. THE ART OF THE UPGRADE | Meetings & Conventions


Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio October 2000 Current Issue
October 2000 On TravelPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

On Travel

By Barbara S. Peterson


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 perk.

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 premium cabins.

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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