The Trick To Upgrading Emirates Flights With Miles

The Trick To Upgrading Emirates Flights With Miles

48

The past several days I’ve been researching a fascinating trick for upgrading Emirates flights (and no, it’s not dressing nice and saying it’s your honeymoon), and I even tested it firsthand on an Emirates flight. Okay, in fairness, I failed, but that’s not because it doesn’t work, but rather for different reasons (more details below). I’d argue that this is the single best opportunity in the airline industry for securing last seat availability for international first class.

The basics of easily upgrading to Emirates first class

Emirates first class award seats can sometimes be tough to come by, especially if multiple people are traveling. Fortunately business class award availability is much easier to find in many markets. Here’s where the trick comes in:

  • Business class award tickets can be upgraded to first class using miles (there aren’t many airlines that let you upgrade award tickets with miles in the same way you can upgrade a revenue ticket)
  • The problem is that when you waitlist a first class upgrade in advance, it’s still capacity controlled, and if award or upgrade seats don’t open up, you’ll be rejected at the 48 hour mark, and your upgrade request will be canceled
  • Fortunately on the day of departure there are no capacity controls on upgrades, so you could upgrade to any open first class seat for the same number of miles — you can do this at check-in, at the gate, or you can even upgrade onboard with the flight crew

That’s right, as long as an Emirates first class seat is available on the day of departure, you can upgrade to it for a reasonable number of miles, even if you’re on a business class award ticket (this same principle works for upgrading from economy to business class, by the way).

Emirates first class upgrades are easiest day of departure

The best way to upgrade Emirates flights

I’ve written in the past about how to upgrade Emirates flights with miles. You can generally upgrade by one class of service, and only when your ticket is issued directly by Emirates (so a partner ticket wouldn’t qualify).

The catch is that I wrote about this in a situation where confirmable upgrade space was available at the time of booking. Airlines make a subset of seats available for awards and upgrades in advance, so the process is easy enough when those seats are confirmable. But what happens when they need to be waitlisted?

I tested this out for an Emirates flight that I took yesterday from Athens to Newark (not to be confused with the Emirates first class review I published yesterday, which was for a flight in June).

When it came time to book, the Athens to Newark flight that I wanted to take had Business Flex award tickets (62,500 miles one-way), but not First Flex award tickets (85,000 miles one-way). So I decided to book business class, and worked on securing an upgrade.

The problem is that Emirates publishes very little on its website about the upgrade process. So it really took a lot of trial-and-error, and asking some friends, to figure out the system.

How many miles do you need to upgrade Emirates flights?

Emirates Skywards has a mileage calculator on its website, where you can search a specific route and find out how many miles you’d need for an upgrade, award ticket, etc. I entered a one-way Athens to Newark itinerary, and here was the result under the business class column:

As you can see:

  • A Business Flex Plus award ticket costs 62,500 Skywards miles
  • An upgrade from a Business Flex ticket (whether paid with cash or miles) costs 30,000 Skywards miles

Note that the upgrade cost could vary based on the type of ticket you book. For example, if you booked a roundtrip business award between Athens and Newark at the Saver level (rather than Flex Plus) you’d pay only 90,000 miles roundtrip, but then an upgrade would cost 78,000 miles roundtrip (so you pay fewer miles upfront, but more miles for the upgrade).

I’m guessing most people will use this for Flex Plus tickets, in which case the first example is more relevant.

What makes Emirates unique here is that you can upgrade a mileage ticket in exactly the same way you could upgrade a cash ticket. That’s because Emirates uses the same type of fare bundles (like Flex Plus) for award tickets and cash tickets.

So booking a one-way business class award ticket and upgrading it to first class with last seat availability would cost a total of 92,500 Skywards miles. That’s only marginally more than the 85,000 Skywards miles that would be needed for an outright one-way first class award, which comes with significant capacity controls.

Emirates first class is phenomenal!

Waitlisting Emirates upgrades with auto upgrade feature

After booking, I decided to try my luck with Emirates’ auto upgrade feature. I logged into my reservation, and clicked the “Upgrade with Miles” button.

This confirmed that my flight was eligible for an auto upgrade with 30,000 Skywards miles, but also indicated that there was no immediately confirmable upgrade availability.

Emirates’ auto upgrade system is essentially like waitlisting an upgrade. The catch is that:

  • You have to request the upgrade at least 72 hours before departure
  • Auto upgrades can be cleared between 60 days and 48 hours before departure
  • If an auto upgrade doesn’t clear at least 48 hours before departure, your upgrade request will automatically be canceled

There’s a notification system, so when you request your auto upgrade you can provide your phone number, so you’ll be informed if your upgrade clears.

If an award or upgrade seat becomes available then your auto upgrade also clears. Furthermore, theoretically revenue management may sometimes clear waitlisted auto upgrades, but it’s far from a sure bet.

I’ve heard of some people having luck with this, but I certainly didn’t. 48 hours before departure I was notified that my upgrade hadn’t cleared, and that my request was canceled.

My upgrade request wasn’t looking good!

Upgrading Emirates flights with miles at check-in

Emirates allows upgrades with last seat availability at check-in. Unfortunately this only works at the airport, and not via online check-in. When you get to the check-in counter, just inform the agent you’d like to upgrade with Skywards miles, and they can take care of it for you.

So, how did that work out for me? As mentioned above I flew from Athens to Newark yesterday on Emirates. I arrived at the airport just over three hours before departure (shortly before the check-in counter opened), and I looked online and saw that three of the eight first class seats were still available for sale.

Emirates check-in counter pre-opening at Athens Airport

Sure enough, a few minutes later — as it was about to be my turn to check-in — I looked again and saw that first class was sold out. Grrr:

  • I know exactly the three people who had upgraded (I overheard them speaking about it), but they were behind me, and I’m not sure how they upgraded; I’m not sure if they somehow went to another counter, or if they received some sort of targeted email upgrade offer
  • I’ve flown Emirates first class dozens of times, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been on a plane that went out with a full first class cabin, so I got exceptionally unlucky (at least by my standards)
  • Nonetheless I confirmed the process with the check-in agent; she confirmed that if there had been a first class seat empty, I could have upgraded to it for 30,000 Skywards miles

I kept an eye on first class availability, and all eight first class seats stayed occupied, so there weren’t any no shows. In a way I’m happy I got to experience Emirates’ long haul 777 business class, because… wow. I’ll leave it at that for now, other than to say that upgrading to Emirates first class is very, very, very much worth it.

A far cry from Emirates first class!

You can even upgrade onboard an Emirates flight

The opportunity to upgrade doesn’t end at the airport. Even after you’ve boarded the flight, the crew can directly process a mileage upgrade if there are seats available.

When I boarded I told the crew that if there were any first class seats left I’d like to upgrade to one, and they said they’d let me know (again, at this point point I was doing this purely for science and to see what kind of a reaction I’d get, and if this works in real life the way I expected it to).

The two potential catches with upgrades

I feel confident in the above information, though I should add a couple of caveats:

  • Of course not all airline employees are equally well trained, and airlines also sometimes use contract workers at some airports; so agents at outstations might not always be informed of this, and I’d always recommend looking for someone in an Emirates uniform, and/or escalating
  • The only circumstances under which there might theoretically be capacity controls on upgrades is if not enough food has been catered for all first class passengers; this would only be an issue if a lot of people upgrade on the day of departure (for example, if the cabin goes from two to eight passengers), and you can also generally just agree to forgo the higher cabin’s catering and receive the upgrade (though even then you’ll probably still get the improved catering if it’s available)
Not enough food being catered is one of the only challenges with this

Bottom line

While most airlines offer upgrade opportunities of some sort with miles, I’d argue that Emirates Skywards’ upgrade program is one of the most lucrative. You can request an upgrade in advance, and if it’s not immediately confirmable it can be waitlisted until 48 hours before departure, at which point it will be canceled.

If that fails, the real trick to securing an upgrade is to make the request again on the day of departure, either at the airport or onboard. Not only can you upgrade award tickets (which very few airlines allow), but you can even get last seat availability (which most non-US airlines don’t allow).

This is a great trick when you consider that Emirates business class award availability is often easy to come by, while Emirates first class award availability can be tough to find, even when the cabin is wide open. With this strategy you can snag even the last seat in an Emirates first class cabin with miles.

Assuming there are business class award seats, getting last seat availability for first class from Newark to Athens or New York to Milan for 92,500 Skywards miles is a pretty awesome deal, if you ask me.

Anyone plan on taking advantage of this awesome Emirates upgrade strategy? Or anyone have experience with day of departure upgrades on Emirates?

Conversations (48)
Newest comments are displayed first.

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Type your response here.

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Anyone can comment, and your email address will not be published. Register to save your unique username and earn special OMAAT reputation perks!

  1. Jay

    What if I booked a business class ticket using Alaska miles, can I still upgrade to first class, if there is availability, using Skywards miles at check-in?

    1. Olivier

      I'd like to know that as well and also if booking Biz with Alaska points, would allow me to pay cash for an upgrade?

  2. Sm

    @Ben – Would you fly Emirates J over AA/UA W on this sector?

  3. DRJ

    Hi Lucky, I once requested an upgrade from J to F onboard a Dxb to Kul flight and was given the seat. The surprising thing was that my ticket was a revenue return saver but the Purser calculated the lowest ( Flexi plus ) miles requirement and completed the upgrade. Not sure if that was a one off as I haven't tried it again so far

  4. Morgan

    Great post - leading the way on points and travel advice!

  5. efembe

    Flew from Delhi to LGW via DXB, Business on 1st sector on arrival immediately went to desk and got a 1st Class Upgrade for 30K each.

  6. kq747

    @Ben you can only upgrade onboard if you are Skywards silver or higher

  7. glenn t

    You need a stash of Emirates Skywards miles to make your initial booking, then more to get an upgrade.
    I mean, how many regular flyers even have them? The times I have travelled Emirates I used Qantas miles (admittedly lots of them!).

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ glenn t -- For many people they're quite easy to rack up thanks to Emirates partnering with all major transferable points currencies.

  8. Alex2

    Ben,

    Do you have an idea how often upgrades from business to First clear? I'm flying to the Maldives in Jan 2022, and I can't find a single route from the US that has F availability. Given EK's business seat, I'd much rather fly EY or Qatar in J.

  9. JIM REILLY

    Interesting. I tried this 2 days ago from Dubai to Los Angeles from Business to First. I asked at check in and they said they had 1 seat left but I would have to do it at the gate. I went to the gate and they told me they had 1 seat left and I could ask the flight attendant to do it on board. I asked the flight attendant and they confirmed they had...

    Interesting. I tried this 2 days ago from Dubai to Los Angeles from Business to First. I asked at check in and they said they had 1 seat left but I would have to do it at the gate. I went to the gate and they told me they had 1 seat left and I could ask the flight attendant to do it on board. I asked the flight attendant and they confirmed they had 1 seat left for me. When she put it in her iPad, it came back and said my mileage Business Class ticket didn't allow for it to be upgraded. The cash price of the upgrade was just under $3,000.
    The very next day a group of 6 people I was traveling with on the same exact kind of ticket all upgraded from Business Class to First Class with miles with no issues at all.
    So......it is not always as clear and easy as you mention.

  10. Ismail

    Hello
    Which other airlines offer this sort of upgrade

    Thanks

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ Ismail -- I can't think of any other airline that lets you upgrade award tickets with miles while giving you last seat availability.

  11. Greg

    Too many points blog readers on ATH-EWR sorry you didn’t score that upgrade

  12. Sam

    Once again a great post! My question is does an upgrade offer get cheaper during the day of travel compared to an upgrade that might be available months in advance? Thanks

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ Sam -- Thanks! When redeeming miles the cost is always the same. Emirates does also sometimes offer upgrades for cash, and the cost of that can vary (though it's not consistently cheaper closer to departure).

  13. Ross

    Ben - question for you: how does this work for a multi-segment ticket? E.g., JFK --> DXB --> JNB or something similar?

  14. Jimmy’s Travel Report

    Lucky, it sounds like you want to get to the airport early and be one of the first persons to check in.

    Could you call customer service at the 24 hour check in mark and request that the upgrade be processed manually (assuming there are open first class seats)?

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ Jimmy’s Travel Report -- I was told it could only be processed at the airport or onboard, and not via the call center.

  15. Luke

    Risk for me would be I keep large stashes of Amex and Citi thankyou points but dont transfer to Emirates unless theres an imminent booking. Have to lookup if either program transfers instantly to Emirates then could try this if I can immediately transfer the needed points at checkin or after boarding if offered this.

    1. Cameron

      I just called Emirates. The phone agent recommended only transferring miles, and calling them immediately, when I receive notification of the waitlist upgrade. He said I can do this up until check in at the airport and even explained back to me that transferring miles to Emirates would result in the inability to transfer them back to my credit card.

      Given how quickly they transferred for me from Amex I may just do this at check in in EWR

    2. Rachel

      When I transferred Amex points to Emirates, it was instant, and my understanding is that's standard but not guaranteed.

  16. LTL

    So if I book a business class award ticket, and.... "someone" books a fully refundable first class ticket.... and that first class ticket just so happens to get cancelled and refunded right around the time I'm checking in.... then I can upgrade to first?

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ LTL -- Yes, but personally that's not something I'd do/recommend doing, and doing things like that cause opportunities like this to get shut down.

  17. Sam

    So, there is a separate upgrade bucket in addition to booking first class flex awards bucket? Is the inventory the same or different for upgrades? Thank you

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ Sam -- I believe the buckets for upgrades and Flex awards are identical (someone correct me if I'm wrong).

  18. Zach

    Ben - can one skywards member upgrade a companion traveling on the same record locator? Or does each skywards member need miles in an account? (For example, could you upgrade yourself and Ford through your skywards account?)

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ Zach -- Yep, you absolutely can upgrade multiple people out of one Skywards account.

  19. Cameron

    In all of these instances, from waitlisting to being at the airport, do you need to have the miles in your account? Can I receive the notification, or confirmation at check in, and then transfer over the miles, or do I need to transfer speculatively?

    Lastly, if award space is released ahead of my flight, can I cancel my J ticket and rebook to F at the reduced rate?

    Thank you! I'm in this exact situation on the same route.

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ Cameron -- In order to waitlist for an auto upgrade you need to have the miles for the upgrade in your account. I suppose you could arrive at check-in and see if an upgrade is available, and then transfer miles on the spot. However, that might prove complicated, might annoy the check-in people, and there's always the chance that the miles won't transfer instantly.

      Yep, you can totally cancel your business ticket in...

      @ Cameron -- In order to waitlist for an auto upgrade you need to have the miles for the upgrade in your account. I suppose you could arrive at check-in and see if an upgrade is available, and then transfer miles on the spot. However, that might prove complicated, might annoy the check-in people, and there's always the chance that the miles won't transfer instantly.

      Yep, you can totally cancel your business ticket in advance and rebook in first class at the reduced rate. Redepositing Emirates awards is easy enough, and right now there are no fees for that. I'd definitely recommend doing that regardless.

    2. Cameron

      Great! Thank you for the reply and info. As a data point I am currently waitlisted for my flight without the miles in the account. Since it's not a huge amount I may transfer just in case.

      Also interesting per google flights- Emirates does not seem to have more than 4 seats for sale on the route at a time.

    3. Stuart

      Ben, this is great advice on the upgrade system. I never knew this. But, telling people they can redeposit Skywards miles easily is just not true. As I told you in the comments of your last post that in the past month it has taken 15 days to receive my points back after cancellations, including one that was on EK’s end. Nor would any agent help in expediting it. Perhaps it’s Covid times related but I’m telling you that instant redeposits are not happening.

    4. Ben Schlappig

      @ Stuart -- I've done it three times in the past week. So I appreciate your data point, and I'll been on the lookout the next time I do it to see what happens. But I'm sharing my experience, and that's my experience, so...

    5. Stuart

      As well mine, albeit completely different on two occasions. So it would be interesting to get an update from Emirates as to why we would have such different experiences. Mine even included multiple chats and phone agents who simply confirmed my steps and to be patient as “it usually takes 15 days and we have no way to expedite.” My concern is that some here read your comment, think it’s easy, and fall into the hole like me.

  20. Aaron

    "In a way I’m happy I got to experience Emirates’ long haul business class, because… wow. I’ll leave it at that for now, other than to say that upgrading to Emirates first class is very, very, very much worth it."

    Don't you mean you got to experience it currently? You've already flown their long haul business class in the past...you even have a trip report on it. Granted, that was on the A380, I believe, but still...

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ Aaron -- Good point, updated the post to reflect that I'm talking about the 777 business class. The A380 business class is pretty solid, or at least has the bar. ;)

  21. Ronaldo

    If the upgrade is done on the flight date, would a third-party issued ticket work? (since EK would have taken it over)

    1. Zymm

      I have the same question, could I try this with an Emirates business award booked with Alaska miles?

    2. Ben Schlappig

      @ Ronaldo @ Zymm -- It's my understanding that it doesn't work for partner tickets, at least not when using Skywards miles. However, I believe a cash upgrade would still be possible (though that could be much more expensive).

    3. Aakash

      Hey Ben, Got to know many things!
      Have a doubt,
      Can Emirates tickets purchased via OTA’s like Skyscanner, or any other website be eligible for upgrade to Business class with cash?

  22. Kair

    Nice tip!
    But I am so confused. So did you get the upgrade onboard?

    1. Clint

      See his trip review from yesterday. Looks like it happened.

    2. Ben Schlappig

      @ Kair -- Nope, I didn't. I ended up flying business class, but at least I know that this works space permitting.

    3. Kair

      Okay. I guess you took abother trip to Greece after your First class report that published yesterday.

  23. Bob

    Just a heads-up that your email is visible in the screenshot

  24. vincent

    Hey Ben, really helpful, I wasn't aware of this – thank you!
    You might want to black out your email address on the screenshot from the autoupgrade page.

    1. Ben Schlappig

      @ vincent @ Bob -- Thanks, removed!

Featured Comments Load all 48 comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Ben Schlappig

@ Stuart -- I've done it three times in the past week. So I appreciate your data point, and I'll been on the lookout the next time I do it to see what happens. But I'm sharing my experience, and that's my experience, so...

Ben Schlappig

@ Jimmy’s Travel Report -- I was told it could only be processed at the airport or onboard, and not via the call center.

Olivier

I'd like to know that as well and also if booking Biz with Alaska points, would allow me to pay cash for an upgrade?

Meet Ben Schlappig, OMAAT Founder
4,523,713 Miles Traveled

25,807,500 Words Written

28,675 Posts Published

Keep Exploring OMAAT