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The truth about frequent-flier upgrades

T+L discovers the truth about frequent-flier upgrades is that they are often hard to get — and more expensive than ever.
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I thought I was being clever when I booked a $698 round-trip Delta flight from New York to London with the idea of getting an upgrade for 50,000 frequent-flier miles. But when I went to the Delta website to complete the upgrade process, I was informed that I didn’t qualify. I called a Delta agent to ask why.

“You bought a cheap ticket,” the agent said. Turns out I had a T fare, which doesn’t qualify for an upgrade. For that I would have had to buy a more expensive M, B, or Y economy fare, she said. The agent was willing to rebook me at the cheapest price for an upgradable ticket: $2,393. On top of that I would have had to use 50,000 SkyMiles (worth $1,000 based on the commonly accepted value of 2 cents per mile), for a cash equivalent of $3,393. Here’s the kicker: I could have bought a business-class ticket on that same flight for only $2,800 — $600 less than the upgrade would cost.

Frustrated as I was with Delta, this situation could have happened with any airline, as fare codes have become increasingly difficult to decipher. So what are the restrictions? It depends on the carrier: American, Continental, and US Airways have little to no restrictions on economy fares; Delta and United have more rules.

Even with a qualifying airfare, you might find your flight has already reached its limit of upgrades (“capacity controlled,” in airline-speak). And some qualifying tickets require higher co-pays (up to $500 each way) or more miles than others. The reason? Too many fliers with too many miles, thanks partly to credit-card and other non-air-travel promotions.

An alternate strategy would be to exchange miles for a business-class ticket rather than for an upgrade; it could be a better value. But if you do decide to upgrade, you’ll want to figure out the real cost (airfare plus miles plus co-pay) to decide if it’s worth it. You might find a good deal, especially on domestic flights. More likely, you’ll be as surprised as I was to discover that, increasingly, upgrading with miles isn’t the bargain it once was.

What it costs to upgrade using miles
On top of your economy fare, here’s what you can expect to pay to upgrade on major domestic airlines.

American Airlines
Domestic Miles*: 30,000 (or $600) Co-Pay: $150 Cost: $750 plus airfare

Europe Miles*: 50,000 (or 1,000) Co-Pay: $700 Cost: $1,700 plus airfare

Continental Airlines
Domestic Miles*: 30,000 (or $600) Co-Pay: $350 Cost: $950 plus airfare

Europe Miles*: 40,000 (or $800) Co-Pay: $1,000 Cost: $1,800 plus airfare

Domestic Miles*: 25,000 (or $500) Co-Pay: no co-pay Cost: $500 plus airfare

Europe Miles*: 50,000 (or $1,000) Co-Pay: no co-pay Cost: $1,000 plus airfare

Domestic Miles*: 30,000 (or $600) Co-Pay: $100 Cost: $700 plus airfare

Europe Miles*: 40,000 (or $800) Co-Pay: $1,000 Cost: $1,800 plus airfare

US Airways
Domestic Miles*: 30,000 (or $600) Co-Pay: no co-pay Cost: $600 plus airfare

Europe Miles*: 60,000 (or $1,200) Co-Pay: $600 Cost: $1,800 plus airfare

* Based on cash value of 2 cents per mile on lowest qualifying airfare.

Upgrade policies of the major domestic carriers
Each of the major domestic airline has its own unique rules and restrictions on getting an upgrade using frequent-flier miles. United, for example, has the highest co-pays—up to $500 each way on flights to Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia. Delta, on the other hand, has no co-pays but restricts more fares from upgrades. And on all the airlines some upgradeable fares require more miles and higher co-pays than other qualifying fares for the same flight.

But there’s only one way to know for sure whether your ticket qualifies for an upgrade and, if so, how much you’ll pay: Go to the airline websites and check out their upgrade policies.