Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio October
By Barbara S. Peterson
THE ART OF THE UPGRADE
As airlines restrict availability of upgrades, here’s how to
improve the odds of getting one
Before the advent of frequent-flyer programs,
upgrading to first class was a game of skill: You had to use wiles,
rather than miles, to cross the velvet rope. One particularly
daring gambit was to check in at the last minute on the chance
coach would be full and voilà the gate agent would have to give you
that empty seat in first.
Those dog-eat-dog days might return. Full flights make it
tougher to snare upgrades by cashing in the requisite miles.
Increasingly, they are reserved for the most frequent flyers or
those paying full fare. Airlines are slapping blackout dates,
capacity controls and other restrictions on this ever-elusive
Still, tactics exist that can improve the odds of escaping
cattle class. After all, the strong economy that has created more
demand for air travel also has prompted a number of airlines
including American, British Airways and TWA to add seats to their
Be loyal. Achieving elite status with an
airline is the surest path to upgrade heaven. Airlines typically
require a customer to fly at least 25,000 miles a year before
conferring preferred status; the perks multiply dramatically for
those who go platinum. You’ll be able to buy upgrade coupons
relatively inexpensively (about $40 apiece), and you can call
ahead, sometimes by 48 hours, to get a confirmed upgrade; those
with the highest status can call up to 72 hours ahead.
High-milers also get priority for seats opening up close to
departure. Elite passengers can get on a waiting list online,
avoiding long blocks of time spent on hold.
Exploit the hub phenomenon. If you live in a
carrier’s hub city, achieve very-frequent-flyer status with one of
the competitors. The hub airline will be flooded with upgrade
requests, reasons frequent-flyer guru Randy Petersen, so
competition will be less frenetic for first-class seats on rival
flights. Carriers with a smaller piece of the pie, who are trying
to build loyalty, might be more generous.
Find an agent with clout. A good travel agent
often can get upgrades from airlines to which she steers a lot of
business. Large agencies sometimes purchase blocks of upgrade
coupons to distribute as they wish. This strategy works best on
routes where there’s a lot of competition and where airlines are
trying to grab more of the higher-paying business market.
Join an airline club. By definition, members of
airline clubs are good customers. Sometimes the staff can win seats
for those standing by for an upgrade.
Pick your plane. Aircraft layouts differ, and
the odds of getting a premium seat vary accordingly. Study seat
maps before booking. On a heavily traveled route, the choices can
range from single-class 737s or two-class 757s with modest-size
first-class sections, to a three-class widebody with more than 50
business- and first-class seats. If you have a choice of airports,
select the one with the most flights to your destination.
Court the gate agent. Too many flyers ignore
the power wielded by gate agents. They can hand out free upgrades,
often working with the policy that airlines hate to see a plane
leave with empty first-class seats. Why forgo the goodwill an
upgrade can bring?
Travelers who often fly the same route should be on a first-name
basis with the gate agents. Some flyers even hand out goodies
cakes, theater tickets and the like hoping the agent will
reciprocate with a bump up to first.
Dress the part. Who’s going to snag that last
seat in first: a businessman in pinstripes or a guy sporting a
T-shirt and flip flops? The better you’re dressed, the better your
chances of rising above the crowd. Anecdotal evidence supports this
one woman never leaves home without her pearls and pumps, convinced
she once lost out by dressing too casually.Barbara S. Peterson is a Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.-based
free-lance travel writer.
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