Myths and Reality in Obtaining Airline Upgrades

James Wysong’s newest column is on ways to get an upgrade. His advice:

    Become a member of that specific airline’s frequent flier mileage club. You can be a member of many different airlines’ clubs.

Unlikely. Being an elite member of an airline’s frequent flyer program is the surest way to an upgrade, although each program’s terms and conditions are different — you may need to pay a certain fare or spend upgrade certificates, and the rules likely vary between domestic and international flights. But simply joining a frequent flyer program is unlikely to score an upgrade (except in one limited circumstance, overbooking of coach, discussed below).

    The flight is oversold in economy, but there are empty seats in business and or first class.

Absolutely. Airlines oversell coach and instead of denying boarding (which is costly, requiring both reaccomodation of passengers and compensation) they’ll upgrade people to the next class of service. This is called an ‘operational upgrade’ and is intended to get the plane out with the least amount of disruption.

Sometimes being an elite member of a frequent flyer program helps. Some agents will use frequent flyer status to determine whom to upgrade. But remember, this is about getting the plane out full and not a perk of the loyalty program. Sometimes people will be bumped up seemingly at random.

Operational upgrades may be done a few hours before the flight (you check in, and are given an upgraded boarding pass). Don’t check in too early, say more than three hours in advance, because you may miss out on the chance to be upgraded. The airline isn’t likely to call you back to give you a new boarding pass.

Operational upgrades are also done at the gate. The master at these upgrades is Flyertalk’s PremEx. Here, it’s best not to pester the gate agent. Go up, lay your boarding pass on the desk (which will show your elite status, if you have it) and say something like

    I’m traveling with you [“Full Fare” if applicable”] to [CITY] today and I’m quite happy with my [Seat X], but if you should need to move anyone up, I’d be happy to help out. My name is X and I’ll be sitting right over there…

Stay around in that spot and don’t move.

Don’t board right away, either. An agent isn’t likely to come onto the plane to find you to move you up, they’re likely just to pick someone else instead.

And just because an agent tells you “first class has checked in full” don’t take it to mean your chance for an upgrade is over. Often a first class passenger will be connecting from another flight, and they may well misconnect — meaning that the first class seat that has already checked in will actually become available.

    You are dressed smartly or in business attire. Jacket and tie for men and a dress/suit for women.

Looking appropriate doesn’t get you an upgrade, but dressing down could certainly cost you the upgrade if a gate agent is deciding whom to move up for operational reasons. This only applies to at the gate operational upgrades.

    You are traveling alone. Sorry, if you’re with kids, it’s almost an automatic disqualifier.

One seat is much easier to accomodate up front than several. That’s a bigger reason for this than a desire to keep kids out of the front cabin.

    Always be willing to move when asked. I know of a man who refused to move because he was seated on the aisle. What he didn’t realize was that the seat they were offering him was in first class.

Sure, you may be getting moved up front, but this is unlikely. Onboard upgrades are rare (except, perhaps, on British Airways or Aeroflot — for a fee — which in the latter case is actually a bribe).

    Be early. Your chances of sitting up front diminish quickly when you inquire at the last minute.

But not too early — don’t checkin before advance operational upgrades are done, three to four hours in before departure.

    Use the right card. Many times the credit card you pay with has a redeemable mile feature usable with several different airlines.

The USAirways Bank of America Visa Signature comes with upgrade benefits but you’re at the very end of the line for upgrades. Only flights that would otherwise have empty first class seats are likely to provide this benefit.

The American Express Centurion Card comes with elite status on Delta, USAirways, and Continental (which also provides upgrades on Northwest). That card can get you upgrades directly via your automatic elite status.

But other than those two cards, the point of ‘choosing the right card’ is really ‘accumulating the right miles’ and looking at what opportunities there are to use your miles for an upgrade — often at the time of booking — but just as with elite upgrades, there may be minimum fare purchased requirements and the rules likely differ from domestic to international flights.

    When you book the ticket ask about upgrades and prices. There is a fare called Y-UP fares that cost a little more but increases your upgrade chances immensely.

If you’re paying full fare, you may be entitled to a first class seat. YUP fares are sometimes less expensive than full fare, and sometimes less expensive than first class.

But don’t also forget to inquire about the price of a first or business class ticket — sometimes it’s less than you might imagine. I searched for a colleague’s trip to Bucharest yesterday. Most business class fares were $5000, but both Continental (with intra-European flights on KLM) and Alitalia offered $2500 fares. That’s a relatively small premium over coach for the days she’s traveling.

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, 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 am a member with North West Airlines and out of about 20 or more times I have been denied an upgrade even when my ticket is up-gradeable, so therefore becoming a member of the right airline FF program should be taken into careful concideration.


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