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Using rewards to fly first class


If you want to use your points to upgrade your seat category on a flight, it could still cost you money

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Dear Cashing In,
What credit cards are the best for airline upgrades? – Robert


Dear Robert,
Earning award flights using miles and points is a fairly straightforward proposition. Each airline offers a rewards credit card, which typically comes with tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles that can be redeemed for flights.

In addition, there are many travel-oriented credit cards offered by major issuers that allow you to transfer points to frequent flyer programs or to redeem the points directly for flights. I’m thinking here of the major points programs offered by Chase, American Express and Citi.

But upgrades into business class or first class on airlines are a different animal. You might expect that since credit cards with all kinds of different rewards are available, that there must be one somewhere that comes with the perk of upgrades. After all, there are cards that can gain you access to airport airline lounges. But in reality, upgrades are a perk that is so big that no credit card comes with automatic upgrades.

If you have developed a taste for flying in business or first class, there are a few ways to get there. But none of them is especially easy or cheap, especially compared with the alternative of flying coach.

1. Use cash or miles.
The first option you have is to just buy the first-class ticket outright when you book your flight, using either cash or miles. Paying cash for a first-class seat can cost a small fortune.

For example, a first-class round-trip ticket between San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey, in October on United costs about $2,200 – about five times what you would pay for a similar coach seat.

With miles, the same seat in coach costs 25,000 miles, while business class is 100,000 miles. First-class availability with miles is hard to find – and you thought using miles for a coach trip was tough!

2. Earn elite status.

A second option is to fly enough to earn elite traveler status with a major airline. When you board an airplane to get to your coach seat and pass all those people sitting in their comfortable seats in the front of the plane, this route is most likely how they arrived there.

Airlines reward their most frequent travelers – their best customers – with complimentary upgrades if there is space available. The rules tend to be complex, and there is an established pecking order, but generally those who fly enough and spend enough money with the airline are eligible.

With this option, you usually have to actually fly on the airline. You can’t just buy your way in. But there are credit cards that can help.

For instance, Delta has a couple of credit cards that come with credits that help you meet the threshold for elite status. The American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles card (annual fee: $195) comes with 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after spending $1,000 in the first three months. The American Express Delta Reserve card (annual fee: $450) comes with 10,000 MQMs after your first purchase.

Each card gives you additional MQMs if you spend a lot on it in a year. To earn Delta status, though, you will still have to fly: Delta’s lowest level of elite status, Silver, requires 25,000 MQMs in a calendar year. Other airlines’ credit cards can provide small boosts of qualifying miles if you spend a lot of money on them in a year.

3. Use miles to upgrade from coach.
A third way you can fly in business class or coach is by using miles to upgrade a coach ticket. This, too, doesn’t come cheaply.

For domestic flights, upgrades start at around 15,000 frequent flyer miles for a one-way ticket. In addition, some airlines charge a cash payment on top of that. On American, for instance, it’s 15,000 miles plus $75.

Flying in the front of the plane is highly desirable – and it doesn’t come easily or cheaply, even if you have the right credit cards.

See related: Are airline cards worth the annual fee?, What if you’re a few points short of your plane ticket? 

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