The Ultimate Guide to Scoring an Upgrade

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Ultimate Guide to Upgrades
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on September 19, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, car rental, elite status, frequent flyer, hotel, Sarah Pascarella and Ed Perkins, upgrade.

It seems like every traveler is looking for that little something extra—that one additional perk that can make a trip go from good to great. One of the best ways to make a vacation memorable, special, and (especially) comfortable is to score an upgrade for little to no charge. Whether you're taking to the skies, choosing a hotel, or booking a rental car, here are some tried-and-true upgrading tips to bump you up to the next level.

Airfare

Within North America, hardly anyone actually buys a ticket for first- or business-class seats. Instead, most of the people sitting in those roomy seats get there through upgrades—primarily through elevated frequent flyer status, and usually without paying anything extra. But even low-level frequent travelers can sometimes make it to the front of the cabin. The airlines are much stingier with upgrades on international flights, however. Even elite frequent flyers find very few upgrades without using miles.

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Know What You're Buying

Before taking any trip, be familiar with your airline's policies. First and foremost, if you're interested in potentially upgrading, make sure to buy a coach ticket that actually qualifies for whatever kind of upgrade you're trying to get. If you're not sure about ticket classes and upgrading eligibility, ask an airline customer service representative before handing over your credit card number.

Additionally, educate yourself on the best method for upgrading with the airline you've booked with. For example, if you know that your airline tends to offer upgrades through airport check-in kiosks, you wouldn't want to attempt to snag an upgrade over the phone. You can find specifics on your airline's website (search for loyalty or frequent flyer program information), as well as insider tips and strategies on SmarterTravel's sister site, FrequentFlier.com. Remember, always read the fine print before making a purchase—knowing your airline's policies will help you to avoid any frustration later.

Buy Your Way Up

On some big airlines, even if you don't have elite status, you can buy upgrades, but only when you start with an expensive full-fare coach ticket. In fact, some carriers automatically upgrade full-fare coach travelers (based on availability) with so-called "Y-up" fares. Some big airlines even sell available first-class seats to travelers on any coach ticket at the check-in or departure gate for far less than the difference in list price. And on JetBlue and United, you can buy your way into a semi-premium coach seat—extra legroom but still narrow—regardless of the kind of coach ticket you have.

Use Miles

One of the best ways to use frequent flyer miles is for upgrades. It's often the case that a "free" seat isn't available for cashing in miles, but upgrades are. Given the often-prohibitive cost of first- and business-class seats, using miles to upgrade to that front-of-the-plane seat will (dollar for dollar) give you the best value. A mileage-earning credit card that delivers points and credits for everyday purchases can help you rack up miles faster. But mileage upgrades come with two caveats: First, some airlines now require a cash co-pay to upgrade their cheapest coach tickets; second, even when you buy a ticket that qualifies for an upgrade, you may not be able to lock in that upgrade in advance.

Go Seasonal, Take Advantage of New Routes, and Check Inventory

If you're flexible and love to travel, a great way to upgrade is to go where the availability is. Airlines tend to be generous with upgrades during periods where flights are less congested (e.g., low or shoulder seasons to a given destination) and times of expansion (i.e., check out your preferred airline's newest routes). Inquire about how many seats are available for upgrades—you may be surprised at the higher percentage, compared to other (peak) times of year or on more established routes.

Look for Promotions

Like flight sales, airlines offer promotions for first- or business-class seats. The best way to find out about the deals is to sign up with your airline's email newsletter; that way you'll be notified as soon as the promotions are available to the public. You can also get alerts by signing up for SmarterTravel's Mile Alert newsletter, published twice a month. Additionally, frequent flyer forums are a great place to chat with fellow travelers and get the inside scoop about the latest news and promos from your favorite airline.

Keep Checking

"Never give anything away that you can sell." The airlines certainly heard Cole Porter's advice; they give away as few "free" seats as possible. But when the flight date approaches with seats still open, they often free up additional seats for frequent flyer upgrades and mileage awards.

Go Elite (If You Haven't Already)

Elite status is essentially VIP status for the airline's best customers. To reach elite status, you must fly a set number of miles or flight segments over a specific period of time (requirements differ by airline), and most airlines structure elite members into three tiers based on those requirements (typically silver, gold, and platinum, or similarly named categories). Member perks include bonus miles, upgrades, and preferred check-in and boarding. If you fly frequently with one airline, elite status is a great vehicle for getting upgraded—if you truly are a frequent traveler and your status is high enough.

Lower-tier elite levels are often crowded with fellow travelers trying to work their way up, and you may find it consistently difficult to get upgraded if you only have silver-level status, for example. But, as SmarterTravel's frequent flyer expert Tim Winship notes, last year the airlines had double elite-qualifying mile promotions in place for fully half the year, making it easier than ever to become elite. Realistically consider your travel habits and airline brand loyalty to determine if going for elite status is right for you.

What Doesn't Work

Finally, knowing which upgrading strategies will be unsuccessful nowadays is just as useful as knowing which ones won't work. These days, most flights can't accommodate all the travelers who qualify for upgrades, so the big airlines have rigorous rules for setting upgrade priorities, based mainly on frequent flyer status and fare paid. Don't expect a gate agent or flight attendant to be able to upgrade you, even if you offer them "compensation" for their consideration. Many are not authorized to do so and won't be able to get you to the front of the plane.

Along the same lines, nice attire and a polite smile won't necessarily get you to first class. With most airlines cutting routes and reducing flights in this tight economy, there are fewer seats to go around, and that goes for upper-class seats as well. In such an environment, your request for an upgrade (no matter how nicely you're dressed) will fall on deaf ears.

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