Make the most of miles through airline upgrades

Airlines say the most frequently used frequent-flier award is the basic domestic coach ticket. But that’s also the award with the lowest value per mile for consumers.

Savvy travelers do better: The secret is to upgrade to a business or first-class seat.

On average, experts say, consumers are getting only about 1.2 cents per frequent-flier mile when they cash in awards.

But you can stretch your miles and get four times as much value or more out of your frequent-flier account by getting out of the coach cabin.

At most major airlines, a domestic upgrade costs 15,000 miles each way, or 30,000 miles round trip. Several airlines have added $50 fees each way as well.

But consider the cost of buying a first-class ticket, and you see the value of the miles.

For a New York-San Diego trip next month, for example, tickets have been as low as $319 on American Airlines, and the cheapest first-class ticket is $2,029.

Use miles to upgrade instead of buying first-class tickets and, even after paying $100 in fees, you get more than 5 cents for each mile.

International upgrades pay off even more.

United will add co-pay fees to its upgrade awards starting July 1. Those fees, already levied by some other airlines, can be hefty.

At American, an upgrade between North America and Europe costs 50,000 miles round trip — cheaper than United’s price, but you have to pay $700 round trip in co-payments to upgrade most discounted coach tickets.

The upgrade strategy works particularly well now because premium seats should be more available. Companies have restricted travel expenses and forced more business travelers to ride in the coach cabin, so airlines are selling fewer business-class and first-class seats.

Still, travelers often complain about the scarcity of available upgrade awards.

The best strategy for booking a cushy seat with miles is to be flexible: Travel at off-peak times, perhaps on less-popular flights, and be willing to take connecting flights instead of nonstops.

There are also ways to get the most value out of your frequent-flier points even if you do use them for domestic seats. The key is to use your miles for pricey last-minute tickets for funerals, family emergencies or surprise visits, instead of for long-planned vacations. Last-minute tickets can run $1,000 to $2,000 for domestic trips and buying those tickets with a mileage award of 50,000 miles yields better value.