Is Upgrading Emirates Flights A Good Deal?

Filed Under: Emirates
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Yesterday I wrote a post about how to book award tickets on Emirates’ two flights between the US and Europe, given how popular they are with New Yorkers. Specifically, I’m talking about Emirates’ flights from New York to Milan and Newark to Athens.

As I explained, while Emirates’ own Skywards program isn’t amazing, it’s not a horrible value, at least for those who are looking to fly nonstop from New York to Milan and Athens.

The single best way to book Emirates premium cabin awards is through Japan Airlines Mileage Bank, though the catch is that the program doesn’t have very many transfer partners. You can only transfer Marriott Bonvoy points to the program, meaning the only credit cards that will get you points towards that goal are the Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card or Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card.

Meanwhile Emirates Skywards is transfer partners with Amex Membership Rewards, meaning that a lot more people likely have access to those miles, given how many people spend money on cards like:

Earn Membership Rewards

As I explained yesterday, if you’re redeeming Emirates Skywards miles for either of the above routes you’ll pay the following:

  • A one-way ticket on either route will cost 62,500 miles in business class, or 85,000 miles in first class
  • Regardless of whether you’re flying first or business class, taxes and carrier imposed surcharges total ~550USD for the flight from the US to Europe, and ~300USD for the flight from Europe to the US

What I didn’t look at is the ability to upgrade, which potentially represents a much better value. On Emirates, upgrade space is identical to award space, meaning that if there’s award space you can also immediately confirm an upgrade from economy to business class. The good news is that Emirates award availability on both of these routes is pretty good.

Here’s the cost to upgrade from economy to business class on both of these flights:

As you can see, the number of miles required to upgrade roundtrip varies based on whether you book a Saver, Flex, or Flex Plus ticket. To crunch the numbers on this, I started by pulling up some flights over off-peak dates. Here are some random dates I searched in November:

So if you wanted to upgrade to business class both ways, you have the following options:

  • Booking a Saver ticket — $644.36 plus 115,000 miles
  • Booking a Flex ticket — $1,041.36 plus 78,000 miles
  • Booking a Flex Plus ticket — $1,692.36 plus 60,000 miles

In looking at the various options:

  • If you book a Flex ticket instead of a Saver ticket, you save 37,000 miles, but you pay an extra $400
  • If you book a Flex Plus ticket, you save 18,000 miles, but you pay an extra $650

Assuming you’re transferring points from Amex, I value Membership Rewards points at ~1.7 cents. So booking a Flex ticket over a Saver ticket is a no brainer, while the incremental cost of a Flex Plus ticket isn’t worth it. That’s to say that I’d pay $400 to save 37,000 points, but I wouldn’t pay $650 to save 18,000 points.

In the above situation, paying 78,000 miles plus $1,041 is the best value for booking business class here, at least compared to any other upgrade or award options through Emirates Skywards. Let’s keep in mind our starting point here — an award ticket would have cost 125,000 Skywards miles plus $850 in carrier imposed surcharges. So you’re saving 47,000 miles, and paying less than an additional $200.

The above is off-peak pricing, but what about peak season pricing? I looked at ticket costs for next July on weekends. I imagine fares will still drop significantly for then, so this is very much a “worst case scenario” situation. A roundtrip Flex ticket costs $1,367. So you could get business class for a total of $1,367 plus 78,000 miles, which I’d still rather book than paying 125,000 miles plus $850. In other words, I’d rather pay an extra $517 and save 47,000 miles.

Also keep in mind that when you’re booking a paid ticket, you earn miles. So you’d earn back about 6,000 miles on the roundtrip ticket, which you wouldn’t earn if you booked an award ticket.

None of these are amazing redemptions, though these are flights that people really want to take. When I was in Lake Como this summer, I overheard at least a handful of people at our hotel specifically talking about how they flew Emirates from New York. This is a flight a lot of people want to take.

If you’re not in a position where you have Marriott Bonvoy points and can transfer them to Japan Airlines, then the best way to book these flights in business class is by booking a Flex economy ticket and upgrading.

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  1. Upgrade space on EK is now a different inventory than award space. I have seen award space available on JFK-MXP but no upgrade space available. Phone agent confirmed the inventory is different but would not tell me what it is.

    Additionally, EK has introduced “saver” mileage redemptions that are only available on a roundtrip purchase. I.e. outbound can be 62500 but the return will sometimes price for only 45k if booked as a roundtrip (the YQ will be higher though when booked as a rt negating most of the savings).

  2. @ Omar — Interesting. Don’t they use the “D” fare class for both business saver awards and upgrades, or are they using a different class now?

  3. I’ve been buying some of the cheap business class fares and looking at upgrading. The upgrade cost from paid business to first is 81000 miles one way. Since I value AX at 2c a point (and I have a way of getting that in cash), thats $1600 each way. I can’t justify that for a 12-14 hour flight for a slightly better seat, better food and wine.

  4. EK changed their Skyward redemption rules recently by cutting 30% miles in any class.
    In economy class, from Europe to Dubai, you need 64 saver flights to award an upgrade.

  5. I have tried recently to upgrade to business using miles and could not find D availability. It used to be much easier.
    There is almost always O availability for booking “Business – Flex Award” fully on miles, but it’s increasingly hard to use miles to upgrade, at least in my experience.

  6. @Paul

    The value of upgrading on EK depends heavily on which plane type you are on. Sure on a A380 what you wrote might be right to a certain degree.

    Now take a B777 with no bar area for stretching your legs and F still in a 1-2-1 config, but with J in 2-3-2 and most of the planes still having angle-flat seats as well. That is a totally different scenario.

  7. @ Lucky – Is it possible to transfer Skywards points to Amex Membership Rewards? (Either at booking or from your skywards account)

  8. @No Name
    Agreed, I can’t see the value of flying J on the 777. The F is on the 777 and A380 is comparable except for the shower. Problem is, I’m DFW based so I have to fly to IAH or JFK to get on an A380.

  9. So, After Oct 1st, would it be 105,000 JAL Miles needed to go roundtrip JFK to MXP? It seems they log it at like 4,007 one way, I am assuming it is the same both directions, which would put it at 8,014, making it 105K moving forward. I just want to make sure I get this right for my future shower!! 🙂 I currently have 101K SPG points that I am saving for this!

  10. @ No name @Hal

    Totally agree that upgrading is not worth it on 777.

    I fly once a year on fully paid business from USA to CPT. R4k+ on sale. I live in South Florida. Before FLL opened, I flew to whatever gateway was most convenient and A380 to DXB.

    The business seats 777 200LR flights FLL-DXB are crowded and uncomfortable. And get worse from DXB-CPT 300ER with seriously aged aircraft, barely padded seats, terrible angle with seat metal sticking in your ribs and 2-3-2 config.

    I earned about 140k EK miles and Silver after 4 years. Last year when I dared to fly cheaper Qatar (12 months without flying EK, I was punished by 30k miles expired and downgraded to Blue.

    After reading this post, I tried upgrading from Economy Flex and result was an eye-watering approx $3700 to pay and all remaining 110k miles consumed.

    However, FLL still seems to be the cheapest USA gateway (currently around $4200 RT) vs Delta via ATL-JNB-CPT (mind-numbing flight) or MIA on BA or VA via LHR (wallet-numbing).

    So I guess I’ll go back to paying full ticket price and just shut up… 🙂

  11. Is there any way of seeing upgrade availability with points? Would hate to get economy tickets and not being able to upgrade.

  12. @MikeA,

    Some advice, if you are happy paying $4k for roundtrip US-RSA, suggest you redeem a one way award to CPT and then do one of the following from now on:

    1. Purchase roundtrip CPT-USA on EK, QR or EY, it’s much cheaper and change fees are less than $200. Biz is about $2500 if you time it right, and you can get EK F for around $4k at times, maybe have to depart JNB to get the fare on your days.

    2. Purchase a Oneworld RTW fare, used to be much cheaper with Biz around $4k and F $6k, now prices start around $6k depending on the USD/ZAR exchange rate. You get 16 segments to fly around the world in Biz in one direction. For those who maximize this, you basically do one year flying the paid ticket, and then the next year you use the miles earned to fly.

  13. You are better off to pay a reduced upgrade price business class ( cash or miles) as soon as you get an email for check-in, this happens 48 hours before the flight. But you don’t get Chauffer drive or the lounge access. However a flat bed and on board lounge for a fraction not a bad deal

  14. Any thoughts on comparing cash-only economy saver last-minute upgrade (48 hours prior offer via email) vs economy flex upgrade (say a couple of days before)? Which one is cheaper?

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