Are Y-Up Fares or Mileage Runs Better for Free Upgrades?

One of my blog posts recently got picked up by Lifehacker, and while I’m pretty stoked about the extra publicity, it also prompted some questions from new readers. The article was discussing the usefulness of Y-Up fares to save money on first class upgrades. These tickets are essentially full-price or slightly discounted coach fares that include an instant upgrade to first class.

My blog was mentioned because of an earlier rundown I provided on using ITA’s Matrix search engine. Great. I think I did a good job with those earlier posts, and I’m glad to see that some people find them useful. Personally I don’t search for Y-Up fares, but ITA is useful for so much more than that, including everyday travel, mileage running, and fuel dumping.

The problem some readers had was that they weren’t seeing these huge discounts on first class that they expected. This doesn’t surprise me. You aren’t buying a first class ticket; you’re buying a coach ticket that includes an upgrade. So you’ll save some money. The article mentions that a Y-Up fare from New York to Phoenix was only $692 vs. over $1,300 for a normal first class fare. Sounds about right.

But obviously it’s not the same as buying a deep-discount economy ticket, which is what I normally fly. No G fare on United Airlines (the lowest fare bucket) is going to come with an instant upgrade.

Fly More, Fly Cheaper, Fly Better

How do I fly first class on most trips? For those with the time and interest, I continue to recommend the benefits of elite status with an airline. When I looked for the price of the cheapest economy class ticket between New York and Phoenix in September, I got something closer to $300. Instead of paying an extra $392 for a Y-Up fare instead of the cheapest coach ticket (the difference between $692 and $300), I might take that ~$400 and buy two mileage runs, earning an extra 12,000 elite qualifying miles and 24,000 redeemable miles. This assumes my 100% bonus as an existing elite and that I find a mileage run that costs about 3.5 cents per elite mile, my usual target.

That extra $400 has gotten me one-eighth of the way toward requalifying for Premier 1K with United, Executive Platinum with American, or Diamond Medallion with Delta. Here’s the point where you find the dividing line between normal travelers and frequent flyers like me, who do this for fun. 😉 Why would anyone want to take two extra flights instead of just paying extra for the upgrade on the one important trip?

The cost is about the same, but the benefits of mileage running are so much greater. As a top-tier elite, I stand a good chance of a free elite upgrade, even on a cheap fare, for these mileage runs as well as that flight between New York and Phoenix. I’ll also get other benefits like expedited check-in, security, and waived booking or change fees, and free checked baggage.

I’ve also been able to visit cities on my mileage runs that I might not otherwise see. Earlier this year I visited Bahrain, and soon I’ll be visiting Philadelphia for the first time. I’ve also had past weekend trips to Paris and London. When you’re paying $1,200 to visit Europe, spending less than a week seems a waste of money. I’m happy to go for two or three nights if my ticket cost under $500 from the West Coast.

So, I can still get the elite status I need for a free upgrade, and I can tack on a few short vacations for the same additional price as purchasing a Y-Up fare. Don’t forget the extra redeemable miles I earned. I save these for expensive, out-of-the-way flights that cost $500 but only 25,000 miles, so I’m getting ~2 cents in value for miles that I earned at a rate of ~1.8 cents (my 3.5 cents per mile target with a 100% elite bonus). And if you’re an elite with United, you can still get upgraded on award tickets if you have a United credit card!

Paid Upgrades Are Cheaper, Too

But for some people, the confirmed upgrade that comes with a more expensive ticket is still preferable to the elite upgrade system that sometimes seems like a lottery. I’ll end with three reasons why using your spare cash to fly more and earn elite status still trumps buying more expensive Y-Ups.

First, you can downgrade to cheaper tickets that might also include free upgrades. United elites can get an instant upgrade with a Y fare or B fare, the two highest economy class fares. If you’re a Premier 1K, meaning you fly 100,000 miles or more each year, you can also get an upgrade with an M fare, the third highest fare. Over time, that extra step down could save you a lot of money.

Second, you can sometimes buy upgrades. American Airlines will give you four 500-mile upgrade certificates every time you fly 10,000 miles. Take the distance of your next trip and divide by 500 to figure out how many of these certificates you’ll need for an upgrade. If you don’t get enough for free, just buy the extras at $30 a pop and apply them to a discount economy ticket. These upgrades are still only available to elites, but all tiers can purchase them.

Third, free elite upgrades are ranked by fare class in addition to elite status, so maybe you can find a middle ground. I’ll admit this still requires you to enter the lottery, but you can weight the odds in your favor buy purchasing a more expensive economy ticket without paying quite as much as you would for a typical Y-Up.

Overall, I’m pleased with the mileage run game and getting the free upgrades as they come rather than buying pricey Y-Ups. My success isn’t perfect, but it’s still over 70% with a companion in tow and over 90% when I fly alone. Those numbers, along with all the other perks, are enough to keep me happy.

Mid-2012 Elite Status Update
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  • Jamison

    MR & mistake fares for me :)

  • Anomadtoo

    Great post! I’m from the Seattle area too; and I swear when I return from Germany I will look you up and pick your brain; haha.