Joanne Kim describes herself as “usually an economy girl” who tries to stretch her points as far as possible to visit her long distance boyfriend. But in 2019, Kim and her boyfriend snagged a deal to use 110,000 plus $257.41 in taxes to fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo in first class on a Virgin Atlantic/ANA flight. A deal with a sticker price around $21,000.
The luxurious experience included a first-class lounge before boarding, lie-flat seats, pajamas, decadent meals, and an attentive flight attendant.
“The older I get, the more I realize you pay more money to be more comfortable,” says Kim. But sometimes it’s hard to go back to economy once you’ve had a taste of what’s on the other side of the not-so-metaphorical curtain.
“The value of the lie-flat beds cannot be overstated,” says Annie Ray, owner of Champagne & Capital Gains, a personal finance blog for young professionals. “Last time I traveled internationally, my friends flew coach and I was upgraded on the outbound flight. They were miserably jet-lagged; I was able to mostly hit the ground running.”
But after spending most of 2020 grounded, travel lovers are eager to take to the skies as soon as destinations are somewhat reopened and safe. But one question remains for the deal-obsessed: Should you go big with the miles and points you saved in 2020 or spread them out to maximize travel opportunities?
For some it will depend on if their miles or points are subject to expiration dates. Many airlines did extend the expiration dates of vouchers and points until 2022, but it’s important to also check in on credit card points.
Here’s how to weigh your options when some semblance of normal travel resumes.
What’s your threshold to make an upgrade worth it?
“Because miles aren’t tied to a currency exchange, I find it hard to have an objective sense of their value or what is reasonable, says Jennifer Penrose, a data scientist. “I tend to evaluate ticket prices in miles based on the percentage it would be of the miles that I have or expect to earn in a given year.”
Similarly, frequent flier Martha Shaughnessy, founder of The Key PR, applies a currency evaluation when it’s an option, like with credit card points. “When it’s similar to the cash-back equivalent, we won’t do it,” says Shaughnessy “If it feels like a real deal [to upgrade], that’s when we press go.”
For others, it’s a time-versus-discomfort calculation.
“For flights that are at least 2.5 hours or more I always check my miles balance or flight status to determine my upgrade eligibility,” says Holly Reid Toodle, CPA and author of Teach Your Child to Fish: Five Money Habits Every Child Should Master. “Especially if I’m traveling with my husband, a former football player who stands at 6’2″—it’s a must!”
Alicia Caldes, a screenwriter and independent producer, says she starts looking to upgrade for flights that clock in around five hours each way. At that point, she’ll try to use miles for a first- or business-class ticket. She’s willing to pay the best deal out of pocket for anything under five hours. But she does have a cap on the number of miles she’s willing to spend.
“Anything over 80,000 miles for a roundtrip that doesn’t include a lie-flat seat is a hard pass for me unless the trip is over eight hours each way,” says Caldes, who tends to prioritize upgrades for work trips. She’s more willing to go premium economy for recreational travel.
For Jalpan Dave, an engineer, distance and time plays less of a factor compared to the occasion or the urgency to get on a flight. He once had to book a business-class ticket to attend a family member’s wedding because economy was full by the time he knew he could attend. It was a choice he made because the occasion was still worth the price point.
How do you get the upgrade?
“Any transatlantic flights I take, I almost immediately go through the upgrade request process,” says Ray, the personal finance blogger. She typically saves her AAdvantage miles for upgrades, has gotten upgraded on all her outbound international flights in the last two years, and admits she’d have a hard time taking a flight in economy now.
Ray’s general process goes something like this: She uses a combination of credit card rewards to book a coach flight with the airline to reduce out-of-pocket cost, but still get status credit and miles for the flight. Her experience has been that airlines will treat Chase or AmEx reward purchases like a cash booking. Then she’ll request the upgrade within American’s system using her AAdvantage miles.
When Caldes, the screenwriter, first started collecting miles, her main goal was to save them up to splurge on upgrades to first or business class. But she’s willing to tap into her reserve in order to cover the cost of emergency trips if it helps cover the cost of premium economy.
Shaughnessy also likes to alternate with a focus on saving up for necessary travel like flying her family of six from California to Michigan to spend holidays with extended family. The splurge will happen if it’s been a hefty season of business travel.
Have you ever regretted upgrading?
Some fliers have learned the hard way that it’s important to check the fine print of using your miles to upgrade a ticket. Caldes once had an airline not honor an upgrade when a connecting airport changed on her itinerary. The airline did, however, end up refunding the upgrade charge and put her in premium economy.
Kim, on the other hand, doesn’t regret spending miles on her luxury first-class experience, but has experienced buyer’s remorse after paying more for an economy plus seat over just a regular economy seat, especially as she still values quantity over quality in her flying choices.
Still others believe the upgrade is always worth it. “I’ve only regretted not requesting upgrades soon enough to get them,” Ray jokes.
Is it hard to go back to flying coach?
“How could I go back to economy after experiencing first class?” Kim initially asked herself after her luxe flight to Tokyo. She would even feel a twinge of envy while boarding and walking by people sitting at the front of the plane. Ultimately, though, she’s content with her choices to squeeze as much as she can out of her points.
“I’m still young, my body is still limber, I can take it physically,” says Kim. “I have time later on in life to experience it once again.”
That type of refrain could become more common in 2021 as travelers look to make up for lost time by booking a higher quantity of flights over just a few flights in a more premium cabin. But not everyone is in Kim’s camp.
“The lie-flat beds on overnight flights are worth every penny or mile to me,” says Ray. “Everyone cares about different things.”
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