Captain Kirk’s Approach to the Spouse Upgrade Debate

There’s been an ongoing debate on several blogs over ‘who gets the upgrade’ when traveling with your spouse or significant other and only one of you clears into the forward cabin. See, for example, this post over at Deals We Like where her husband makes a guest post appearance. They were planning to split time in the one upgraded seat, but all he got was an ice cream sundae in coach.

Reader Pat B. e-mails me to relay a recent story where he gave up his upgraded seat to his travel companion, and apparently the flight attendants were just in awe, their sense being this sort of chivalry never happens, and fawned over him throughout the flight bringing him complimentary drinks, a warm cookie, and gave the couple of bottle of wine from the flight on deplaning.

I’ve been rather struck by all of the back-and-forth over who gets the upgrade, the heavy traveling spouse who earned the upgrade and spends so much time in planes, the one who ‘needs it more’ by whatever measure of physical maladies or height, a chivalry rule, or whatnot.

To me, it seems really simple. While my inclination would be to offer the one upgraded seat to my wife, admittedly my take My take is perhaps inspired by Captain Kirk’s ingenious solution to the Kobayashi Maru scenario, there are two things I know to be true:

  1. It’s not actually ok for my wife and I to be in separate cabins. We need to be seated together more than we need to be in an upgraded cabin, so one upgraded seat would go to the person sitting next to the other in coach.
  2. However #1 never actually happens, because it is very important that both of us are upgraded. So I make sure that we are on flights where the upgrades are either confirmable or where clearance is assured.

Now, I’m not really that strident. I do actually fly plenty of coach, US Airways has tons of short-haul non-stop service that’s convenient for me and I’m not a US Airways elite, I’ll fly up and down the East Coast in coach without complaint. Although now that british midland is being sold I may no longer care to credit those US Airways flights to Diamond Club, and now that US Airways is ramping up service at Washington National and adding first class into their regional jets I may want a bit of US Airways status..

If you’re traveling with a significant other, and only one of you is upgraded, do you take the seat? Do you give it to your travel companion? Do you decide to sit together in back? Does it matter how long the flight is?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’ve been in this situation exactly three times before. All three times we gave up the single upgrade in order to sit together. Now, if I were in a situation (hypothetical) where we were “forced” to keep the one, single upgrade (e.g., the doors are closed and for security we cannot give it to a stranger…or whatever), then I wouldn’t think twice about it: of course my wife gets the upgrade. Ladies first — what’s wrong with everyone???

  2. Ladies first — what’s wrong with everyone???

    But what about gay couples, or partners in a samish-sex marriage?

  3. While I appreciate this post, I’m not sure what your solution has to do with the Kobayashi Maru. A Kobayashi Maru inspired solution would involve hacking the airline’s computers to ensure that the non-entitled spouse also got an upgrade — or, at least, obtaining the second upgrade through some form of subterfuge.

    I think it’s unfortunate that the classics are no longer taught in our schools.

  4. Simply put, if mama’s happy, everyone is happy, if mama’s not happy….It makes me appreciate the upgrades when I’m traveling alone all the more….yeaa, that’s it..

  5. I believe the terms and conditions of my husbands points plan state clearly that elit status may be taken away at any point without cause.

    My suspicion is that if I took the upgrade with her in the back this clause would be enforced or at least my status would be reduced to copper or nickel status. I have always taken the safe route and given her the upgrade. 🙂

    Seriously, if I am traveling with anyone, even a colleague who hasn’t gotten upgraded. I’ve never had it come up on a flight more than 4 hrs with the exception of my wife, i will offer the upgrade. Most times people decline. I remember the first time someone did that for me and how high and how nice it was.

  6. @Larry Fundamentally Kobayashi Maru is about removing constraints built into the problem. I am not hacking the airline computer systems. I am hacking the question. The question is what do you do when only one of you is upgraded, who gets the seat? I am changing the parameters of the challenge, saying that’s not possible, I just esure that we both have the seat 🙂 I believe that’s consistent with the classic meaning of Kobayashi Maru. Especially because ensuring that we both get the upgrade means that total doom is averted. 🙂

  7. @Beltway — My same-sex spouse and I alternate when only one of us is upgraded. Since my spouse gets VERY upset when he has to sit in coach (spolied!), I do like Gary and try to make certain that we are both upgraded when traveling together. When he travels alone, I don’t worry about the upgrades as much (I book all of our travel) since I don’t have to be there in person to observe the sulking. 😉

  8. This question poses an interesting problem for me and my wife. Given that she is under 5-feet tall she finds the premium economy seats more than enough. Don’t get me wrong, she loves our Air France business class flights, but when we have had a single upgrade she had outright refused to take the upgraded seat. So I usually give it to the lucky SOB with the seat next to her. Though that has gotten me “the look” a few times from her as well. It’s always an adventure, that much is for sure.

  9. The one time this happened is on a flight from EWR to Edinburgh, right after flights resumed after the Eyjafjallajokull eruption. Of course CO was overbooked and I was number 1 on the list as a Plat. They were trying to upgrade me and my girlfriend, but in the end claimed that her ticket was just “too cheap” and could not be upgraded (she booked via Expedia in the UK). Ended up giving up that upgrade and sitting in coach for the short redeye. As we were boarding, gate agent found her and whispered “he’s a keeper.” I guess that’s worth it?? 🙂

  10. My wife is one of those once a year flyers (ok, maybe 2 – 3). If the upgrade clears, the seat is hers. Frequent flyers are use to sitting upfront. When my wife sits upfront, she ‘really’ appreciates it. Why shouldn’t she get one of lifes pleasures.

  11. I couldn’t get a second F seat on Turkish from JFK to IST but had secured two from IST to BKK. I took the F seat, Tracy the C seat. Here’s why. Herringbone seating in C doesn’t make for sharing much. We’d sit across the aisle from each other. Upon boarding Tracy rolls herself into a ball pressed against the window. She’d be just as comfy, in my opinion in Y. Skips the champagne. Hardly pays attention to the video system. Prefers to sleep the entire flight rather than eat. I don’t get it but those are her preferences. However, other times we share the same cabin.

  12. When we travel together, usually we are both upgraded – or neither of us is. But every once in a while we only have one upgrade. It really depends on the flight. I’m 8 inches taller and usually work on my laptop. She reads or sleeps. She only drinks water while I enjoy the beverage selection. The upgrade has more value to me than her. I often offer it to her, and she usually declines it. But at least a few times I’ve let her have a business seat on an intercontinental or transcon flight while I’ve been in coach, so it’s probably all evened out.

  13. Happened to me last flight from Munich to ORD. Offered to wife, she refused, wanted to sit together in Economy Plus on United. So the guy in line next to me was overjoyed at getting the last upgrade. So I bit the bullet when American put business class to Europe on sale and bought two to London for our anniversary in March. Domestic harmony is more important than free champagne.

  14. I have the higher status, if only I clear, she sits up front. We don’t travel across oceans without a guaranteed business class seat anymore, and I am strategic about Hawaii trips.

  15. My employer pays for my upgrades. Spousal expenses require approval of the CEO.

    Similarly, if I knew a consultant billing our company billed us for an upgrade that was given to the spouse, I’d find that unethical.

    Recently I have become ExPlat on AA so no more upgrade cost. My solution is to use SWUs when we travel together even on domestic.

  16. MrsLincoln doesn’t travel as much as I do, so she gets to make the call. When she and jrLincoln are coming with me on my business, she often has me take the F seat so I can work during the flight without … “help” … from our short one. On full-family leisure they’re usually on award tix, so no ups (and I remove myself from the list so we can all sit together in Y.)

    When we’re just-mommy-and-daddy traveling, similar rules apply: if we’re traveling together on the same flights(*), we sit together. I put her on a J award and I fly on a SWU or confirmable instrument. If we’re not on the same schedule — like, she’s coming to meet me in Europe or something — then she flies J award on a non-US carrier and I schlub it in Y+SWU on one of my usual suspects. That usually results in her enjoying LX J or LH F, and me enduring UA C. (I will say, my first few times in DL J haven’t been bad at all.)

    The one time it didn’t was when she was on a government Y fare to MEL, and I decided to go at the last minute. So I took a UA F award and we sweated the SWU for her (deal was, if it didn’t clear, I would take her Y seat and she’d have the F suite.) It cleared at the last minute. So I went to the guy sitting next to her in C, offered to trade him for my seat 1K. In disbelief, he took it. Karma will come around…

    (*) When I was a kid, my parents would schedule separate flights so if one plane crashed I wouldn’t be an orphan. Really, Mom? Not today, that’s for sure. I have enough moving parts to even think about adding that.

  17. My only status is Delta Gold–when traveling alone I’m averaging about 50% upgrade–I just returned from a pwm-fll trip and received upgrade to first from ATL-FLL going–and ATL-PWM on the return. However when traveling with Mrs derby44–she definitely wants to be seated next to me–upgrades don’t mean anything to her. I’ve offered the upgrade to her–however she’s definitely not interested and expects me to be by her side.she’d rather have the security/companionship of her spouse rather than any upgrade.

  18. Well, using the K-M theory, if one of you has been upgraded, you’d make nice with the gate agent, find another mis-matched couple, have your spouse assigned to their seat vacated by the upgraded person, then walk up to their seat and pretend to have the upgraded person’s seat, then graciously accept the upgrade proposal…

    It’s a gamble, but then again, so is half of what we do to get miles/upgrades/etc…

  19. Depends on the length of the flight. For a short flight (1 hr or less), I give my spouse the upgrade. For longer flights and only one clears, we decline the upgrade and sit together. We like each other’s company and would rather sit in coach together, than sit next to a stranger in first.

  20. My husband and I have an easy solution. If there is only one upgraded seat available, if it is a window it goes to my husband who always gets a window seat, and if it is an aisle it goes to me for the same reason. No muss, no fuss.

  21. There are those of us who would employ the Corbomite Maneuver before we were ever faced with the Kobayashi Maru Scnario, thus ensuring either the entire plane to ourselves or a long jail sentence…

  22. The problems come big time when travelling with my SO with a different name and a different PNR. As a UA 1K I apply upgrades to both but rarely do they clear in advance. At the gate the agents do not usually realise we are travelling together and therefore upgrade just me, giving away my E+ seat. This has now happened six or seven times.

    The net result is I sit in the back, she sits up front. And the further net result is that I have a far higher percentage of travel in Economy than she does, notwithstanding I’m the one with status. Oh well…

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