Should I use my points to upgrade my seats?

Tony Mecia
Personal finance writer
Rewards expert who writes the "Cashing In" reader Q&A column for CreditCards.com

Should you buy a seat upgrade with points?

A lot of people enjoy the experience of flying in business class or first class. There’s a lot to like: You get more leg room, better service from flight attendants and early boarding. And, of course, it is hard to place a price on the satisfaction of watching people cram into their cramped coach seats behind you on the plane as you unwind with a pre-flight cocktail. 

The trouble is, how do you fly in business or first class without spending a fortune? Those premium tickets can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars more than lowly coach. 

The most frequent travelers have elite-level perks that often include complimentary or inexpensive upgrades. But the rest of us have options, too. And they involve airline frequent flyer miles that you might have earned or transferred from a rewards credit card. 

The most obvious way to sit in premium seats is to use frequent flyer miles to book them. They work just as booking award seats in coach do: Airline mileage charts specify the minimum needed for business and first class, depending on destination. Seats at the lowest mileage level might not always be available.

Of course, the number of miles required for a business or first-class seat is much higher than the standard 12,500 miles required for a domestic one-way ticket.

For instance, on United, a one-way, business-class ticket in the continental U.S. starts at 25,000 miles and at 35,000 miles for first class.

American starts similar business-class, one-way tickets at 25,000 and first class at 50,000. When you start multiplying those for round-trips or multiple passengers, the differences can add up.

Another option is to use miles to upgrade a coach ticket. An important point here is that you cannot use miles to upgrade an award ticket. You can use miles only to upgrade an existing ticket you bought with actual money.

From here, it gets a little bit complicated. Fortunately, all the major U.S. airlines operate essentially the same way. 

How many miles do you need to upgrade?

The number of miles you need in order to upgrade depends on the type of ticket you bought.

  • Generally, you cannot use miles to upgrade a deeply discounted coach ticket, such as a basic economy ticket.
  • But if you bought a regular coach ticket or a full-fare coach ticket (refundable), then you are eligible to use miles to upgrade to the next class of service if there is space available. 
  • American Airlines upgrades start at 15,000 miles one-way plus $75. United Airlines upgrades start at 17,500 one-way plus $75.

Airlines are constantly trying to juggle demand for premium seats from their elite-level frequent flyers, who tend to be business travelers. That means that the odds of snagging an upgrade are better on flights with fewer business travelers, such as flying on a weekend to Orlando or to Las Vegas. Odds of landing an upgrade would be tougher on flights to big cities such as Chicago or New York on a Monday morning.

As far as timing, the sooner you can secure the upgrade, the better. More premium seats come available to elite-level flyers as the flight date draws closer.

Is it worth it to spend those miles? That’s a personal preference. If you really enjoy those premium seats and have a lot of miles, then I could see using them. But some people will decide that upgrading or using miles for first- and business-class is just too costly and that those miles can be saved for future trips.

 See related: Using rewards to fly first class


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Updated: 10-23-2018