How do I upgrade my airline ticket with miles?

We had a question from a reader here at Gadling about upgrading a purchased ticket with miles into first class. Reader Ashley writes:

My husband and I are blessed (cursed) enough to live in an area almost completely served by Northwest Airlines, and are trying to get a grasp on the requirements to upgrade an upcoming Europe trip to first class. We have enough miles to cover even the highest “cost” for upgrades according to the website (60,000), but are confused by the stipulations placed upon the “class” of ticket. It appears that, by selecting the box that allows you to upgrade, ticket prices more than TRIPLE!

Is this really the only way to upgrade? Is this one of those ploys that experienced travellers can find their way around?

Unfortunately, Ashley, you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head. But let’s back up real quick.

On most carriers, it’s possible to buy an economy class ticket with cash or miles then upgrade that ticket at a later date into business or first class. It can be an economical way to fly in first without having to pay the often-ridiculous prices for a full fare.

The trick is, however, that airlines require you to be booked into a certain fare class in order to upgrade your fare — that is, you can’t upgrade the 170$ budget ticket to London that you bought in the super discounted fare class. Airlines do this on purpose to make it difficult for you to spend your miles; after all, miles you don’t spend are dollars in their coffers.

In your case, Ashley, you need to book a Y or B fare class in order to upgrade your ticket with miles, the former of which is “full” while the latter is “slightly discounted” economy. And I’ll bet those prices are significantly more than a regular “deeply discounted” economy ticket.

One long shot that you can use to get around this is by tracking down a System Wide Upgrade. Super-elite members are given vouchers that allow them to upgrade any ticket to first class. If you can find one of those members and make him or her a deal, they might give away their voucher. But you have to fly at least 120,000 miles per year to get these vouchers so they may be sparse.

In that light, I’d recommend you use your 60k miles to buy one economy ticket for the pair of you and pay out of pocket for the other. If you’re proactive, you can book a bulkhead or exit row on an A330 giving you unlimited legroom and in-seat entertainment. Then, use the money you saved to get a nice hotel room in Europe when you get there where you can sleep away your jetlag and any recollection of your flight in coach.