or Asia would run you 25,000 miles and $350. I’ll make that back just in food and drinks! Delta and most carriers on the other hand require you to buy one of their three most expensive economy fares (often more than business) for the pleasure of spending a similar amount of miles. Essentially, if I want to book a cheap economy ticket and upgrade it to business, I’d do best to avoid Delta on international flights. 

a seat in an airplane

Airlines WITH A Real Premium Economy Many international airlines including Air France, British Airways, ANA, Virgin Atlantic, JAL, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and Qantas have real (separate) Premium Economy Cabins, and sometimes even separate First class cabins. Being that you can usually only upgrade one class of service, it’s essentially a grab forcing you to book Premium Economy. If you wish to get the upgrade to flat beds and the luxury of business class this means you will be shelling out more on the whole. The good news is that you often require less miles to upgrade to the next cabin once you’ve shelled out more cash in the first place. In this category many European and Asian carriers are virtually identical requiring between 10,000-25,000 miles to upgrade from most Premium Economy fares to Business. The best? In the battle of UK carriers, upgrading from Premium to Business requires 10,000-12,500 each way on Virgin Atlantic, whereas a minimum of 20,000 miles on British Airways and both can be a very solid value. As an exception to all the above, Lufthansa and Air France allow you to skip from Economy to Business by using more miles. On Air France, economy fares in Y, B, M, U, K, H, L or Q you can upgrade to business for 35,000 miles one way. Lufthansa has a similar proposition requiring 50,000 miles each way between the US and Europe with more eligible discount fares. Mind you, it’s still not a great proposition as many airlines offer round trip business class just using miles and not cash for that rate!

a group of people in an airplane


We won’t spend too much time here. Most airlines offer fairly similar and flexible ways to upgrade tickets for seats up front on shorter domestic flights. Many airlines allow every published fare to be upgraded and quite a few require a ticket class just higher than their lowest economy fare. It might be the difference in spending $175 and $190. In the end the seat is generally just a little bigger (if that) and you might get a better check in and beer. I don’t waste much time upgrading short flights.

a room with tvs and chairs

OK I Get It, How Do I Actually Get The Upgrade…

Search The Web: In general, the best way to ensure there is space available to upgrade is to look for “free flight awards” on your airline’s online search. If there is space at the lowest level (least miles) for a seat in your desired cabin, there is also very likely upgrade space available. Do this before you book your tickets or at least within the 24 hours when you can change/cancel for free! For example, I want to upgrade from Business to First on British Airways this year. For the flight I want to upgrade I do a one way search using miles (avios) for First Class. If there are seats available using miles, there are seats available for upgrade. 

Phone: Sometimes the best way to get this done is to hunker down and pick up the phone. Find an agent who seems happy to help and ask them which (if any) flights have upgrade space on your desired travel dates. Do your own search online to make sure you are being quoted the best fare simultaneously. By doing this you are able to lock in the upgrade at booking rather than making it a hail mary after thought. 

a sign in a building

What people fail to realize is that international business class is so much more than a seat. It’s an entirely different travel experience. It starts at check in with dedicated counters, extra bags, moves on with fast track through security, peaks at lounges and then hits its real stride with over the top on board service, a bed and waking up in a new city fresh as can be. Unless of course you drink all the wine.

As Always, Get in Touch:

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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