Booking an international flight in business class with miles is costly, but upgrading after the fact can be problematic. Here’s how you can rack up enough miles to fly out of the country in the lap of luxury.
Vicki Cook and her husband Jeff did not book their business class trip to Europe on a whim.
Knowing well ahead of time they wanted to cover their flights with miles, they each signed up for the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® a few years back when they could earn 100,000 miles for spending $10,000 on their cards within three months.
This is a steep minimum spending requirement for sure, so they used their new credit cards to pay for college tuition for their daughter (her school didn’t charge a fee to pay with plastic).
The pair was also in the midst of a major home improvement project. They were able to cover bills and expenses with their credit cards, pay their balances in full each month and end the project with hundreds of thousands of American AAdvantage miles and zero debt.
Their business class flights to Germany and home from Italy in October set them back 57,500 miles one-way in business class, or 115,000 miles each plus $63 in taxes and fees. But this trip was more than just a vacation; the couple went to see family in Germany and visited their son, who is spending a semester of college in Italy.
Best of all, the pair won’t endure a cramped travel experience in international economy – or the misery of trying to sleep sitting up on a plane. Instead, they’ll cross the Atlantic in business class comfort with a lie-flat seat, luxury dining options and plenty of space.
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How to earn enough miles to fly business class
Scott Mackenzie, founder of travel rewards site Travel Codex, says the Cooks did everything right when it came to scoring business class seats with miles. For the most part, consumers are better off earning enough miles for a business class ticket in the first place instead of trying to upgrade from economy after the fact, he says.
The problem is just how pricey flying business class has become, which is why it’s important to vet frequent flyer programs ahead of time if luxury travel is your goal.
While it’s possible to fly international business class to Europe for 115,000 miles round-trip with the American AAdvantage program like the Cooks did, some frequent flyer programs ask for a lot more miles than that. With Delta SkyMiles, for example, it’s not uncommon to see long haul Delta One redemptions cost 250,000 miles or more plus airline taxes and fees.
While you can earn miles by joining frequent flyer programs and paying for flights, consumers can rack up the miles needed for a pricey business class flight by using travel credit cards and earning a big sign-up bonus.
Mackenzie says he earns most of his miles through credit card purchases, including those made with airline credit cards and credit cards that let you transfer points to airline partners. With flexible cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, consumers can earn points on their spending and transfer to a variety of airline partners later.
Travel expert Andrew Schrage of Money Crashers says you can also get creative when it comes to earning enough miles to fly in international business class.
“Try signing up for an airline’s dining program, which is a great way to earn more miles,” he says. “Also, most airlines have a shopping portal you can use to make purchases you would be making anyway, enabling you to earn miles.”
To earn miles for hotel reservations, you can also use websites like PointsHound.com or RocketMiles.com, both of which let you earn thousands of miles per paid hotel stay. You can also use frequent flyer programs to book rental cars, vacation packages, hotels and more.
Should you use miles to upgrade to business class?
If your goal is flying international business class, another option is booking a main cabin flight and trying to upgrade to business class with miles or cash later. However, credit card expert Jason Steele cautions that there are downsides and risks to be aware of.
Nearly all airlines now require you to purchase a more expensive economy fare before you can then apply your miles for an upgrade, he says. In fact, the cheapest international flights you’ll find are called basic economy, but these flights are typically ineligible for upgrades under any circumstances.
Steele says that “some airlines also require a cash co-payment as well or in addition to an upgraded fare,” which means you may have been better off booking business class to begin with versus trying to upgrade later.
Another problem has to do with supply and demand. Upgrades can be rescinded in the case of an overbooked cabin or other circumstances where the airline needs to reassign passengers to new seats, says Mackenzie. Since your upgrade is less important than someone who paid for the full cost of a business class ticket, you could get moved back into economy without any notice.
And regardless, upgrades don’t always clear right away, making them risky if you have your heart set on an upgraded flight experience. You might even have to put your name on a waitlist, says Mackenzie.
“Hopefully you’ll clear a few days or weeks before departure, but I know other times when people don’t find out until they’re waiting at the gate.”
Using miles to upgrade – Do’s and don’ts
Simply put, you can use miles to upgrade from economy to business class in some cases, but you should probably steer clear of this strategy if you want to be 100 percent sure you’ll have the seat you want. For the most part, upgrading later on is best for someone who will ultimately be fine enduring a long-haul flight in economy.
Mackenzie says some airlines are a lot better than others when it comes to upgrading after the fact anyway, and you may want to see where your carrier stands before you decide what to do. Cathay Pacific, British Airways and United all have generous upgrade policies for passengers who originally book in economy, he says.
Some airlines, including Singapore Airlines and Air Canada, even let consumers bid on their upgrades using a third-party platform called PlusGrade. Others, including TAP Air Portugal, operate their own bidding systems that let passengers bid on upgrades using cash or miles.
One incredibly annoying aspect of upgrade bidding systems is that they’re not always transparent — as in, you may have no idea what a winning bid looks like, and you may be asked to boost your bid to compete with others as your flight date gets closer.
Most airlines that let you bid on upgrades also wait until the last minute to let you know whether your bid made the cut, so you shouldn’t count on business class comfort if you go this route.
If you’re curious about using miles or even cash for an upgrade, another factor to keep in mind is that not all airlines offer this option.
“A simple check of the airline’s website or a phone call will let you know for sure,” says Schrage. “There are a lot of intricacies depending on the airline, flight and route, and they are continually changing.”
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The bottom line
If you want to fly international business class, there are several strategies that can make your dream come true. To be on the safe side, however, it’s probably best to earn the miles you need for the fare you want before you book.
If you bet on getting an upgrade after the fact, you’re leaving your fate in the hands of the airline.