Understanding Upgrade Co-Pays and Airline Fare Codes

TravelSort reader Jeff writes: How much are United upgrade co-pays, and are they ever worth it?

Great question, at least for those of us who aren't top tier elites and so wouldn't have complimentary upgrade options. United probably takes the cake for having the most complex chart for upgrade co-pays, buried in the pdf that also contains the travel award chart. As you'd expect, the number of miles and amount of the co-pay varies by where you're traveling to. But it also depends on what type of fare your original ticket is–and we don't just mean discount economy–we mean the actual fare basis code.


Airline Fare Basis Codes

Airline fare basis codes begin with a letter, usually followed by an alpha-numeric code that specifies whether the fare is refundable, if there's a minimum stay, etc. The first letter usually denotes the booking class. While F is pretty much universal for First Class, J and C are typically full fare business and B and Y are full fare economy, there's some variation in the letters used for various discount business and economy sub-classes. Here's a chart with the common fare codes for American, Delta and United Airlines:




Discount First


Discount Business


Discount Coach

Deep Discount Coach



A, P

D, J

I, R

B, Y

H, K, L, M, V, W

G, N, O, Q, S




C, J

D, I

B, Y

H, K, Q

E, L, T, U




C, D, J

P, Z

B, Y

E, H, M, Q, U

G, K, L, S, T, W


United Upgrade Co-Pays

Ok, back to the topic at hand: United Upgrade Co-Pays. Unless you enlarge the upgrade award chart, you'll be squinting at very small numbers, so here it is in sections, with the United miles and Upgrade co-pays required by booking class and by region:

Understanding Upgrade Co-Pays and Airline Fare Codes


Understanding Upgrade Co-Pays and Airline Fare Codes


Understanding Upgrade Co-Pays and Airline Fare Codes


Understanding Upgrade Co-Pays and Airline Fare Codes


While Jeff's question was about United upgrades, here's the American Airlines Upgrade chart as well:

Understanding Upgrade Co-Pays and Airline Fare Codes-American Airlines Upgrade Awards


As you can see in the United and American Upgrade Charts, only the full fare business and full fare economy fares do not have to pay a co-pay for upgrading; only miles. The discounted business and discounted economy fares have to redeem miles and pay a co-pay, as much as $600 each way. That would be $1200 roundtrip per person, which is starting to look like British Airways fuel surcharges–and that's on top of the miles required for the upgrade, and the fare itself.

  • Find a discounted fare: Since upgrades are one class only, we'd have to buy a discounted business class ticket. If we're looking at the end of May, these tickets are about $5158, with a stopover each way. A direct flight would be even more: $8274.
  • Check whether there is upgrade space available. While anyone with an ExpertFlyer subscription will want to use it for this, if you don't have a subscription you can use FlightStats: Go to “Flight Availability”  to check the seats available for each booking class. You'll still want to call the airline to confirm whether award availability is there (since award availability is capacity controlled) but at least you'll have a sense of how full the various classes are when trying to pick a flight, and before you call.
Understanding Upgrade Co-Pays and Airline Fare Codes

  • After confirming upgrade availability, book the discounted fare and upgrade. You should be able to upgrade online using miles, which will help you avoid the phone booking fee, but you usually end up paying the co-pay at the airport
But back to the second part of the question: Is buying an upgrade and paying the co-pay worth it? Usually, no. See our prior post on this, Why Award Tickets are Better Deals Than Upgrades. To recap, here are some of the reasons upgrades typically aren't a good deal compared to outright award tickets:
  • Alliance partners often offer a better product: Wouldn't you rather fly Lufthansa first class than United?
  • Shrinking award availability for upgrades: it can be as hard or harder to get an upgrade than an award ticket–may as well book an award
  • Increasing cost of upgrades: With the steep co-pays on top of the miles required and the cost of the original ticket, an upgrade often isn't a good deal
It's also important to note a couple other reasons you may not want to upgrade:
  • Upgrade co-pays are non-refundable. This is less of an issue if you only end up paying it at the airport, which sometimes happens with United. But for American, you always need to pay the co-pay in order to confirm the upgrade, and while the miles can be redeposited to your account, the co-pay is non-refundable.
  • On Star Alliance partner flights, usually only full fare coach (B, Y) fares may be upgraded to business. 
  • Similarly, for AAdvantage upgrades on British Airways and Iberia, only full fare coach (B, Y) may be upgraded, and on British Airways, full fare upgrades to Premium Economy, NOT Business, on all flights that have a Premium Economy cabin. 
Let's take an example. Say we'd like to fly first class between Washington, DC (IAD) and Frankfurt, Germany (FRA). If we're flying soon, we can actually get a Lufthansa First Class roundtrip award for 135,000 United miles + ~$200 in taxes:
Understanding Upgrade Co-Pays and Airline Fare Codes
For an upgrade to first, our costs would be as follows:
  • Discount business class ticket = ~$5000 roundtrip
  • 40,000 United miles (20,000 each way, as per the United Upgrade Chart above)
  • $1100 in co-pay fees ($550 each way, as per the United Upgrade Chart above)
We'd earn about 10,000 miles (including the 150% premium for a business class ticket) on the roundtrip flight, so the upgrade cost would be a total of:
40,000 – 10,000 miles = 30,000 miles  +   $6100 (ticket plus co-pay)
So if we net out the amounts, we have 105,000 miles vs. $5900, or 5.6 cents per mile. The award ticket, please, in Lufthansa First, rather than a United upgrade! Now, it would probably be a lower cents per mile amount if we were running this example with an Economy to Business Class upgrade instead of Business to First, but you get the idea.
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