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Chasing upgrades, scoring better seats

SmarterTravel

“How can I upgrade to a better seat?”

Certainly, there’s no question why travelers would want to upgrade. On most lines, today’s coach is a truly bad product: little legroom and seats three inches too narrow.

On the other hand, prices for domestic first-class tickets are still much higher than rates in the back of the plane, and prices for overseas trips in business class are often more than 20 times the economy fare. No wonder, then, that travelers frustrated by the miseries of flying in coach long for a pass to the front.

The reader’s question really has two parts: (1) what are the methods of upgrading, and (2) how likely is each method to work successfully? Let’s look at both.

How you do it

The U.S. legacy lines (American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways) generally follow similar approaches to upgrades, as do many of the larger foreign lines and some of the smaller lines that fly two-class cabins. On the legacy lines, upgrade pathways pass through the lines’ frequent flyer programs.

Frequent flyer miles

On all the legacy lines and many foreign lines, you can use frequent flyer credit to upgrade coach/economy tickets. In fact, through partnerships, you can use credit in a U.S. line to upgrade a ticket on quite a few foreign lines. The typical pattern includes two upgrade options:

  • You can upgrade a full-fare coach ticket for a relatively small amount of credit. On American and Delta, for example, you can upgrade a domestic coach ticket to the next higher class for 5,000 miles each way; United asks for 8,000 miles. You can upgrade full-fare economy to Europe for 10,000 miles each way on American; 15,000 miles on Delta or United.
  • But you need a lot more credit to upgrade a cheaper, nonrefundable ticket. American, Delta, and United all ask for 15,000 miles each way for an upgrade within the U.S. To Europe, you need 25,000 miles plus $250 on American; Delta wants 25,000 miles and United wants 30,000 miles for Europe, but with no cash supplement.

    I use American, Delta, and United as examples; rules and requirements are similar on other U.S. legacy lines. Similarly, I use domestic and European trips as examples, but they’re representative of what you encounter to other parts of the world.

    In general, you can’t upgrade at all from some of the lowest “sale” and other promotional fares—the ones you normally buy whenever you can. However, you find some significant differences in how far down the fare ladder each individual airline goes. You have to check each trip. Fortunately, most of the legacy lines have improved their websites to the point that, in a fare search, you can specify that you want an upgradeable fare.

  • Upgrade certificates

    American, United, and US Airways sell upgrade certificates their frequent flyers can combine with coach tickets. Typically the certificates are sold in increments of 500 miles, which means you’d need five certificates for the 2,475-mile trip from Los Angeles to New York; six for the 2,586-mile trip from San Francisco to New York. Certificates cost $25 to $50 each; prices vary depending on your frequent flyer status.

    I couldn’t find comparable certificates on the Continental, Delta, or Northwest websites. As far as I know, those lines are not currently issuing them.

    Upgrade coupons

    The legacy lines often issue upgrade certificates of various types as bonuses for reaching certain levels in their frequent flyer programs. Limitations and restrictions vary, but they’re often not applicable to the lowest coach fares.

    Free upgrades

    Most legacy lines upgrade travelers at the highest rung of the frequent flyer ladder without charge. Some, however, limit upgrades to tickets at the higher coach fare categories, and most confirm upgrades only within a few days of departure. Typically, the lower you go down the frequent flyer ladder, the more limited your choices: lower base fares mean shorter upgrade windows.

    Some travel writers (who, in my opinion, should know better) still tell you that you can score standby upgrades simply by dressing well and politely asking the boarding agent. As far as I can tell, that strategy—while it might once have worked—has been inoperative for several years, and is highly unlikely to reemerge within my lifetime.

    What are your odds?

    No matter which method you use, the first rule to remember is that none of them guarantees you’ll get an upgrade. Instead, they just let you into the game. Whether you score is a different matter.

    Your chances of actually scoring an upgrade seat depend on two factors: how much you pay for your base coach or economy ticket and how high you rank in your airline’s frequent flyer hierarchy. While the airlines don’t announce their upgrade formulas, just about everyone in the industry is sure of those general rules.

    Reports on the upgrade situation have been ambiguous. Tim Winship, for example, has [% 14017 | | recently noted %] a surprisingly high success rate among some flyers, as did Joe Sharkey of The New York Times. However, most of Tim’s and Joe’s successful respondents seem to have been Gold or Platinum frequent flyers, which gave their chances a big boost. In my own case, as an ordinary “tin” frequent flyer, I’ve had virtually no upgrade success over the last three years.

    Other recent reports I hear have indicated that travelers with enough clout have a good chance of making the front cabin on domestic flights, while upgrades appear to be really tough on transatlantic and transpacific flights. That balance, however, might shift as the legacy lines cut back on domestic flights and add new international trips.

    My overall take: A platinum frequent flyer on a full-fare coach ticket is virtually guaranteed success; an ordinary low-status traveler on a “sale” ticket is virtually guaranteed failure. Travelers in between those extremes are in a crapshoot—win a few, lose a few.

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