This article by Forbes' Lauren Streib came out on June 5th, and provides some great insights on how you can increase your chances for a free upgrade to First or Business Class...
What makes a first-class seat so covetable?
Well, for starters, your dollar (depending on when and where you are flying, these seats may set you back as much as $10,000) gets you expedited check-in, a wider seat, more legroom, use of power ports and individualized service. Some domestic carriers offer access to private airport clubs, seats that extend almost 7 feet and dining on fine china in their first-class seats.
On international carriers, "the list [of amenities] is pretty much endless," says Susan Daimler, vice president of marketing for SeatGuru.com, a Web site that allows users to compare seats by airline and plane type. On Virgin Atlantic Airlines, for example, first-class ticket holders are offered complimentary limo rides to and from the airport, full flat beds, on-board massages and access to an onboard bar.
Some travelers are happy to pay up. Others? They prefer to score their seats in more wily ways.
The most basic and effective way to weasel into a first-class seat is to be a member of an airline's frequent flier program.
Sign up for one and the airline will match each trip you take in miles or points. These can be used to purchase upgrades. What's more, regular travelers can qualify for elite status based on annual mile accumulation--or by flying a certain number of times or a certain number of segments during a calendar year--and receive free, automatic upgrades on flights. Other perks include priority boarding and access to airport lounges.
Elite status, says Morgan Durrant, spokesman for US Airways, "will always give you more muscle to upgrade."
Beyond miles, it's best to plan your flight when and where it's likely to be less crowded to avoid the potential competition for an upgrade. An early-morning flight to and from a major city will probably be packed with business travelers who fly a lot, so they'll have lots of miles and preferred status with an airline. A better time to fly would be in the early afternoon and late evening.
A little investigative work doesn't hurt either.
When booking, pay attention to the fine print. Certain classes of coach fares, which are usually indicated by a letter, are not eligible for upgrades. The airlines' Web sites outline the stipulations, and customer service can answer pre-booking questions.
Before using every last trick to get bumped into first class, know you could be sitting just as well with a coach-class ticket. The quality of seats and service on different airlines, even when using the same type of planes, is vastly different. A coach fare on JetBlue is just as roomy as a first-class seat on America West, but on JetBlue a traveler also gets a personal LCD television screen with DirecTV, according to a search on SeatGuru.com.
"Some airlines offer a class of service that is a lot like first class, but it's a lot cheaper," says Michele Perry, director of communications for TripAdvisor.com.
Another option, while not as expensive as first class, is envoy or business class. These fares usually have more room, better entertainment capabilities and power ports in all the seats to accommodate business travelers.
When booking a first- or business-class ticket is imperative, better deals are often reached using a travel agent with the right connections and experience. In the event of a weather cancellation, agents will "know exactly how to reprotect [clients] and get them out in a much quicker fashion than the airlines can," says Joseph Leifer, CEO of Traveler's Choice, a New York City-based travel agency. "That alone has some added value."
Join The Club
Sign up for an airline's frequent flier program, and you will earn points or miles each time you fly. These can be redeemed for upgrades (most airlines charge between 5,000 or 10,000 reward miles for an upgrade) or tickets. Note, though, that airlines treat reward miles much like they do actual money; during peak travel hours and around vacation periods, the prices for travel using reward miles go up, and the chance of scoring an upgrade with miles goes down.
It's a simple equation: Fly more, get more. Many programs allow frequent fliers to earn preferred status that can mean automatic upgrades or the ability to purchase upgrades earlier than other passengers on an upcoming flight. Some airlines have levels of preferred status. This means the members with the highest status are able to purchase upgrades before any other members.
Resist Outright Bargains The class of ticket you buy often determines the likelihood of an upgrade. Travelers who buy full-fare coach seats have a better chance at getting into first class than those who choose discounted seats, which often aren't upgradeable. It's easiest to find and reserve full fares by talking with a telephone agent directly or using an airline's online booking system where classes of fares are clearly marked.
Pick An Alternate Route
Interested in an upgrade? It's best to choose a less-crowded flight. An early-morning journey to and from a major city will probably be packed with business travelers who fly a lot, so they'll have lots of miles and preferred status with an airline. A better time to fly would be in the early afternoon and late evening.
Do The Research
A first-class seat along the same route and even in the same type of aircraft varies greatly from airline to airline. America West's first-class seat has just as much legroom as a JetBlue coach-class seat on the same type of aircraft, for example. But a little investigation at sites like www.seatguru.com, which allows users to view and compare different airlines' seat accommodations, will ensure that even if you don't score the seat promotion, you'll be confident of your comfort.
Even if the days of flirting or haggling the gate agent for the better seat may be long gone, courtesy will always make you appear in a better light. According to Morgan Durrant of US Airways, gate agents "do have a fair amount of autonomy." If an agent has to choose between a polite platinum frequent flier and a rude platinum member for an upgraded seat, chances are good that the premier seat will go to the nicer guy or gal.
And here's another tip from SmarterTravel.com: Buy full-fare economy tickets
You can also get upgraded for free if you are willing to pay for the most expensive coach tickets. US Airways offers GoFirst fares, which are full-fare economy tickets that receive automatic upgrades to first-class on a space-available basis. America West also offers fully refundable fares in economy class Y that include free upgrades. Several other airlines have similar policies, but the upgrades are limited to elite flyers.
Full-fare economy tickets can be significantly pricier than deeply discounted economy and sale fares. However, they are cheaper than buying a first-class ticket, and in that way they can be handy for travelers who want upper class at a lower cost.