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Have Points? This Airline Actually Makes Upgrading to Business Class Worth It

by Tim Wenger Mar 5, 2024

As a travel editor, I’m on the road regularly for work, and am generally the guy posted up in an aisle seat near the back of the plane, frequently stretching my legs into the aisle, earning Star Alliance reward miles but never spending them — Ryan Bingham style.

On a recent work trip to Türkiye, I deviated from that norm and as a result, learned a new travel hack that I will live by whenever possible going forward: When long-hauling overseas, upgrading to business class is worth it. I’d never before flown business class, as I’ve always been skeptical of such splurges – my points are better saved for someday on the distant horizon, when my daughter is grown and I can dive into the eternal abyss of travel, maybe point my snowboard down a hill on all seven continents.

Here’s the thing. I’m frugal, as my points-hoarding shows (and as my wife can confirm). But the point of frugality as I see it is to use what’s saved to enhance things that offer the biggest return. High-end food, plenty of space, and most notably, lay-flat seats that enable a decent night’s sleep on a 12-hour flight make for a big return. Especially when compared to spending that same amount of time cramped and trying to sleep in a seat that barely budges. When upgrading to business class using points, that return is coming as the result of credit accumulated as opposed to shelling out more cash, which further boosts its impact.

In February I flew from San Francisco to Istanbul, and a week later from Istanbul to Los Angeles, via Turkish Airlines business class. The experience convinced me that on future flights of 10 hours or more, I likely won’t outright buy a business class seat, but I will use points to upgrade economy seats to business class seats if possible. Below I’ll break down why, based both on numbers and on the experience.

Crunching the numbers

Screenshot from
Screenshot from

Turkish Airlines is a Star Alliance partner, meaning it’s possible to redeem United points (or those earned on other Star Alliance airlines) towards the purchase of flights on Turkish. The way to do this to optimize both your dollar spend and your points is to buy an economy ticket with cash, and then upgrade to business class with points using the Last Minute Upgrade option. For business travel in which you aren’t paying for the ticket, it’s still possible to use United or any Star Alliance partner points to upgrade your ticket to business class closer to the departure date, as long as your ticket is booked in the right economy classes. The screenshots above show fares on a recent search, the first spending points and the second if I were to buy the ticket traditionally.

Let’s use the route I flew from SFO to IST as an example. A one-way economy ticket about two months out currently starts at about $1,300 in the upgradeable economy classes on Turkish – classes Y, B, M, A, H, and S. Upgrading to business class generally runs between 45,000 and 50,000 points each way on a long-haul, with no more than a handful of upgrades available per flight. Of course, you’re running the risk that no J-class (the class gained by upgrading with points) business class seat will be available. A business class ticket on the same flight is $3,611 through Turkish Airlines directly and over $8,000 through United directly at the point of sale, or about 155,000 miles outright. If the points spent are earned through travel and responsible credit card use, that spend is worth it. It’s also significantly cheaper in terms of dollar value, with United points worth about 1.5 cents per on top of the economy fare ticket you pay for with cash.

Ranking the value gain vs. the points lost

Simple and delicious. Photo: Tim Wenger
Swordfish. Photo: Tim Wenger
At first glance, I didn't even realize this was made entirely of fruit. Photo: Tim Wenger
Avocado soup. Photo: Tim Wenger
Lettuce is so rarely the star of a dish. Photo: Tim Wenger

Turkish Airlines is well-known for its flying chefs who bring Michelin-Guide-caliber dining to the high skies. I indulged full-send on avocado soup, veggie pasta, and selections of Turkish mezze on one flight, and had a salad from the cart prior to a Swordfish dish and Turkish pastries on the other flight. On the front side of the trip, I took advantage of the free champagne upon boarding and had a glass of Turkish wine with dinner. On the backside of the trip, after a week of reporting (and snowboarding), a glass of green detox juice served just after boarding calmed my nerves before the 13-hour flight back to the US. Turkish Airlines also serves a classy breakfast – think salmon and freshly warmed bread, omelets, and Turkish-style plates of egg, cheeses, and accouterment – prior to landing. Snacks are available throughout the flight to business class passengers. The equivalent value of all this is at least on par with a nice dinner and breakfast out at a restaurant.

Thanks to the lay-flat seat, I slept more soundly than I’ve ever slept on a plane, accumulating about seven hours of sleep each way. Given that each of these flights saved the need for a night in a hotel room, there’s a few hundred dollars of value there. The airline provides blankets, slippers, warm and moist face towels, and a diddy bag of toiletries to use if you desire.

The Wi-Fi worked relatively well on each flight, allowing me to knock out a few hours of work. Overall, the experience was much closer to experiences I’ve had with overnight train travel in Europe and Asia than to other long-haul flights I’ve taken in economy, primarily because I felt comfortable and well-attended to, rather than packed in like a sardine.

Assessing the lounge access gained through business class

Which language do you prefer the news in? Photo: Tim Wenger
They call it football here, too. Photo: Tim Wenger
Recharging three ways at the United Polaris Lounge. Photo: Tim Wenger
The anticipation was tantalizing. Photo: Tim Wenger

Among the most notable perks of business class is the dedicated lounge. Turkish Airlines operates a massive facility inside Istanbul International Airport complete with a hot and cold buffet that puts even the heartiest of airport restaurants to shame. I piled a plate with mezze, salad, and pasta, and had a bowl of dumplings called Manti and a few small slices of pide, a pizza-like bread with cheese and toppings, on the side. Champagne and other drinks, of course, are complementary. The lounge features a golf simulator, a paltry museum honoring regional soccer stars, and plenty of space to spread out and work (or nap).

On the front end, departing from San Francisco, my business class ticket provided access to the United Polaris lounge. This lounge featured a hot buffet of Asian-influenced pasta dishes and specialties, seemingly driven by the fact that SFO serves as a major gateway for flights headed across the Pacific. The bar poured high-end spirits and craft beer. Showers and private meeting rooms are available for those who need them. I did have to pass through security twice to make the lounge visit happen, as the Polaris lounge is located in a separate terminal from where the Turkish flight to Istanbul departed. That said, the wait time at both security stops was negligible thanks to Global Entry, and relaxing in the serenity of a nice lounge rather than sitting at a hectic gate was worth the hassle.

The caveats to my conversion

man in turkish airlines business class

“First time in business class” selfie. Photo: Tim Wenger

To be thorough in my opinion here, there are plenty of situations in which I don’t believe upgrading to business class is worth it. Any short-haul domestic flight in the US is better spent in an economy aisle seat because there simply isn’t enough time to take advantage of the two biggest perks of business class, the extra personal space and the ability to get decent rest. Even when upgrading to business class on long-haul overseas flights, I won’t add the same upgrade on connections. For example, I fly out of the regional airport in Grand Junction, Colorado, and must connect to international flights elsewhere. Given that the longest flight out of GJT is under three hours and the planes are small enough that they don’t have separate cabins for business or first-class travelers, there’s no use upgrading. Finally, what makes Turkish Airlines business class worth it are the factors unique to the airline – the flying chefs, the business lounge in the Istanbul airport, and the service. None are matched by any US domestic airline.

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