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All about Airline Upgrades – Part I

All about Airline Upgrades:

Editorial Note: This is my first article as a blog hosted on BoardingArea.com. I would like to personally thank Randy Petersen for the invite to move over and to the excellent staff of BoardingArea.com who made this a smooth transition both for me and my readers. I consider it an honor to join all the travel Bloggers who are already a part of the BoardingArea.com community.

If you fly much, especially on long flights, you probably savor the idea of getting an upgrade. Be it for the flat beds on an international flight or just the extra leg room on a transcontinental. Maybe even just for a warm meal that you did not have to bring on board in a paper bag. My budget or that of my company does not typically allow for the purchase of Business or First class tickets. Upgrades are my only salvation on my long flights.

Upgrades fall into five basic categories:

  1. Paid for with cash
  2. Paid for with miles
  3. Paid for with an upgrade instrument
  4. Operational Upgrades
  5. Complimentary Upgrades (for Elites)

Here are the details:

Upgrades paid for with cash:

Exactly as it sounds. You are paying to upgrade from Economy to an Upper Class seat – Business or First – using cash (or credit…). This is cheaper than buying an upper class seat straight out. Airlines offer these upgrades to sell unsold upper class seats to passengers in economy who are willing to fork out the cash. For mileage earning considerations, it is important to note that you are still on an Economy ticket. You have just purchased an upper class seat. You will earn miles for your ticketed class, not the extra miles that come with an upper class ticket.

Upgrades paid for with miles:

Upgrading using miles is, in my opinion, an extremely efficient use of miles. You get upgraded, you do not have a big hole in your wallet AND as a miles earner, you still earn miles on your trip. Alternately, if you use all miles to book an upper class award ticket, the award or status miles you earn on that trip are zero. I also discussed this in detail in my article on Maximizing Airline Miles Redemptions.DSC04069.JPG

Another nit of mine is that most airlines will not consider your status on the airline when flying on an award ticket. If you are flying on a paid for economy ticket and upgrade using miles, you are still given all the Elite Status benefits you are entitled to.

Upgrades paid for with an upgrade instrument:

Almost all airlines have instruments that you can earn as an Elite or in some cases even purchase, to upgrade your economy ticket to an upper class seat. This is my favorite benefit of being an Elite. Once you are an Elite, as you fly you earn these upgrade instruments. For example, United has CR-1s (Confirmed Region-1) that allow upgrades in and around the US and SWUs (System Wide Upgades) that allow upgrades on any route flown by United. I get some CR-1s (2) and some SWUs (6) every year I requalify as a 1K Elite on United. I can earn more as I fly. Several other airlines have similar instrument, some with different names, but the same function. American Airlines has eVIP and SWU, BMI has GUV (Gold Upgrade Vouchers) and so on. The priority in which these instruments cause upgrades to clear is typically in the order of your elite status, fare bucket of the ticket and order of request for the upgrade.

Another excellent advantage of these instruments is that you can sponsor someone else’s upgrade using them. You can sponsor your spouse’s upgrade or that of a friend who does not have elite status on airline they are flying. Some airlines even allow additional passengers to be upgraded with you, if they are on the same reservation, using just one instrument.

Operational Upgrades:

These are my favorite, as they are free and typically unexpected! I love a surprise upgrade. An ‘operational upgrade’ happens at the gate when a gate agent moves someone from an oversold economy cabin to an unsold upper class seat to create space in economy. I have had this happen to me several times, including one on a recent trip from Denver to Washington DC (DEN-IAD) on United. I was flying from California to Washington DC and had to go thru multiple itinerary and routing changes due to weather conditions all over. I had applied for an upgrade on my original route using a CR-1. I don’t know whether economy was full or the gate agent took pity on me but I was upgraded to First Class without the instrument being pulled.

Complimentary Upgrades (for Elites):

Several US based airlines give complimentary and unlimited upgrades to their Elites on domestic routes. US Airways, Continental and Delta already do this. United is joining their ranks in March of this year. The philosophy here is that if there is an unsold upper class seat available; put an Elite butt in it. That too for free, no instrument required. Some airlines will also do such an upgrade for their Elites on international route, but only if have purchased a full-fare economy or business ticket.

In part II of this article, I will go into considerations and factors that you need to keep in mind when requesting an upgrade. Come back soon to check.

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  1. Not sure if part II will discuss upgrades between airlines in the same alliance, but i was wondering if you could clarify something for me:

    i have a US Airways frequent flier account which i accrued a decent amount of miles on. i had a flight from LAX to SYD that was codeshared under United (but my ticket was a US Airways ticket). i tried last minute to use my miles to upgrade (thinking that any member in Star Alliance could upgrade with each other) but the United person said i couldn’t use Dividend Miles to upgrade. i was kinda pissed cause my co-worker who was also flying on that same flight used his Mileage Plus miles to upgrade (obviously he could). after my flight, i looked up upgrades on Star Alliance’s website, and in their chart they don’t mention Dividend Miles in terms of inter-airlines upgrades. what’s the deal??

  2. Chich,

    Star Alliance does have a program by which you can upgrade a ticket on one alliance partner using miles form another. Unfortunately, as you found on the Star Alliance website, US Airways Divident miles program does not participate in it. This is a choice exerciced by US Airways and several other airlines who are in Star Alliance. Furthermore, the terms and conditions to use another airlines miles also differs from airline to airline. I have not read every airlines Ts & Cs but my understanding is that several, if not most airlines allow the usage of another airlines miles to upgrade only on full fare economy tickets. These are the highly priced, totally unrestricted tickets that nobody buys. In my opinion, this is a program in Star Alliance that has long ways to grow before it become usable by one and all.


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