Living with credit, Rewards, Travel

How to use credit card rewards to upgrade your flight

Stephanie Zito

For nearly six years I flew back and forth to work assignments in Asia, and I dreaded every single 12-plus hour trans-Pacific journey in economy class. My knees were crushed by the seat in front of me and my neck sore from fidgeting to find a half comfortable position for napping between in-flight movies.

There is a better way to fly, and it is just a few steps away in front of the curtain.

The airlines don’t hide how good the upgraded life is. Every economy-class passenger boards the plane by enviously passing all the rows of champagne-sipping passengers already settled into their lie-flat business class seats.

Those premium seats may seem inaccessible to most of us not traveling on a Fortune 500 expense account. Or at least they did to me until I learned that all those credit card rewards points I was racking up made those lie-flat seats more attainable than I’d previously thought.

Want to join the elite flyers in the front of the plane? I did. Here are two ways you can (and should) use your reward points to fly first class without winning the lottery:

1. Book a business- or first-class ticket with your points at a good value.
The easiest and most direct way to upgrade yourself to a confirmed seat up front is to simply use your points to book a business-class or first-class itinerary.

While this sounds like common sense, many travelers continue to fly economy because they get stuck on the idea that spending a big chunk of reward points on a single ticket is a waste of hard-earned miles. If you are in this camp, the easiest way to convince yourself that using points for a premium ticket is worth it is to do the math.

Take for example that 16-hour Cathay Pacific flight I used to dread taking between New York and Hong Kong. The average cost of a one-way economy ticket on this route one way is $600, while a seat in the first-class cabin on the same plane costs $18,000.  You read that right. It costs 30 times more cash to sit in the front of the plane.

Now compare the cost of the two fares using miles. By booking the flight on Cathay Pacific using American AAdvantage points you’ve earned from your Citibank AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard these same two seats would cost approximately 37,500 or 110,000 points respectively.

Sure, that’s a lot of miles, but it is only triple the cost versus 30 times the cash price. And while $18,000 isn’t attainable for most of us, 110,000 points most likely is if you’re charging your everyday spending to the card and paying off what’s owed every month.

By using your reward points, you can have the experience of a first-class flight and save your cash to buy a new Toyota Corolla (or any brand-new car of your choice that costs $18,000). And the best thing about credit card rewards points is that you will always be earning more!

2. Use reward points to upgrade a ticket you’ve purchased.
You also can move to the front of the plane by using your airline miles and credit card rewards points to upgrade a ticket that you’ve purchased.

Nearly every airline offers a pay-with-miles upgrade option to the members of their loyalty program. The concept is simple – you buy a ticket (with money), then you use your miles (or card rewards points transferred to that airline’s mileage program) to pay for your upgrade.

Note: Make sure you’re purchasing a ticket with an upgradable fare class (most deep discount budget tickets aren’t eligible for upgrades), and check that the flight has upgrade space in the cabin where you want to sit.

Every airline has different rules for how they handle mileage upgrades for domestic and international flights. If you’re doing this for the first time, the easiest way to ensure you’ll get the seat you want is to call the airline and ask a booking agent before you purchase your flight.

Note that upgrading with points has the most value when you’re booking an international flight, and you usually can upgrade only one cabin level – i.e.,  you can’t jump from economy to the first-class suites using points.

In most cases, you’ll need to have points in the program of the airline you’re flying to apply for the upgrade.  This is where your credit card rewards points – especially those that earn in flexible programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards (Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred are two examples), Citi Thank You points (Citi PremierSM Card being one example), or American Express Membership Rewards – come in handy.

For example, had I been wiser at the time when I was commuting between the U.S. and Asia, I could have transferred Membership Rewards points that I earn from my American Express Platinum card to my account in Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles program and used them to upgrade the economy seat that my organization had purchased.

As you may have guessed, this option works well for business travelers, anyone flying on a ticket someone else is paying for, and for those times when you want that upgraded seat but don’t have quite enough points to pay for it.

No matter which upgrade method works best for you and your travel style, flying is a better experience in the front of the plane. The first time I experienced that New York-to-Hong Kong flight in a first-class seat those 16 hours flew by in a flash.

Wide-eyed upon arrival after a great night’s sleep, outstretched in my own lie-flat bed, I remember asking the flight attendant, “How can we already be here?”

Go ahead, upgrade your flight. Your knees will thank me later.

See related: Cash in rewards to fly first class, Use your airline miles for more than seats, Hidden card benefit: Save money and sanity in airport lounges

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