Award Tickets 101: Can I Upgrade My Award Ticket?

In my next installment of Award Tickets 101, I want to address a question that I have been asked fairly often lately:

“Adam – I booked an economy class award ticket and want to upgrade to business/first class. How can I do this?”

This is a frustrating question for me to receive as oftentimes people believe getting an upgrade is as simple as calling in to the airline.

As a general point, award tickets can only be upgraded to a higher class of service (i.e., premium economy, business or first class) if there is available award space at that level. Usually this situation generally arises though when someone wants to book a premium cabin award ticket, but cannot find one. So instead, they go ahead and book an economy class ticket and then go about seeking out a way to upgrade their award ticket. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, you cannot upgrade an award ticket to a higher class of service without there being award space available at that higher award level.

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Keep in mind as well that if you are later able to find premium cabin award space and opt to upgrade your award ticket from economy class, you may incur a change fee. Certain airlines like American Airlines will not charge you to upgrade the class of your award ticket while others will charge you a redeposit and/or reticketing fee. If you intend to upgrade your award ticket at a later date, be sure to ask the carrier you are redeeming miles with what their policy is on upgrading an award ticket.

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As with most everything in the points and miles game, there are a few extremely limited exceptions to this general rule. The first is where there are seats available in the premium cabin when check-in opens. In that scenario, airlines like American Airlines and JAL will oftentimes allow you to buy up to a higher cabin for a set cost either at check-in or at the gate. These buy-ups are usually offered regardless of whether you are on a paid ticket or an award ticket and can cost anywhere from $20-$800+. Airlines like Delta however would rather see their premium cabins go out empty than offer these buy-ups, so if you are flying on a Delta flight, it is unlikely you will see this option presented.

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The second is an extremely rare scenario for the average flyer – the operational upgrade (or “op-up”). Op-ups occur when there is space available in the premium cabin(s) and the airline has oversold the flight in the economy cabin. In this scenario, the gate agent will pick a few individuals to upgrade to a higher cabin so the airline can accommodate all of the ticketed passengers for that particular flight. The individual(s) selected for op-ups are usually elite members of the airline or the airline’s alliance so if you carry no status with the airline/alliance you are flying on, your chances of the op-up are extremely small.

Unfortunately, airlines do not allow you to use additional miles + a copay to upgrade an award ticket, so unless you are able to secure an upgrade by one of the two “methods” I outlined above, you can expect to fly your flight in the cabin you booked.

Remember, if you need help with you award booking, I offer an award travel booking service to help you secure your ideal award ticket!

Final Thoughts

As you can see, your options for upgrading award tickets are fairly limited and are generally only going to be available if there happens to be available premium cabin space on your flight. If you are dead set on flying a premium cabin, you would be better off having some flexibility in your travel dates (if you can) to book exactly what you want from the start.

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