When you should use points for business or first-class flights

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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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