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Three ways to score a first-class upgrade

As I noted a few weeks ago, getting an upgrade from coach to business or first class is often difficult, often expensive, and almost always confusing. This follow-up report was prompted by a question from a reader that started out, very simply, this way: “I don’t understand how upgrades work.” And that’s all we really need to get started.

When domestic first class generally costs roughly triple the price of coach, and international business class generally costs eight to 20 times the price of economy, many of you probably say, “I’ll stick with the rear cabin, thank you.” If you have to pay the difference yourself, chances are you’ll agree, and remain with the cattle car.

Almost everyone who pays the asking price for a first- or business-class ticket has that ticket largely or fully paid for by someone else—an employer, directly, or the U.S. government through a tax deduction. Sure, a few well-heeled personal travelers buy at the top, but for most of us, finagling an upgrade is the only way we ever get a seat in the front cabin.

The reason we finagle is simple: Flying in coach/economy for more than an hour or so is a miserable experience. Seats are far too small to accommodate us comfortably and the cabin service is, at best, underwhelming. Only one or two airlines, worldwide, offer coach/economy seats anyone in his/her right mind would describe as “comfortable” or even “adequate.” But most of those same people can’t justify the regular fare differences. So we finagle—with money, frequent flyer status, or both—sometimes with an assured seat, sometimes as a gamble. Here are the options.

Buying your way up: The sure thing

You can sometimes buy your way into business or first class, with a confirmed seat, for much less than the posted fare difference:

  • You can often buy international business class at around 50 percent of the full-fare price. Some discount agencies regularly sell those tickets. The big transatlantic airlines sometimes offer their own business-class sales. The AmEx Platinum card offers twofers in business class on a bunch of international lines, and Diners Club Carte Blanche offers twofers on British Airways on premium economy and business class tickets. Even at half price, however, an international business-class ticket generally costs several times the price of a seat in the cattle car.
  • A few startup lines offer transatlantic business class for much less than their giant competitors. The best current deal is Maxjet, which sells some of its business-class seats to London for as little as $699 (plus taxes and fees) each way from New York or Las Vegas, or $499 from Washington. That’s not much more than double what you’d have to pay for economy. Eos, L’Avion, and Silverjet offer similar service but at somewhat higher prices.
  • Some small domestic lines sell business or first class for less then the legacy lines. Among them: Spirit and Sun Country, but those fares are still much higher than those lines’ lowest coach fares.
  • Some domestic lines offer a special coach fare that provides an immediate, confirmed upgrade. US Airways calls it “Y-up.” Other lines have different names. Although the upgrade is “free,” the base coach fare is at or close to the top of the coach price range, so the net result is that you still pay double or more. It’s a good deal only if circumstances force you into an expensive coach ticket, anyhow.

Buying your way up: Maybe

When you can’t get a confirmed upgraded seat at a decent price, you can sometimes play “rostrum roulette” with low-cost standby upgrades:

  • AirTran routinely sells upgrades at the gate, on a space available basis, for $40 to $140 each way. AirTran normally limits those upgrades to travelers with full-fare coach tickets, but it’s currently selling upgrades from any coach fares as a “promotion.”
  • Although, as far as I know, no official tariffs mention them, travelers report that some legacy lines are selling space-available upgrades at the gate: some to travelers on any sorts of tickets, others just to travelers on expensive base tickets. Since this practice doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere, I guess you just have to see what happens at the gate.

Mileage and coupon upgrades

For most travelers on the big legacy lines, the route to the front cabin runs through the frequent flyer program. And, for the most part, how easily you can do that depends on (1) how high you are in the program, and (2) how much you pay for the ticket you’re trying to upgrade.

  • The one way you can assure yourself a confirmed seat in the front cabin is to use miles, either for a “free” seat or to upgrade a coach or economy ticket. When I last looked, going for the “free” seat is the better use of your miles. And although this system provides a confirmed seat, seats for either upgrades or “free” awards are extremely scarce—virtually nonexistent on some lines, especially for first class to Hawaii and business class to Europe. As with most perks, anecdotal evidence indicates that super-elite travelers find seats easier to get than ordinary frequent flyers.
  • Most of the legacy lines also sell upgrade coupons or certificates, generally denominated in multiples of 500 miles, for domestic trips. Give the airline as many as required for your trip. The type of coach ticket you can upgrade with coupons—and how soon you can confirm a seat—depend on your frequent flyer status. In general, if you’re not at least one elite level up the scale, you can’t use coupons with anything but the most expensive coach tickets. In my experience, low-ranking frequent flyers on cheap tickets must play rostrum roulette at the gate, with realistically very little chance of using their certificates.
  • Legacy lines issue a variety of other upgrade certificates, mostly either through corporate travel programs or to high-ranking frequent flyers. If you’re eligible, you already know about them; if not, you’ll never see them.

‘Free’ upgrades

On domestic flights, probably no more than two out of 10 travelers actually buy first-class tickets. Instead, the legacy lines fill their small (and shrinking) first-class cabins by upgrading travelers on coach tickets, free, without requiring cash payment or coupons.

  • Although most lines don’t publish their formulas, it’s pretty clear that the priority for free standby upgrades depends on a combination of frequent flyer status and the price of the coach ticket. Super-elite frequent flyers on full-fare coach tickets almost always get upgraded; ordinary frequent flyers on cheap tickets almost never do.
  • That old bromide about “dress up and ask politely” is, at best, an urban legend. It may have worked 20 years ago, but now, any flight I’ve taken lately has left the gate with lots of upgrade-eligible frequent flyers consigned to the back of the plane.
  • From what I hear, free upgrades are extremely scarce on overseas flights, even for super-elite flyers.

No free lunch

Clearly, upgrading generally requires some combination of cash, miles, and luck. The exact combination depends on the airline, your ticket, and your frequent flyer status. In my view, escaping the cattle car is worth the effort, but I’m sure many of you just resign yourselves to the miseries of coach.

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