How To Upgrade An Emirates Ticket With Miles

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As much as I love Emirates as an airline (especially their A380 first class and new 777 first class), up until now I haven’t actually ever redeemed Emirates Skywards miles for my own travels. So in this post I wanted to share my experience doing so for the first time.

Why Emirates Skywards is generally a horrible program

Of the “big three” Gulf carriers, in my opinion Etihad Guest has the best mileage redemption value, while Emirates Skywards has the worst values. My problems with Emirates Skywards include that:

  • Their redemption rates are generally really high in terms of the number of miles required
  • Emirates charges the most ridiculous carrier imposed surcharges, which even make British Airways look mild by comparison; for example, a roundtrip Emirates business class award ticket from New York to Dubai comes with $1,724 in taxes, fees, and carrier imposed surcharges
  • Unlike Etihad and Qatar, Emirates has very few worthwhile partner award redemptions

When you add up all those factors, it’s really a pretty lousy program, and it’s also why I value Skywards miles among the least of any mileage program.

Emirates A380

Upgrading with Emirates miles can be a good value

I’d say one of the few good uses of Emirates Skywards miles is upgrading tickets, especially from economy to business class. So in this post I wanted to go through what that process is like, and I think it’s easiest to explain that in the form of an example.

To start, I should mention that Emirates Skywards is transfer partners with Amex, Capital One, and Marriott, so there are quite a few ways to accrue their miles.

Transfer points to Emirates Skywards from:

Ford, my mother-in-law, and I are going to Beirut and the UAE, and as part of that we need to fly one-way from Beirut to Dubai. Emirates seemed like the best option for flying between the two countries, so let me share what the process of upgrading was like.


Emirates’ 777 business class

Emirates Skywards: award tickets vs. upgrades

For our dates, the per person cost of an economy ticket on Emirates was $333, while the cost of a business class ticket was $1,430. That sure is steep for business class on a four hour flight.

Fortunately there was both upgrade and award space available (Emirates uses the same availability for Saver award space as they do for upgrades). Before I get too deep into this, here’s the Emirates Skywards mileage calculator, which shows you the number of miles required to upgrade, as well as the number of miles required to book an outright award ticket.

To upgrade from an Economy Flex ticket to business class on a one-way flight from Beirut to Dubai costs 19,500 Skywards miles.

Meanwhile to book a business class award ticket one-way costs 38,750 miles plus the taxes and carrier imposed surcharges. The catch is that this would be a Flex Plus award, which has access to more availability — for one-way awards, Emirates doesn’t allow Saver or Flex awards, which is annoying (since they’d be priced lower).

You may be saying to yourself “38,750 miles doesn’t sound so bad for a one-way award with better availability.”

While that’s true, the thing to keep in mind is Emirates’ outrageous surcharges.

In addition to the 38,750 Skywards miles, you would also pay $338 in taxes, fees, and carrier imposed surcharges, which is outrageous.

Looking at the breakdown, this includes $78 in taxes and fees, plus $260 in carrier imposed surcharges.

Keep in mind that the economy ticket to begin with costs less than the taxes and surcharges on a business class award, and you can upgrade to business class for less than half the number of miles.

So again, to recap, the choice was either to:

  • Book a business class award ticket for 38,750 miles plus $338 per person
  • Book an economy ticket for $333 and then upgrade to business class for 19,500 miles (there’s one other fee involved, which I’ll cover below)

My experience upgrading an Emirates ticket

After I had verified that there were confirmable upgrade seats available (more on that below), I went ahead and booked the Emirates tickets. Since there were three travelers, the total came to $999 ($333 per person).

I had the option of selecting the type of fare I wanted. A Flex ticket cost $333 per person, while a Flex Plus ticket cost $593 per person. To me the only benefit of a Flex Plus ticket would be that it takes 4,500 fewer miles to upgrade, but it’s certainly not worth paying an additional $250+ per person just to save 4,500 miles. So I proceeded with Flex tickets.

Looking at the fare breakdown, you’ll see that the economy ticket has a much more reasonable $69 in carrier imposed surcharges, rather than the $260 they wanted on the business class award ticket.

There’s no way to confirm the upgrade during the booking process, but rather I confirmed the booking online in economy, and then on the confirmation page I saw the option to “Upgrade with Skywards Miles,” so I clicked that.

The next page indicated that upgrades were in fact available, so I transferred over enough points from Amex Membership Rewards to pay for the 58,500 miles worth of upgrades (19,500 Skywards miles times three).

The next page confirmed the total price to upgrade.

Note that when you upgrade, Emirates doesn’t charge the difference in the carrier imposed surcharges between economy and business (which would have been $200 per ticket), but they do charge you the difference in any government taxes, which in this case came out to a total of $119.10 for all three passengers.

I was curious what exactly that was, so priced out the flight in both economy and business class. As it turns out, this represents the difference in the airport’s embarkation tax, which is higher for business class than economy. Fair enough that they pass that on.

So when all was said and done, I paid about $373 plus 19,500 Skywards miles per person for a business class ticket, which I’d say is a solid value.

How to check Emirates upgrade availability before booking

If you’re trying to upgrade an Emirates ticket, you’ll want to make sure there’s actually confirmable upgrade space before booking, since a waitlisted upgrade isn’t any fun.

Emirates advises you to call to ask about upgrade availability. While you can certainly do that, I do everything I can to avoid getting on the phone, so there are a couple of alternatives.

The first option is to sign up for an ExpertFlyer account, which allows you to not only search Emirates upgrade and award availability, but also to set alerts, so that you can be emailed or texted when this availability opens up.

The other option is to use Emirates’ website. As I said earlier, Emirates Saver awards and upgrade availability book into the same “buckets,” so if there’s an Emirates Saver business class award on the flight you want, you can also upgrade to that seat.

Generally speaking Emirates Saver awards are only available on roundtrip tickets, so you’d need to sign up for a Skywards account and then search availability for a roundtrip award ticket.

In the Beirut to Dubai example, I know that a roundtrip Saver business class ticket would cost 55,000 Skywards miles.

So when I search for roundtrip award availability (just choosing an arbitrary return date, assuming I only intend to fly one-way) and see an option that costs 27,500 Skywards miles each way in business class, I know there’s in fact upgrade availability as well.

Bottom line

In general Emirates Skywards is a low value program. If I want to fly Emirates first class I’ll book it through Alaska Mileage Plan or Japan Airlines Mileage Bank, though those aren’t great values anymore either (though they’re certainly better than Emirates Skywards).

The one area where I think that Emirates offers good value is with upgrades, especially from economy to business class.

Paying a total of $373 plus 19,500 Skywards miles for a one-way business class ticket from Beirut to Dubai is a good option, in my opinion, especially when the cheapest one-way business class ticket on Emirates was over $1,400.

Have you ever upgraded before with Emirates miles? If so, what was your experience like?

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Comments

  1. I once booked ATH-EWR in Emirates business class for $1,650 one way back when Amex Business Platinum offered a 50% rebate on pay with points. Then I put ExpertFlyer alerts out for F upgrade space, and it came through 4 days prior to flight. So 82.5k points for the flight + 30k upgrade (- earn of ~20k Alaska miles). The upgrade process was very easy like yours.

    Emirates does have its own alert system for upgrade space. You may have to have an existing booking to use it. I set one through them in addition to using ExpertFlyer. Both worked, but EF’s alert came about 3 hours prior to Emirates’.

  2. Great post I almost bought a special economy fare from ATH to EWR but bought a flex fare once I saw that special fares weren’t upgradeable. Great experience. Easy process, nice flight and best off all my Emirates chauffeur drove me from EWR to Manhattan, all included with my ticket. Highly recommend Emirates upgrades.

  3. Great how-to post! I used to be a frequent flyer of Emirates back when I thought Skywards rewards program was higher value. Back then there were no carrier-imposed surcharges on award tickets and there was no such thing as flex/saver prices (just one set price.)
    I’m not sure if EK Skywards still has this policy but back then your miles expire after 3 years regardless of account activity (to prevent hoarding I guess.) So back in spring 2009, when I was in my mid-20s just starting out in this whole points/miles hobby, I used my expiring miles to upgrade DXB-JFK one-way from economy to business class on the A380. Looking in my past emails I spent 45000 EK skywards miles to upgrade and that was it. I recall having to call the EK contact center to process the upgrade though. Overall upgrade experience was easy and I felt award space seemed to be plentiful but then again it was during the recession.
    Back then I remember how super excited I was to simply fly the Emirates A380 back when they were still new and only had a few in service.
    Ever since EK started its partnership with Alaska and devalued skywards, however, I stopped participating in the EK Skywards program.

  4. @ Stvr — Alaska doesn’t allow Emirates redemptions within the Middle East, so it wouldn’t have been possible. Japan Airlines would have charged 30,000 miles, plus the high taxes and carrier imposed surcharges.

  5. Also easy to upgrade at check in. I once did it in Mauritius, flying to Dubai, BC to FC. Turned out FC was empty for the rest.

  6. Booked my parents SYD-CHC in Business for $385, upgraded to First for 17,500 miles. Short flight but great experience for them.

  7. Do you have the high fees even when you book with your Skywards miles via JapanMileageBank?

    I have 500k in Skywardsmiles and have no clue have to use them best from Europe, due to the high amount of miles you have to pay for business plus the fees

  8. I upgraded in 2014 on a flight from Pakistan to Dubai. The flight was about 3 hours long and I upgraded at the time of check in for 16,000 miles and about $50 (paid in Pakistani rupees) per person. It was a pretty solid value and that was actually my first time ever flying business (and redeeming my points). I still remember down to the exact detail what that flight was like!

  9. When it shows the “Upgrade to Business” for x-amount of miles, does that mean it’s upgradeable? Or is Expert Flyer the most accurate?

  10. “Ford, my mother-in-law, and I ”

    Isn’t your mother-in-law the same as Ford’s mother? WOuldn’t it clearer just to say “Ford, his mom, and I”?

  11. So, given a 1 cpm valuation on Emirates, you’re saying you would buy business class for a three and a half to four hour flight when the cash price is around $550-600? Or is that particular to Emirates or not wanting to cheap out when it comes to your mother in law? Or are there EQM considerations on your side?

    (That length of flight is a threshold when I start scheming for F or J myself, though if the price is $$$$$$$ I will give it a pass, so I see where you are coming from.)

  12. @Lucky — I sure did upgrade with Miles. It was because of you and this blog (and Cairo) that I was finally able to try Business (and eventually First). Thank you!

    I have two questions… I’ve never been too good at working this stuff out – you mention it wasn’t worth getting a Flex Plus ticket just to make the Miles required fewer. I’ve wondered about this – is that pretty much always the case?

    Also, you’ve mentioned Expert Flyer before, and I’ve always wondered how it is they have access to Emirates’ or others’ award availability. Do they pay these airlines for this privilege?

    Thanks.

  13. I regularly book Emirates Economy then upgrade but a big problem I have is that the travel agent books through their systems and it is not as clear which Fair Codes relate to the Saver, Flex and Flex Plus. There’s some clues on the internet, but I once found them to be wrong. I wish Emirates would just be clear about that to be able to upgrade easier as an economy Saver ticket needs to be avoided like the plague.

  14. Great post, and addresses the limitations of booking Emirates award tickets with Alaska miles.

    Does Emirates only allow one level of service upgrade or do they allow two?

    Also, is there any way of even getting lowER fuel surcharges, like booking TO the UAE instead of FROM the UAE? Or booking one of their fifth freedom routes that don’t touch the UAE? I think someone mentioned the HKG-DXB route as cheap to fly to taxwise…

  15. @ Euro — Unfortunately you can only upgrade by one cabin. Indeed, there’s huge variance in terms of the surcharges, so generally originating in Brazil or Hong Kong would get you lower surcharges than originating in the US, for example.

  16. @ Malc — I can’t say with certainty it’s always the case, but I don’t remember ever seeing a situation where a Flex Plus ticket was a better deal than just a Flex ticket if trying to upgrade. As far as how ExpertFlyers and others access the inventory, I’m not exactly sure. I imagine they’re authorized to do so, but I’m not sure what the behind the scenes arrangement is.

  17. @ eponymous coward — That’s correct. Or perhaps more accurately, I’d pay $220-250 over the economy fare for business class on this four hour flight. I think it’s worth it for lounge access and the business class seat and service for 4.5 hours onboard (four hour flight, plus 30 minutes for boarding). I’m not sure it would be worth it for that length of flight within the US, where you’d just get a domestic first class seat, but given the service difference between Emirates economy and business class, I do think it’s worth it.

  18. @ anon — Funny enough the last time I said Ford and his mom, someone asked why I wasn’t referring to her as my mother in law, so…

  19. @ Mike H — That means the ticket type is upgradeable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that upgrade space is immediately confirmable.

  20. Looks like my post did not go through. Or do they get screened prior to appearing on here. Just testing with this message

  21. I am an Emirates fan since the last fifteen years which is when I landed in Dubai to become a permanent resident. I soon became a gold member, could redeem a/r economy class flights to Europe with just 45,000 skywards miles and pay 100$ more or less of taxes. Well, that period is long gone. Now the requirement is double the miles, and often I tend to book trips with stopovers to save even half the amount (a fortune when flying premium) as it has happened in March 2017 for my trip to Dallas. Opted for AA via LHR in codeshare with BA and saved a fortune and overall the flight was more than good. I loved AA Business on 777. It’s a pity because EK is an awesome airline and when fare differences are reasonable I won’t think twice to fly with them.

    I think in a couple of months I will be downgraded back to Blue from my current Silver status and of course that’s not good. But what to do?

  22. I’ve been a skywards member for 8 years, and have upgraded 2x Europe trips, a Singapore trip and New Zealand trip from Australia. I’m currently looking at going to Dubai at the end of the year and will also be using points to upgrade this. I have found Emirates an easy airline to do this with

  23. Emirates is my preferred airline and I use them extensively. I am a platinum skywards member and have been since its introduction. As a result I tend to receive a number of free upgrades to first class each year which is always a bonus. In addition I receive the use of the First class lounge in Dubai regardless of class of travel. Without doubt the best use of Skywards miles is upgrading long haul or ultra long haul business class flights to first class especially if flying an A380. With a UK to Australia return trip in business class I earn nearly enough miles to upgrade a Dubai to Australia leg to first. In addition for each flight I get a small number of Marriott points and for each stay a number of Skywards miles. I personally value the skywards program and like others if you invest and leverage it properly you can benefit

  24. In reality you would probably curse your ‘luck’ if after all that trouble you ended up in J on the Emirates aircraft you picture in this article!
    Having done this involuntarily due to an aircraft swap, I can assure you it is the worst Business cabin in the sky in 2019. The middle 3 seats are super-squeezy, as they appear; even the aisle one, which I had was terrible. It was memorable in a bad way, and the soft product was, well, just unmemorable. There are still a clutch of these old birds flying Emirates skies, so it you are booked on a 777 dig a bit deeper to check which one you are getting!

  25. I flew this exact flight earlier in the year, let me warn you that the airport will be super crowded at this hour so allot some extra time for lounge-hopping!

  26. Reposting.

    The option to buy miles at Emirates is horrible as well. $30 for 1000 miles.

    https://www.emirates.com/us/english/skywards/about/points.aspx

    Ben, do you think Etihad Airways is an overall better opton? I prefer Etihad’s service better than Emirates. (I ride at the back of the bus lol). However was upgraded once on EY on a regional short haul flight. It was amazing and to think you do all this for a living, hotels included, with Ford to accompany you 🙂

    Also another quick question . What do you think of transferring from Amex Membership Rewards to SPG to Aeroplan with the Amex Cobalt Card. I was also looking to get the SPG Amex card with the 50K SPG points. Trying to get at least 50% of the Aeroplan points for a 150K redemption on their Mini Round The World to stop in Istanbul, Karachi and Sydney to and from Toronto.

  27. I was an Emirates Gold card holder from 2000 to 2012 and accumulated many miles making 6 trips a year from Europe to Asia . The reward scheme then was better , excellent and easy to use . Then a few years back they devalued the points and I agree with you ,it is now difficult and more points are needed for an upgrade . I was subsequently downgraded to Silver card and now Blue as I stopped using them . I now play the market based on price and reviews and enjoy different airlines . In 2 weeks flying LHR to BKK on Eva Airlines.

  28. As a regular on Emirates Economy when I fly westwards from India, Emirates upgrades are hard to understand. One day I will figure it out. They are anyway the de-facto national carrier of Southern India!
    Here is a classic example. A flight from Hyderabad to Copenhagen is a 3 hr flight to DXB and a 6 hr flight to CPH. If I want to upgrade Hyd-DXB leg, it costs around 36000 miles. The equivalent price of 36000 miles is almost 1100 USD, which is nuts. The DXB-CPH leg upgrade costs only 40000 miles which is 1230 USD. The DXB-CPH leg is also an A380 which makes it even better. Twice the distance but only 4K miles more.
    Now comes the strange part. I am a silver member and at the time of check-in, I always get an offer to upgrade the India to DXB leg for anything from 140-200 USD. This offer is there 90% of the time.
    I don’t get the logic here. An upgrade when I pay cash cost 150 USD, but with miles it is equivalent of 1100 USD. Anyway the cash option for a 3 hr flight is pretty good since the flights are at odd times and I appreciate the ability to sleep. I end up taking it 25% of the time.
    Can anyone explain this structure or is it normal anywhere?
    Cheers,
    Ashwin

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