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Upgrades: Finding the right base fare

Moving up from coach/economy to business and first class has always been something of a puzzlement—especially to travelers who don’t spend top dollar for a confirmed seat in the comfortable cabin. One reader recently put it this way:

“I don’t understand how upgrades work. Before boarding started on a flight from Atlanta to Honolulu, the gate agent announced that passengers could purchase an upgrade from coach to first class for $250, but only for those with tickets in booking classes B, H, K, M, Q, or Y. If I had paid $400 for my coach ticket, this would have been a bargain, because the regular first-class fare was $1,400. My question: When I buy a coach ticket, how do I know what class it is so I can decide whether I can upgrade, and if I can, how much it will cost?”

The answers are neither clear nor totally obscure, but somewhere in the middle. Here, in part one of a look at upgrades, I examine how you can tell which fares qualify—and how you can search for fares that do qualify.

Booking classes

The reader’s question really has two parts: The simpler one is about booking classes. Although most big airlines provide no more than three distinct cabins—coach/economy, business, and first class—they often allocate seats within each cabin to a laundry list of booking classes, each associated with a fare level and a set of restrictions. Moreover, those allocations are dynamic. They differ from one flight to another and, for any given flight, from one time to another. The reason for this practice is to assist in “capacity control” pricing: getting the most money they think they can for any given seat. In this system, the cheapest booking classes generally sell out first, with travelers booking later having fewer low-fare choices.

Normally, when you buy online, the booking program automatically puts you in the least expensive booking class that is (1) available for your itinerary and (2) meets the requirements you specified for refundability and flexibility. When you get to the final purchase screen, the display generally lists the code for the ticket you’re about to buy, and the first letter of that code is usually the booking class.

The problem with that process is that the lowest fare booking class the site finds for you may not qualify for the type of upgrade you plan to use. And that’s the more difficult part of our reader’s question.

Finding the upgradeable

Different types of upgrades are typically limited to different sets of booking class. So if you want to upgrade, you have to book yourself into a booking class that permits the type of upgrade you plan to use. And the big airlines differ in how easily you can find an upgradeable fare on their Internet booking sites.

  • United has the best system. Its fare search program lets you specify which of several upgrade varieties you’d like to use.
  • Alaska also allows you to search for two different types of upgradeable fares.
  • Delta and Northwest let you search by specific booking class. Presumably, you can determine which classes qualify for whatever type of upgrade you plan to use, then search for the lowest priced qualifying class.
  • Continental provides a search for a fare that qualifies for a frequent flyer mileage award upgrade, but no other types.
  • US Airways does not allow upgradeable coach fares, but it does let you search for a first-class seat at its “instant upgrade” coach fare.
  • American, as far as I can tell, doesn’t provide a search tool for upgradeable coach fares at all.

On most of the lines, you have to go past the initial fare search entry page to “additional options” or whatever else the line calls its page for more detailed searches. You generally find a link to that page somewhere within the first-page itinerary-entry box.

Neither Expedia, Orbitz, nor Travelocity allows a search for an upgradeable coach fare—or at least I couldn’t find one. At best you can get a choice between “lowest” and “refundable,” but that’s as far as you can get. In fact, I know of no independent airline booking websites that do permit you to ask for upgradeable coach fares.

As noted, that “lowest” fare that you find on an independent booking site may be in a booking class that isn’t upgradeable. You may face an additional problem: Sometimes, the lowest fare available through an independent booking site is a “special” contracted (or consolidator) fare that never qualifies for upgrades.

If you’re not sure, ask

With the possible exception of United, if you’re trying to book an upgradeable coach fare on other lines, my take is that your best bet is to use the phone reservation system. Sure, it costs an extra $10 or so, but the upgrade situation is so complicated that talking with a real person is probably the easiest way to get what you want.

Checking by phone is especially important if you use an independent booking agency. Only an agent from that agency can tell you which of its fares are upgradeable.

Upgrade strategies

Upgrades come in a bunch of different flavors. Some you can confirm in advance; others are a gamble at the gate. Some require payment, others require frequent flyer miles, and still others are “free” if you have the right sort of ticket or a high enough frequent flyer status. I’ll be covering the gamut of upgrade strategies in part two of this report in a few weeks.

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