How to Use Miles to Get a Seat Upgrade

03/23/2015 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015


With the increasingly limited availability of coveted award seats -- and more and more miles and points flooding the system -- finding business-class tickets for a reasonable number of miles is harder than ever. Here are some tips from the mileage pros.

Don't rely on upgrading. In the past, it was relatively easy to buy an economy ticket and use miles to get to the front of the plane. It's become more of a crapshoot recently. Airlines are now focused on selling business-class seats and often open them up to upgrades only at the last minute, says Brian Kelly, founder of the Points Guy blog. (What's more, some airlines require you to buy a nearly full-fare economy ticket to qualify for an upgrade.) But unless you're a high-priority million-miler, there's a good chance that you'll end up stuck in coach. "It's a very expensive lottery," says Gary Leff, founder of Book Your Award, a mileage-redemption service. The better option is to use your miles to secure a business-class seat outright; they're more plentiful and a better value. Upgrading to business on a Delta flight from the United States to Europe, for example, will cost you 15,000 to 25,000 miles on top of your economy fare -- often with no guaranteed seat; the lowest-tier business award seats go for just 62,500 miles. That said, if you're willing to gamble, consider a premium subscription to ($9.99 per month), which will notify you when an upgrade (or an award seat) becomes available.

Diversify your points. If you're not going to reach elite status with an airline, it doesn't make sense to rely on a single domestic carrier to house all your miles, leaving yourself vulnerable to devaluations. Your best bet is to earn through a credit card tied to a flexible-points program, such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest, all of which let you transfer points to a variety of travel partners. And even as United, Delta, and other airlines make it harder to bank miles, credit cards still have lucrative earning structures (sign-up bonuses, double-points offers, etc.). The Points Guy and One Mile at a Time blogs are both great resources for credit card offers and insights.

Leverage partnerships. Domestic carriers' websites don't show you all the inventory of all the airline's international partners. Ben Schlappig, founder of PointsPros and the One Mile at a Time blog, advises calling the airline and asking about seats on affiliated airlines. For example, American Airlines AAdvantage miles can be used for Etihad Airways award seats, which are often available, since many U.S. travelers aren't aware of this agreement. And don't overlook Alaska Airlines. Though it isn't part of the major international alliances, Alaska miles can be used on several Oneworld and SkyTeam carriers, including American and Delta.

Stay flexible. You'll find the best upgrade and award-seat availability, Leff says, when business travelers are not flying: at off-peak times, midweek, and midday. Business seats are also easier to snag on flights to or from second-tier airports. That American Airlines flight from Raleigh- Durham to London has much more availability than one from New York's JFK to Heathrow, Schlappig says. You can also mix and match carriers now that airlines are lifting the restrictions on booking one-way award tickets. The benefit, Leff says, is that you don't need as many miles in any one frequent-flier account to take advantage of one-way rewards.

Outsource the task. If the thought of moving points around and researching airline partnerships makes you want to throw in the towel, you can. Services like Schlappig's PointsPros and Leff's Book Your Award will find those lucrative award seats for you. Schlappig charges $200 a ticket ($100 for each additional one); Leff's fee is $150 a ticket. Neither will charge you until he finds you an acceptable itinerary.

--By Amy Farley