4 things to consider before paying a co-pay for an upgrade


Like a lot of things about travel, using miles for an upgrade used to be relatively easy and straightforward. Not anymore.

Now most carriers have a myriad of different options based on fare level and mileage used, and most have introduced the dreaded words “co-pay.”

Admittedly, one good thing about the “co-pays,” basically using money in addition to miles for the upgrades, is that when a waitlist doesn’t clear for the upgrade, the passenger isn’t charged.

(With the older system, only higher fares were upgradable. This meant many who paid more for a upgradable fare still ended up in coach was out of luck.)

Here are four things to consider before booking a discounted ticket and requesting an upgrade with frequent flier miles.

1. Is it worth it? More precisely, would it be better just to book a discount business class ticket and save the miles.

For an example, the lowest round-trip business-class fare from San Francisco to Copenhagen this summer on United is $3,188 plus tax and fuel surcharges. But, one some days that I recently checked, the lowest coach fare was $1,150. The upgrade would be 50,000 miles round-trip, plus $850. Plus, the short flight from London to Copenhagen, on partner carrier SAS, would be in coach.

Using miles, if the upgrade cleared, would save $1,000. But the discount business class fare would earn a 25 percent mileage bonus — 3,000 or so more miles plus the miles saved by not cashing in miles. That adds up to enough for more than three domestic upgrades, or maybe even a free domestic business class ticket.

In general, the price between the lowest business class fare, if it’s available, and the coach upgradable fare seems to be in the $1,000 each way range. (And for what it’s worth, if discount business class is full an upgrade is unlikely to clear.) Now, with American the co-pay is “only” $350 plus miles, but again, plus 25,000 miles, and there is the same business class mileage bonus.

2. Beware “irregular operations.” In the case of flight cancellations or delays, an upgraded ticket is not high on the food chain as far as snagging another business class class seat.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, money talks.

A client had a flight canceled from New York to San Francisco tonight. He had decided to pay for the discount business class because he didn’t want to take the chance of being in coach for a six-hour flight after a long week.

United rebooked him on a flight the following day, in coach, since business class was sold out. But, as soon as I called a human and pointed out the original fare, $1,300 or so compared to coach fares under $400, she agreed to put him in first class.

3. Research the co-pays. If you do use a co-pay with an airline that has different price levels for different classes of service, you or your travel agent should do a little research. I have frequently had tickets that cost less than $100 more round-trip, have a $200 lower co-pay. If the different is slight, a higher class of service means a higher priority on the waitlist too.

4. Consider a mid-class product. American Airlines frequent fliers, for example, might look at a paid “World Traveler Plus” British Airways ticket. This mid-class may cost less than an upgraded coach ticket by the time you add the co-pay. Mid-class products aren’t as good as business class, but they are often considerably better than coach.

Finally, if this is all getting to seem like too much time and hassle, there is always the “plague on all of your houses” solution, of just booking the best and most convenient coach fare, and bringing along whatever inflight entertainment and/or drugs you need to get through the flight without too much suffering.

And then splurging (or using your miles) to get a really nice hotel at your destination.

Photo: United Air Lines

  • http://trabbatical.com kevin winter

    It’s getting to the point that I wonder if any of the frequent flyer programs really pay off.

    And I think the reason is the low-cost carriers. If I spend a couple of hundred more on a ticket on a legacy carrier, will it come out in the end in miles? They keep adding restrictions to mileage redemption tickets, so I never seem to find one at the lowest tier.

    I don’t use any affiliate credit cards, or do any of the other circus tricks to earn miles. I earn miles by flying. I know some have used it to their advantage, but I just don’t see it.

    Do you think it comes out better in the long run to stay loyal, or should I just take the cheapest fair and leave it at that?

    Thanks for the article.


  • Reality Check

    We booked World Traveler Plus last September DFW-LHR. It was WELL WORTH the extra money ($350 ea., I think). More leg room and a separate cabin. When I stepped back to the rear cabin to enter the loo, it was the worst looking coach product I’d seen, and I was oh-so pleased we weren’t stuck there: TRUE steerage. The majority of BA 777s are first and biz products; but the small eco-plus cabin is a nice in-between. It’s worth saying, however, that when the pax in front of me reclined, the extra 7 inches of space magically disappeared. Still, the alternative was Steerage. Bon voyage!