Business class is a great way to fly, but first class is even better – especially when you can use your frequent flyer points to snare a suite with the likes of Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Asiana Airlines and other members of the Star Alliance airline group.
Those points don’t need to be held with the airline you’re actually travelling with, either – for example, you can use United miles to upgrade on Lufthansa flights and EVA Air miles to upgrade on some Singapore Airlines routes, among your many options.
But not every Star Alliance airline offers first class: this works with Air China, Air India, ANA, Asiana Airlines, EgyptAir, Lufthansa, Shenzhen Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Swiss, Thai Airways and United Airlines, but not other Star Alliance members like Air Canada which don't offer first class.
Wherever you’re headed, here’s what you need to know to snare that coveted first class upgrade.
Star Alliance first class upgrades 101
First things first: every Star Alliance frequent flyer program is different, which means the number of miles needed to secure an upgrade vary between programs, as do the rules around how those upgrades are handled.
There’s a lot in common, however. Star Alliance upgrades are all one-class, so on flights fitted with first class, business class and economy, you can upgrade from business to first class, but not from economy straight to first class.
You also can’t request two upgrades for one passenger on same flight, which means you can’t upgrade once from economy to business class, and then submit a second upgrade request to move from business class to first.
Use Star Alliance miles to upgrade from business to first class on Air China's Boeing 777 aircraft
Flight fitted with only first class and economy do allow Star Alliance frequent flyers stuck in economy to upgrade, although in these cases the first class cabin more closely resembles business class, such as on United Airlines.
Star Alliance first class upgrades: eligibility
Assuming your flight offers both business and first class, there are certain types of fares you need to book in order to upgrade. Normally, eligible fares are those which carry the ‘C’ and ‘D’ fare letters, although some airlines and frequent flyer programs apply slightly different rules.
For instance, upgrades on Singapore Airlines are also possible from ‘J’, ‘Z’ and ‘U’ fares, while Swiss doesn’t permit upgrades on ‘D’-type tickets, but does allow them ‘J’ fares. Contact your frequent flyer program to verify which rules apply to the airline you’d like to upgrade on.
Those fare letters won’t mean much to most people, but it pays to keep an eye out for them when making your reservation or once you’ve received your booking confirmation. They’re usually found next to the words ‘business class’, such as on this Singapore Airlines ticket:
If you’ve already used points or miles to secure your flight reservation in the first place, however, you won’t be able to use points to upgrade.
Star Alliance first class upgrades: availability rules
Just because an airline is still selling first class seats to paying passengers on your flight doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to upgrade using your miles.
If that upgrade is important to you, consider contacting the airline you’re travelling with before making your booking to check whether upgrades are available on your chosen flight and date.
You’ll also need to be booked on that airline’s own flight number, so if you’re flying with Thai Airways from Sydney to Bangkok and want to upgrade, ensure you book the ‘TG’ flight number as opposed to a codeshare, which would leave you back in business class.
Some airlines enforce even tougher rules, such as Singapore Airlines – on which EVA Air frequent flyers can’t upgrade to ‘Suites Class’ on Airbus A380 aircraft (pictured), while United MileagePlus members are barred from upgrading on Boeing 777-300ER jets, in addition to Airbus A380 flights.
But among all the tough rules, there’s some good news: if a first class upgrade is indeed available on your flight, and your ticket, airline and aircraft type are all agreeable, you’ll be able to lock it that upgrade well in advance.
United allows its MileagePlus members to secure first class upgrades on other airlines from as early as 331 days before departure, while Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer members can lock in upgrades from practically the minute they’ve booked.
The only exception is with ANA where upgrades can be secured within 56 days of your travel date, and only for ANA international flights, not on Japanese domestic routes.
As each frequent flyer program is different, the process for requesting a Star Alliance first class upgrade varies from one scheme to the next – but in most cases, calling your usual frequent flyer program can be the best way to go.
Star Alliance first class upgrades: how many miles do I need?
There’s no hard and fast rule for knowing how many miles you’ll need to upgrade across the Star Alliance, as each frequent flyer program adopts its own unique rates for upgrading on its partners.
For example, an upgrade from business to first class on Thai’s Sydney-Bangkok flights (pictured) could be had for just 40,000 United MileagePlus miles, although book that exact same upgrade through the Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer program and you’d instead be hit for 55,000 miles.
The moral of the story: always check with your own frequent flyer program – that’s the scheme with which you have miles to burn as opposed to the airline you’re actually travelling with – to verify exactly how many miles will be needed to upgrade on any given flight.
While you’re at it, also be savvy and check how many miles you’d need to book a first class flight on that same route outright (rather than as an upgrade).
That’s because some frequent flyer programs charge very similar numbers of points for upgrades and outright bookings, in which case you could save your points by flying business class on your paid trip, and use those points for a second, near-free first class trip on the same route at a later date.
However, if your company pays for your business class flights and you travel so frequently that planning yet another trip is a scary thought, there are worse ways to burn your miles than an upgrade to first class.
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