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First class, anyone?

Wanna sit up front?

Flying in first class is a dream for many, a reality for just a few. Trebor Banstetter, writing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, explains how those few came to occupy cushy first-class seats and avoid the back-of-the-bus crush.

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The good news for the many: In most cases, it wasn't by paying the outlandish fares airlines publish for their first-class tickets.

Banstetter identifies two strategies for budget-constrained flyers aspiring to the comfort of first class. "One is to look for an often-obscure fare that airlines use to sell first-class seats at steep discounts. The other is to harness the power of a frequent-flier plan to upgrade coach tickets to first class."

The obscure fare in question is what's known as a Y-up, a coach fare which entitles the ticketholder to fly in first class. To be sure, these aren't the cheapest coach fares typically snagged by leisure travelers purchasing two or more weeks in advance. But in many cases, they are lower than the so-called walk-up coach fares paid by business travelers who fly on a moment's notice and need tickets that can be freely changed.

As an example, Banstetter cites fares for an American flight between Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago. The first-class fare was $1,137; the unrestricted coach fare was $847; and the Y-up fare was $433.

Finding Y-ups can be difficult. Some carriers have begun displaying them on their websites, as have some online travel agencies. But it's hit-or-miss. So the best approach may be to call the airline's reservations center.

There are two variants of the frequent flyer upgrade strategy. For most, redeeming miles to upgrade to first class from a coach ticket is the more viable option. In most programs, upgrading to first from a discounted coach fare requires 15,000 miles each way, 30,000 miles for the round-trip.

For those who travel frequently, there's the elite upgrade approach. Full-service carriers typically award entry level elite status to customers who fly 25,000 miles, entitling them to upgrade certificates and, in some cases, automatic upgrades if seats are available.

Bottom line: There's a price to pay for flying up front; but that price may be more reasonable than you think.

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