Frequent flier miles are worth more when used for upgrades...or are they?


In 2008, the airlines told us what they think of us, and they rolled out various extra fees designed to bleed us. Baggage fees. Change fees. Water that costs $2. "We'll haul your body around," the airlines told me, "but you're going to pay extra for every other thing you want from us."

Fine. I'm buying a service. I get that. But the take-me-for-what-I'm-worth game can play both ways. Now, like millions of other Americans, I'm going to devise ways to reverse the relationship and to take the airlines for whatever I can. That means I'm going to wring value out of every last frequent flier mile I have. I want pay as little for airfare as I can. Preferably, that's nothing.

As if on cue, the Wall Street Journal has run the numbers, and it finds that the best value for those miles isn't in using them to buy your seat, but to upgrade a seat you've already purchased. It puts it this way: When you use miles to get a coach seat, you're getting about 1.2¢ per mile if you divide the dollar cost of that ticket by the number of miles you have to use.

But when you use your miles to upgrade from coach to business or first class (the paper uses a New York-San Diego ticket as an example), each mile buys about 5¢. And that was calculated including a $100 redemption fee of the sort that airlines are increasingly tossing onto the bill.