You want a first–class upgrade on your next trip—who doesn’t? But airlines have made it more expensive—and more confusing—to snare one.
In recent months, many big carriers have changed their upgrade rules, adding more restrictions and upping fees. More changes have already been announced for next year. So now is a great time to take a close look and compare airlines’ programs.
Continental Airlines Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. fliers should pay particular attention because Continental is leaving its SkyTeam partnership with Delta this month and joining the Star Alliance with UAL Corp.’s United Airlines and US Airways Group Inc. That means customers of Delta and Northwest will lose some opportunities to earn miles and will see their reward trip options shrink. United and US Airways partisans, however, stand to gain. New York will be a prime battleground since Continental and Delta customers will likely want to choose one or the other, but the changes may lead to frequent–flier program jockeying across the country.
“I fully expect Continental to bring not only their frequent fliers but also some of their former colleagues’ frequent fliers as well,” said Glenn Tilton, chairman and chief executive of United.
Some airlines say competitors have even been surreptitiously dropping promotional cards in their airport clubs trying to entice travelers to switch. If you want to switch, airlines will match your elite–level status in a competitor’s frequent–flier program.
Picking the right program can depend on a host of factors, from the service each airline offers at your hometown airport to the size and reach of the carrier’s alliance network so you can earn and burn miles wherever you like to go. But for many road warriors, upgrades are by far the most enticing reward in a frequent–flier program: They are a better value than redeeming miles for tickets, and they greatly improve your travel experience.
The apple of most every traveler’s eye is the international upgrade—moving to a cushy business–class seat that lies flat for sleeping without spending many thousands of dollars. Under financial pressure, airlines have made international upgrades more expensive, just as they have upped the price for checked baggage or reservation changes.
AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, Continental and US Airways have all added “co–payments” to mileage awards, charging frequent fliers both miles and cash for upgrades. United will add co–pays in January.
US Airways is among the more–expensive for trans–Atlantic upgrades, charging 30,000 miles plus $300 for a one–way upgrade to Europe. Continental charges only 20,000 miles plus a $100–to–$500 co–pay, which varies based on the fare you paid for the coach ticket. The cheaper the fare, the higher the co–pay.
Delta, including its Northwest Airlines subsidiary, takes a different approach: It severely restricts the discounted coach fares eligible for an upgrade, forcing you to pay hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars more for a coach ticket to qualify for the chance to use miles for an upgrade. Only the three highest classes of coach fares (Y, B and M) are eligible for international upgrades. (And you still have to use 25,000 miles one–way.) For a New York–Paris trip in February, for example, Delta’s Web site offers coach fares as low as $592 plus taxes, but if you want a coach fare that’s eligible for a 25,000–mile upgrade, you have to pay $2,530 plus tax. (A discounted business–class ticket on the same flights is only $3,312 plus tax.) If you want to make sure you’re buying a fare that is eligible for an upgrade, Delta lets you drill down on its Web site to search by specific fare class.
Matthew Bennett, who publishes the newsletter First Class Flyer, says Delta’s cheapest upgradeable international fares are often $1,000 or more than the lowest upgradeable fares on other airlines. Sometimes other airlines cost more in miles, but the cash savings makes them more attractive. American, he notes, lets customers upgrade from just about any coach fare.
San Diego tax lawyer Chris Cooke frequently flies Delta and almost always gets upgraded on domestic flights, but international trips are a different story. “Since I virtually never travel in one of those [highest fare] classes, I’ve never been upgraded on an international Delta flight,” he said. On a New York–Dublin round–trip earlier this year, he sat in the coach cabin being knocked by passengers visiting a nearby bathroom and wondered why the airline wouldn’t offer one of the many empty business–class seats.
“I got about two minutes of sleep,” he said.
As airlines have added co–pays, most carriers have made more fare classes eligible for upgrade. And some have reduced the miles required for upgrades, deadening some of the sting of the cash payments. Continental and other airlines say a big advantage of the co–pay system is that travelers don’t have to buy tickets at higher fares just to be eligible, and then end up sorely disappointed if no upgrades end up becoming available. Typically, upgrades get confirmed after tickets get bought and at least a day before departure.
“The co–pay is roughly equivalent of buying into a higher fare bucket,” said Mark Bergsrud, senior vice president of marketing programs at Continental. But customers only pay the higher price if they actually get the upgrade.
In general, Continental and US Airways have the best domestic upgrade programs, offering them free to elite–level frequent fliers when seats are available. Delta comes close, but offers free upgrades only to elite–level customers who have tickets in certain fare classes. (But more classes of tickets are eligible for domestic upgrades than for international.) Frequent fliers on American and United can snare upgrades by trading in the 500–mile electronic coupons they earn by flying or buy directly from the airline.
But, like international upgrades, the best way to upgrade on a domestic trip these days is to pay, unless you have super–elite status and are sure to get it for free. You can upgrade coach fares with miles, usually 15,000 one–way, and some airlines require a $50–to–$150 co–pay.
Another way to land in the first–class cabin: Buy a “Y–Up” coach fare that comes with an instant upgrade. Airlines offer coach fares with instant upgrades to help customers evade corporate–travel prohibitions on buying first–class fares. You end up paying several hundred dollars more for a ticket, but usually save hundreds of dollars off a first–class fare.
American’s Web site shows fares with instant upgrades, if available, when you search by “schedule and price.” FareCompare.com offers a tool that lets you search from your departure city for all destinations.
The cheapest upgrade of all can be the last–minute splurge: Buying an upgrade at the airport. Airlines have been experimenting with selling upgrades to customers at check–in, after elite–level frequent fliers have claimed first–class and business–class seats. Prices vary considerably: American charges $45 for every 500 miles of a flight, so a 1,500–mile flight would cost $135 to upgrade, one–way. United charges $77 for every 500 miles on domestic trips. Delta says its domestic upgrades sold at check–in are priced $50 to $150; Continental says its upgrades start at only $25 for short flights and top out on domestic trips at $250 for routes like Los Angeles–Honolulu and Houston–Anchorage.
Most airlines offer the upgrades only at airport kiosks and counters. US Airways, however, offer a unique deal: You can call 24 hours before departure at the airlines reservation line, 800–428–4322, and try to snag an upgrade. Price: $50 to $250 for domestic flights; $300 to $600 for trans–Atlantic trips.