Travelore Tips: There's An Easy Way To Get An Upgrade On Your Next Flight
As airlines change their frequent-flier policies, making it more difficult for travelers to vault into first class, we asked experts for their tips on beating the system and getting the upgrade.
Courtesy British Airways
Getting a better seat on an airline may get even more difficult, if you’re not a road warrior: Recent changes to some frequent-flier programs skew the odds even more in favor of big spenders. To wit: United and Delta are both switching from a formula that, for many years, awarded miles based on distance flown, to one based on how much money you spend on your travels. Fare class and status in your loyalty program can up the ante even more. (At this writing, American hasn’t said if it will make any changes to its program.)
So what’s the bottom line? “General”—i.e. low-status—travelers rack up five “miles” per dollar on air fare; the highest status travelers get 11 miles per dollar. That’s a sizable gap, but it’s not the end of racking up miles for the infrequent traveler. “It’s not all doomsday,” says Brian Kelly, who blogs as the Points Guy. “It’s easy to assume that it’s another case of the ‘rich get richer,’ but actually, a lot of the business fliers are getting shafted too”—all except for the top 10 percent, he says.
That’s because airlines increasingly are making it possible for fliers to buy their way into the upper classes for not that high a cost. If there are empty seats close to departure, they may be willing to sell them off at a discount. “The 90 percent of fliers who don’t have elite status and aren’t playing the game should wait for those deals,” says Kelly. Plus, for consumers who aren’t very frequent fliers, credit card earning remains a great way to get ahead.
Gary Leff, a mileage program expert and Condé Nast Traveler specialist, says that while it is still an uphill battle for those trying to vault their way into the upper classes, you can avail yourself of these tactics to try to escape coach.
First, don’t think only in terms of upgrading from coach to business class. In recent years, dozens of airlines have added premium economy cabins to their long-haul fleets, giving fliers a good shot at getting into business. On some airlines (including British Airways, whose Club Cabin is pictured above) there are several separate classes of service, increasing your chances of trading up. Leff’s advice: Buy a premium economy ticket and then upgrade to the next level.
But what about those real distance marathons—say, Los Angeles to Sydney, or New York to Tokyo—where that fully flat bed can really make a difference? Leff advises seeking out routes that may be less in demand, and hence may have more premium seats available. Instead of flying out of New York, look for international flights out of Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. You can also try seeking out airlines that aren’t members of a major alliance like Star or Oneworld; those groups promote their shared loyalty benefits to their members, so there’s more demand.
Another trend that’s picking up steam is giving customers a chance to bid on upgrades. Some airlines are selling empty business class seats to the highest bidder, but that’s usually closer to departure. Some carriers like Austrian are even auctioning these seats off at the departure gate for a combination of miles and money. But that means you have to resign yourself to a coach seat if you lose your bid.
Finally, the best tactic is one of the oldest. “Fly when the business travelers aren’t,” says Leff. Try off-peak days and times, like leaving for London at noon on a Wednesday—business travelers likely will leave on a Monday or Tuesday since they won’t want to spend the weekend away from home. Upgrading during the holidays may be easier than at other times of the year, but you’ll still have to buy a coach ticket (typically more expensive at those times of year). Ultimately, the time you invest in gaming the system can pay off.