Stuck flying in Air China economy? If you're booked on a flexible ticket, you may be able to upgrade that economy seat for a place in business class, using frequent flyer points (or miles) from an array of Star Alliance programs.
Among them: Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus, Air New Zealand Airpoints, United MileagePlus, and of course, Air China's own Phoenix Miles program.
Wherever your miles lie, here's what you need to know to secure yourself an Air China business class upgrade.
Air China business class upgrades: the basics
Adopting the common approach of most airlines, business class upgrades on Air China are all subject to availability and can be scarce during peak periods such as Chinese New Year, school holidays and around the time of major international trade fairs, particularly the Canton Fair.
On some flights, this can mean that no frequent flyer upgrades are available at all, or that you need to plan ahead and request your upgrade almost a year in advance, as upgrades can be secured at any time from the moment you book until close to the flight's departure.
As a handy rule to remember, if you can use frequent flyer points to book a business class reward flight with Air China, you can also use frequent flyer points to upgrade to business class on the same flight, as the airline draws both from the same pool of available seats.
AusBT review: Air China Airbus A330 business class, Melbourne-Shanghai
Upgrades are all one-class, which means you can move forward from economy to business class, but you can't upgrade from economy to first class on flights with a first class service – even if a particular flight only features first class and economy with no business class cabin in between.
If you do manage to snag an upgrade, you'll only earn frequent flyer points and tier miles in line with the fare you originally purchased, not at the higher business class rates.
Upgrading to Air China business class using frequent flyer points
One of our favourite Star Alliance benefits is that you can use frequent flyer points from one Star Alliance airline to upgrade to business class when flying with another Star Alliance airline.
That's a different approach than taken by Oneworld, for example, where points can only be used to upgrade with the airline that runs the same frequent flyer program, or with a few select partner airlines rather than the entire alliance.
This provides you with an array of options – you could either collect miles in Air China's own Phoenix Miles program to use for your upgrade, or could instead use points from other popular Star Alliance schemes such as Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus, United MileagePlus and Air New Zealand Airpoints.
For Aussie credit users, particularly those with American Express Explorer, American Express Platinum Charge and ANZ Rewards Black cards which allow points to be converted to several of those schemes, this provides an easier path to securing your upgrade as you don't need to have miles in an Air China account, or to have even flown with a Star Alliance airline before, as you can convert points across from your credit or charge card to a Star Alliance program.
Exactly how many points (or miles) your upgrade requires varies from program to program and on the length of your Air China flight.
Some frequent flyer programs also allow business class upgrades from a larger number of Air China fare types than others, and some may only allow upgrades when requested a week in advance.
As an example, for a one-way upgrade from economy to business class on Air China's Sydney-Shanghai flights, here's how many miles you'll need with each program, which fare types you can upgrade from and how far in advance you need to request your upgrade:
- Air New Zealand Airpoints: $1,660 Airpoints Dollars from Y, B and G fares only, up to 7 days before departure
- Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer: 65,000 KrisFlyer miles from Y, B and G fares only, up to 24 hours before departure
- Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus: 60,000 ROP miles from Y and B fares only, up to 24 hours before departure
- United MileagePlus: 30,000 miles from Y, B and G fares only (now and following November changes), up to 24 hours before departure
(We'd love to provide you with the same information for Air China's Phoenix Miles program too, but the Air China website would not cooperate with our attempts to obtain these details.)
Of the frequent flyer programs above, the best-value upgrades come via the United MileagePlus scheme, requiring the lowest number of points, offering upgrades on the largest number of fares and until the closest period before departure.
However, United miles are difficult to earn in Australia as United has no credit card partner Down Under, making Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus (a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Citi Prestige Rewards and Diners Club Rewards) the next-best option if booked on a Y or B fare type, followed by Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer (partnered with AMEX, Diners and most Australian banks) if booked on a G fare type.
We should highlight that business class upgrades are only available from the fare types listed above with each program – all other economy fares are not upgradeable using points or miles, making this a strategy primarily for business travellers on company-funded flexible tickets rather than leisure travellers.
Searching for and securing Air China business class upgrades
As the availability of upgrades varies from flight to flight and there's no easy way to determine whether upgrades are available when booking your Air China flight, we find it easiest to search for these via the subscription-based ExpertFlyer website.
ExpertFlyer offers free three-day trials, while existing subscribers can simply log in, click 'Awards & Upgrades', and key in the details of their specific travel date or search across a week.
We'll search for business class upgrades on Air China's Sydney-Shanghai flights departing within a week (+/- 3 days) of August 16 2017, seeking an upgrade for one passenger – so we've selected '1' in the quantity box – and will check the 'Business - Award & Upgrade (I)' box as this is what we're searching for:
On the next page, a number of flights options are presented. If a flight shows 'No' in the 'Seats' column, this means that a business class upgrade is not currently available on that flight for the number of passengers you've searched. For example, on flight CA176 departing on August 13 2017, no such upgrades are available:
If a flight instead shows 'Yes' in the same column, that's your confirmation that a business class upgrade is available on that flight, such as we've found on the same flight number departing a few days later on August 16:
Then, simply call your frequent flyer program – not Air China – to request a 'Star Alliance upgrade using miles'. For instance, if you'll be using Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles for your upgrade, you would call KrisFlyer to request that upgrade, rather than Air China.
If you don't have access to ExpertFlyer, you can always call and ask whether an upgrade is available on your flight, but ExpertFlyer's search tools can save you wasting time on the phone if no upgrades are available on your travel dates.
Savvy travellers could also use ExpertFlyer's upgrade search to determine which flights have these available before making their economy class booking (or having their corporate travel agent do the same), if intending to use miles for a business class upgrade.
Remember, availability can change at any time, so if you find an upgrade available on your flight, it's best to lock that in as soon as you can, rather than putting it off for a few days or even a week, as you may find that somebody else has snapped up that better seat!