The 12+ Best Credit Cards for Flight Upgrades [2021]

American Airlines 777 300ER First Class Seat with IFE

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Once you’ve experienced sitting in the front of the plane, it can be difficult to settle for less. While the experience has certainly changed, there’s no doubt that making your journey in a business or first class seat is a more desirable way to fly.

It’s common to assume that if you want to be sure you’ll be sitting in a business or first class seat that you must purchase those premium seats. Fortunately, there are several ways to secure premium seating without paying top dollar.

And that’s the direction we’re heading today in this article. We’re going to look at how you might utilize credit card features and benefits to secure upgraded airline seating.

We’ll start by looking at cards that allow you to use rewards points to upgrade your flight, cards that give you a rebate when purchasing flights with points, cards that allow you to secure premium flights by transferring rewards to travel partners, and cards that elevate your place in line for complimentary upgrades.

Sit back and join us as we explore several options available via travel rewards credit cards for securing that highly desirable airline upgrade.

The Best Cards for Upgrading With Points

If your flight is booked with any of the 20+ American Express airline upgrade partners, you may be able to use Membership Rewards earned on your American Express card for flight upgrades.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

Amex Platinum cardholders have the option to utilize Membership Rewards points to bid for upgrades on flights booked with several airline upgrade partners.

How To Use the Card To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

Amex upgrade with points selection Explore Upgrades
You have the option to use your Membership Rewards to bid on airline seat upgrades. Image Credit: American Express

To use the Upgrade With Points option, log in to your online Amex card account and click on Rewards, then Membership Rewards Home. You’ll then see the Book or Upgrade Travel option and be able to bid for an upgrade.

Why We Like the Card Overall

Earning valuable Membership Rewards is just the beginning of the long list of premium benefits you’ll find on the Amex Platinum card. The card has become the gold standard for travel rewards cards with its complimentary worldwide lounge access to over 1,300 additional airport lounge locations, including Centurion Lounges.

With hundreds of dollars in statement credits each year, travel insurance protection, and shopping benefits, the card offers tons of value for its members.

Additional Amex Cards With the Upgrade With Points Feature

The Upgrade with Points feature available on the Amex Platinum card is also available on several additional American Express cards. Here is just a sampling of some of the more popular cards offering this option.

To find out if your specific American Express card has Upgrade with Points availability, login to your online Amex card account, select Rewards, then Membership Rewards Home. If you see the Book or Upgrade Travel option, your card is eligible.

For more information on using Membership Rewards to Upgrade with Points, check out this step-by-step tutorial with everything you need to know.

Bottom Line: Using Membership Rewards points to upgrade your flight may not be the best value for your points as the most you can expect to receive is about 1 cent per point. However, having a variety of redemption options is always a positive.

The Best Cards for Purchasing Premium Flights With Points

Qatar Airways Boeing 777 Qsuite Business Class Double Bed
Flexible rewards points can be used to secure business and first class seating, like Qatar Airways’ Qsuites, via the card’s travel portal. Image Credit: Greg Stone

You may have heard this common word of advice: “If you want to be sure to fly in first class, buy first class.” Fortunately, instead of shelling out a lot of cash, there are options for using your rewards points to secure a business or first class ticket.

Here are some of the best cards that allow you to earn flexible rewards points that can be used to purchase business and first class flights that can upgrade your flight experience.

Amex Business Platinum Card

The Amex Business Platinum card is one of the best cards to use when redeeming points for premium airline flights.

How To Use the Card To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

Amex Pay with Points
Membership Rewards points can be used to purchase premium flights online via Amex Travel. Image Credit: American Express

When you redeem Membership Rewards points via Amex Travel with your Amex Business Platinum card, you will receive a Flight Bonus benefit that rebates 35% of the points used to purchase a business or first class flight.

Just as an example, if you were to use 100,000 Membership Rewards points to purchase a business or first class flight, you would receive 35,000 points back into your account in the form of a rebate.

Flights must be purchased with the Pay with Points option and there is a limit of 500,000 rebated points each year.

Amex Business Gold Card

The Amex Business Gold card also comes with a flight bonus rebate when using points to purchase premium flights.

How To Use the Card To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

The Amex Business Gold card earns Membership Rewards points that can be redeemed through the Upgrade with Points feature. You also have the option to purchase your business or first class flight with points via Amex Travel.

If you use the same Pay with Points option as with the Amex Business Platinum card, you will receive a rebate of 25% of the points used.

Chase Sapphire Reserve® Card

Not all business or first class flights purchased with Ultimate Rewards points offer bottom-line good value, but there are a couple of sweet spots.

How To Use the Card To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

Purchasing premium flights with Ultimate Rewards points earned on your Chase Sapphire Reserve card is not always the best value for your points. A $6,000 business class flight, for example, would cost you 400,000 Ultimate Rewards points, even with the 50% bonus you receive for booking your flights via the Chase Travel portal.

However, there are situations where your Ultimate Rewards points can receive good value when booking a premium flight. For example, if you find an inexpensive business or first class ticket, you can secure it with points and receive excellent value. You may also find value when booking domestic first class tickets.

Business Class Ultimate Rewards
Inexpensive business or first class flights, such as this flight to Madrid, Spain, can be good value when using Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Image Credit: Chase

Bottom Line: When you use Ultimate Rewards points to purchase flights via the Chase travel portal, you’ll receive 50% more in value for your points. Purchasing an expensive business or first class flight may not provide good value, however. You’ll want to use this option only for well-priced domestic first class or inexpensive international business and first class flights to receive the best value. Ultimate Rewards points may receive greater value for business and first class flights when transferred to airline frequent flyer programs and used to purchase award tickets. 

The Best Cards for Transferring to Airline Partners

Asiana Airlines A380 First Class - Cherag Dubash
Transferring rewards points to airline frequent flyer programs, like ANA Mileage Club, and purchasing award flights can result in good value. Image Credit: Cherag Dubash

One of the best potential values for your rewards points may be realized by transferring the points to airline partners and subsequently redeem those miles for business or first class award flights.

There are several rewards programs that allow you to transfer points to airline frequent flyer programs. Let’s look at a few travel rewards cards that earn this type of transferable points.

Amex Platinum Card

The Amex Platinum card earns flexible Membership Rewards points that can be used to purchase premium flights via Amex Travel, or transferred to airline partners for potentially greater value when redeeming for award flights via a frequent flyer program.

How To Use the Card To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

Amex Transfer Partners
Transferring Membership Rewards points to airline frequent flyer programs is a simple process. Image Credit: American Express

Membership Rewards in your account can be transferred to 18 different airline frequent flyer programs, most at a ratio of 1:1. You can then use the miles to purchase award flights with the respective airline and its partners.

Transferring rewards to airline partners is one of the best ways to receive top value for your rewards points, especially for business and first class tickets.

Several Amex cards that earn Membership Rewards points (we mentioned a few earlier in this article) also allow you to transfer points to airline partners.

To find out if your card has this benefit, log in to your online Amex card account, click on Rewards, then Transfer Points. A list of current transfer partners will appear.

Hot Tip: Watch for bonus offers where Membership Rewards points may be transferred at a ratio better than 1:1. An example of a past transfer bonus includes a 30% bonus when transferring points to Virgin Atlantic, and a 25% bonus when transferring to Air France. 

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

How To Use the Card To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card is one of our favorite travel rewards cards. It earns flexible Ultimate Rewards points that have multiple redemption options and it comes with a long list of travel insurance benefits.

Ultimate Rewards Transfer
Receive greater potential value for your Ultimate Rewards points by transferring to airline partners. Image Credit: Chase

One of the most valuable ways to redeem Ultimate Rewards points via any premium Chase travel rewards card is to transfer, at a ratio of 1:1, to 1 of several airline partners. Once transferred, you can use the miles to purchase business or first class flights.

Additionally, you can redeem Chase Sapphire Preferred card Ultimate Rewards points via the Chase travel portal for 1.25 cents each. As mentioned previously, redeeming points via the travel portal for international business or first class tickets may not deliver good value due to the relative pricing of such flights. However, domestic first class or inexpensive business and first class flights may be worthwhile.

Hot Tip: Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred between Chase cards. Points earned on no-annual-fee Chase cards, for example, can be transferred to premium Chase cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve card and Chase Sapphire Preferred card to be redeemed for up to 50% more value when used for travel via the Chase travel portal. We compare these 2 premium Chase cards here

Capital One Miles Cards

Popular Capital One Miles cards such as the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Card and Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Card offer simple flat-rate earning structures yet give cardholders several flexible redemption options. We compare the 2 cards in this related article.

How To Use Capital One Cards To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

Capital One has 15 airline transfer partners and while the transfer ratio is not 1:1, there can still be good value found when transferring rewards then purchasing premium flights with miles.

Log into your Capital One card online account and on the homepage select Transfer Miles. You’ll then see the list of transfer partners.

Capital One Transfer
Capital One miles can easily be transferred to airline partner frequent flyer programs. Image Credit: Capital One

Capital One also offers the ability to wipe out previous travel purchases by redeeming your miles via Purchaser Eraser.

Because Capital One miles can be a good option for securing upgraded flights, we’ve done some legwork and put together a list of suggestions for receiving the best value for your Capital One transfers.

Citi ThankYou Rewards Cards

When your Citi ThankYou Rewards credit card earns ThankYou Points, you can find value in transferring those points to airline partners for the purpose of purchasing a business or first class award ticket.

How To Use Citi Cards To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

Citi has 16 airline partners and most offer a transfer ratio of 1:1. Transfers can be made by logging in to your online Citi card account, selecting Travel, then Transfer Points.

For step-by-step instructions on how to transfer ThankYou Points and which transfer options offer the best value, you’ll want to access these informative articles.

Hot Tip: In addition to the option of transferring rewards points to airline frequent flyer programs for purchasing premium award tickets, many airlines allow you to upgrade paid flights or even award flights using miles. Terms apply, but it’s wise to compare the 2 options. Additionally, consider that there may be taxes and fees that apply when using miles to purchase award tickets via a frequent flyer program. 

The Best Cards for Complimentary Upgraded Seating

Yes, there are actually cards that can give you an advantage for securing a complimentary upgraded airline seat!

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Card American Express Card

CREDIT CARDCARD INFO
Limited Time Offer

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card


Learn More
(at Amex's secure site)
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 80,000 Bonus Miles and 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 60,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $30,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 15,000 MQMs four times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Receive a Domestic First Class, Delta Comfort+® or Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government-imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Complimentary access into the Delta Sky Club® for you when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • Enjoy complimentary access to The Centurion® Lounge or Escape Lounge – The Centurion® Studio Partner when you book a Delta flight with your Reserve Card.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Earn 3x Miles on Delta purchases.
  • Earn 1x Mile on all other eligible purchases.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Good to Excellent Credit Recommended (670-850)
  • Annual Fee: $550
  • Terms Apply. For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve card, click here.

$800

Must Reads: For more info on the Delta Reserve card, see our insights on its benefits and our full review.

The Delta Reserve card, along with the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card, offers a unique advantage when it comes to securing complimentary upgraded seating on Delta flights.

How To Use the Cards To Upgrade Your Airline Experience

Simply having the Delta Reserve card will increase your chances for an upgraded seat. Complimentary upgrades are distributed based on several factors and in order of importance:

  • Medallion elite status
  • Fare class purchased
  • Delta Reserve cardmembers 
  • Delta corporate travelers
  • Delta SkyMiles cardholders who have met the Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) Waiver in the current calendar year
  • Date and time of upgrade request (the tiebreaker)

Let’s look at an example of how the Delta Reserve card works for securing upgrades. If, for example, 2 separate travelers each have Diamond Medallion status and each has a K-class ticket, the traveler with the Delta Reserve card will get the upgrade over the traveler who does not have the card.

Cardholders who have the Delta Reserve card, the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, or the business version of either card, will also have a complimentary upgrade advantage after meeting the current year Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQD) waiver requirement of $25,000 spent on the card in a calendar year.

To learn more about how to upgrade on Delta Air Lines, we have the lowdown on how the process works and tips for making it happen.

With elevated earnings, airline-centric benefits, a faster path to elite status, and an advantage when it comes to complimentary seat upgrades, premium Delta-branded cards make sense for the Delta loyalist.

We share more information on the best cards for Delta flyers in our comprehensive overview.

United-Branded Credit Cards

Very few credit cards offer any upgraded seating benefits for airline flights. United-branded credit cards that charge an annual fee are the exception. MileagePlus Premier elite members, who hold these United-branded credit cards qualify for complimentary upgrades on award flights.

For a more in-depth look at the best cards for United flyers, and information on the best ways to upgrade your seating on United flights, you’ll want to review our articles on these topics.

Bottom Line: The Delta Reserve card and the business version of the card offer cardmembers an advantage over other Delta elites for receiving complimentary upgrades. Cardmembers who have either of those cards or the Delta Platinum card can meet minimum spending requirements for the annual MQD waivers and also have a complimentary upgrade advantage. United-branded cards that charge an annual fee offer cardmembers complimentary upgrades on award flights. 

The Best Credit Cards for Airline Upgrades — Summary

If you’re seeking an upgraded airline experience, travel rewards cards can help make it happen. Here’s a summary of the options we’ve covered for using travel rewards cards for upgraded flights.

CardHow To Upgrade Your Airline Experience 
Amex Platinum card
  • Redeem Membership Rewards to bid on flight upgrades
  • Use points at the rate of 1 cent each to purchase premium flights via Amex Travel
  • Transfer points to airline partners and redeem for premium award flights
Amex Business Platinum card
  • Use points to bid on flight upgrades
  • Use points at the rate of 1 cent each to purchase premium flights via Amex Travel and receive a 35% point rebate
  • Transfer points to airline partners and redeem for premium award flights
Amex Business Gold card
  • Use points to bid on flight upgrades
  • Use points at the rate of 1 cent each to purchase premium flights via Amex Travel and receive a 25% point rebate
  • Transfer points to airline partners and redeem for premium award flights
Chase Sapphire Reserve card
  • Use points for 50% more value to purchase travel via the Chase travel portal
  • Transfer points to airline partners and redeem for premium award flights
  • Use the $300 travel credit towards a flight upgrade
Chase Sapphire Preferred card
  • Use points for 25% more value to purchase travel via the Chase travel portal
  • Transfer points to airline partners and redeem for premium award flights
Capital One Miles cards
  • Transfer Capital One miles to 15 different frequent flyer programs and purchase premium award flights
  • Redeem miles to wipe out previous travel purchases with Purchase Eraser
Citi ThankYou Rewards cards
  • Transfer Citi ThankYou points to 16 frequent flyer programs to purchase business and first class flights
Delta Reserve card

Delta Reserve Business card

  • Cardholders receive complimentary upgrades ahead of travelers in their elite status group who do not have the Delta Reserve card (or business version)
  • Cardholders who complete the MQD waiver annual spending requirements in a calendar year receive upgrade priority over those travelers who have not
Delta Platinum card

Delta Platinum Business card

  • Cardholders who complete the MQD waiver annual spending requirements receive upgrade priority over those travelers who have not done so
United-branded credit cards
  • United-branded cards that charge an annual fee, offer cardholders (who have elite status with United MileagePlus) complimentary seating upgrades on award flights

Final Thoughts

There are so many options for securing a seat in the front of the plane with points earned on a premium travel rewards card. In addition, some airline-branded cards give you an advantage for securing complimentary upgrades.

If you frequent a particular airline or function as a free agent using whichever airline has the best price and schedule, travel rewards cards could offer an upgraded airline experience in either situation.

Whether it’s securing an upgrade on an existing flight, purchasing a business or first class flight with points, transferring points to airline partners, or gaining an advantage for a complimentary upgrade, chances are there’s a card that can help you obtain that elusive seat upfront.


The information regarding the American Express® Green Card, Business Green Rewards Card from American Express, Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card, Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Card, and Citi Premier℠ Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer. 

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.
For rates and fees of The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.
For rates and fees of the American Express® Business Gold Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, click here.


Frequently asked questions

Which airline credit cards have free upgrades?

Normally, airline-branded credit cards do not offer free seat upgrades. A few cards, such as the premium Delta Reserve cards, give the cardholder priority over those who do not have the card.

Additionally, some United-branded cards offer the opportunity for cardholders who are Premier members to receive upgrades on United award flights.

Which is the best credit card for airline upgrades?

While no card can guarantee you a complimentary seat upgrade, cards that earn flexible currencies, such as Membership Rewards points, Ultimate Rewards points, Capital One miles, or ThankYou Points, can be used to purchase business or first class airline tickets.

Some Amex cards that earn Membership Rewards may also offer the opportunity to use points to bid for seat upgrades with the Upgrade with Points feature.

A few airline credit cards, as mentioned previously, help elevate your chances for a complimentary upgrade.

How does Upgrade with Points work?

Premium Amex cards offer an option to upgrade flights on 20+ airline partners using Membership Rewards points.

If your flight is with one of the participating airline partners, you will be able to bid for an upgrade using this Upgrade with Points feature.

Do airline miles expire?

Yes, most airline miles expire. The length of time varies by airline frequent flyer program but generally, most points do not expire if there has been recent earning or redemption activity in your account. Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus miles, however, do not expire.

If you are planning to transfer rewards points to frequent flyer programs to purchase award flights, be sure the flights you want are available before making the transfer, and initiate the request promptly.

Once points are transferred to the airline, the transaction cannot be reversed.

Christine Krzyszton

About Christine Krzyszton

Christine, who lives in Northern Michigan, travels about 300,000 miles a year despite her remote location. Her expertise is traveling the world on a weekend with no pre-determined destination in mind, letting the cost of the airfare determine where she will go. She has over four million flown miles and elite status on all three major domestic carriers.

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