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DISPATCHES: FIVE WAYS TO FLY FIRST CLASS

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What’s the worst part of sitting in a cramped coach seat on flight after flight? For me it’s filing past the lucky handful of first-class

(Photo courtesy of Air France)

passengers in their comfy leather seats, champagne in hand. Especially when I suspect that few of them actually paid for the premium service and extra space. The airlines are mum about actual numbers, but the fact is that on a typical domestic flight, most of the passengers sitting there clinking real glassware were upgraded.

Want an upgrade the next time you fly? Don’t we all. But getting one is extremely difficult. To start with, there are fewer seats in first- and business-class sections, and the competition for them is fierce. You’ll see your foes in all the major airports, seasoned road warriors who are using every trick in their book to squeeze into first class. And why not? A round-trip discounted coach ticket on United Airlines from New York to Honolulu, with a stop in San Francisco, recently cost $689.90. The same 12-hour flight in first class? Try $2,712.12.

So how can you get into that first-class seat without paying first-class prices? Here are five ways to raise your chances of getting an upgrade the next time you fly. I say "chances" because there are no guarantees, especially with flights going out fuller than ever. But you’ll find these strategies can help.

BECOME AN ELITIST

If there are any seats to be handed out as upgrades, elite status members of frequent flier programs usually get first dibs. These are the people you always see pacing around the gate, waiting for their names to be called. The sad truth is that they grab the lion’s share of upgrades. Elite status members are those who have earned enough frequent flier miles, based on actual miles flown as opposed to miles earned through affinity credit cards, to reach the upper levels of an airline’s program. Those who attain the rarefied ranks of elite fliers are usually business travelers, many of whom fly every week. And the airlines want to keep these loyal customers happy. One way of doing that is offering them a free upgrade. Elite-level fliers often receive free upgrades for their travel companions as well. Bingo! There goes your seat.

Most airlines have three elite tiers, which are often designated silver, gold and platinum. On most airlines, silver requires that you fly 25,000 miles during a calendar year. That, my friend, is approximately five coast-to-coast round trips. Gold status requires 50,000 miles, and those who make platinum have flown 100,000 miles.

While the chance of getting an upgrade with elite status is pretty good, it’s by no means guaranteed. When I was in Chicago recently, there were 29 people wait-listed for an upgrade on my flight to LaGuardia. In the end, one seat was available. And you can almost bet your kid’s college fund that they cherry-picked a platinum flier or, at worst, a gold member, for the privilege of sitting in first class on that 90-minute flight.

USE YOUR MILES

If you’re like me and most other travelers, you don’t fly enough to attain elite status on any airline. So the second-best way to get an upgrade is to use your frequent flier miles to purchase one. But be aware that if you’ve bought a low-priced coach ticket, you may not be allowed to use miles to upgrade. Instead, an upgrade may require a higher-priced coach fare. For example, Continental Airlines lets you upgrade a full-fare economy ticket for just 5,000 miles, one way, but it requires 15,000 miles for a one-way upgrade of what it calls "select economy fares" (these are designated Y, H, K, N or B fares). Any other fares are not eligible. The smart thing to do is to ask if you can use miles to upgrade a particular fare before you buy your ticket. For international travel, ask if you can use miles to upgrade if you are purchasing a ticket that includes travel on an airline’s code share partner.

As a non-elite flier, you can often buy an upgrade with dollars, too, but generally only if you’ve purchased a full-fare economy ticket. At American, for example, those upgrades come in 500-mile increments at $25 apiece (so if you’re flying 2,000 miles, it will cost you $100). But check the price of a business-class ticket first. You might be surprised at how little difference there is in price.

While you can often purchase upgrades at airport ticket counters and e-ticket machines and online, you can also do it over the phone when you book your tickets. I find that when it comes to getting upgrades, a live human being can work wonders. Upgrades are complicated because of the fare structures, and a good agent is generally faster than a Web site.

By the way, if you’re like most people, you’ll rack up many more miles by buying than by flying. One option is to get a credit card from Visa or MasterCard that has an affiliation with a single airline such as American, Northwest or Continental. It will allow you to quickly accumulate miles that can be applied to upgrades. Participants usually earn one mile for every dollar charged. But note that the annual fees for these cards are typically $50 or more, and interest rates are 18% or higher.

There are also credit cards that offer air miles for dollars charged, and allow you to redeem the miles on a number of different airlines. The American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card, for example, permits you to redeem miles on most major carriers. And better yet, when you redeem 20,000 miles, the program rewards you by giving you an extra 5,000 miles, so you can actually receive a 25,000-mile award ticket. Some of these credit cards charge an annual fee, and some, like the Chase Value Miles Platinum Visa, do not.

JUST SAY "Y"

If you’re not using miles, consider purchasing a higher-priced Y fare when you book your coach ticket. This is a full, unrestricted fare in coach, and it may come with a free upgrade to the next class of service, depending on the airline and based on availability. You must call to request such fares and check each airline’s conditions. And if no Y fares are available when you call, some airlines will allow you to be wait-listed for them.

I checked on Flight 472 on October 15, a red-eye from San Francisco to Miami on American Airlines, with a return on October 22 on Flight 1539. The Y fare was $1,318.40, a lot less than the $2,218.40 first-class fare. But it was still a lot more than the $305.40 coach-class fare $1,013, to be exact. While your upgrade chances are very good, they are not guaranteed, even though you’ve bought a more expensive ticket. American claims that you’ll get an upgrade 90% of the time using this fare. When you don’t get an upgrade, it’s because of a last-minute aircraft change that reduces the number of first-class seats or because the first-class section fills up at the eleventh hour. So yes, it is a gamble.

TRY A DIFFERENT ROUTE OR A DIFFERENT AIRPORT

If you want to use your miles to upgrade to business or first class but those sections are looking full when you book your flight, investigate a different routing. Instead of flying nonstop from New York to Seattle, for example, fly through Salt Lake City. It may be less convenient and require more time, but there may also be open seats available for an upgrade. Personally, I wouldn’t do this unless it was a long flight and I had the extra hours.

Another strategy when looking for seats is to choose a nearby airport. Go for Oakland instead of San Francisco, for instance, or Colorado Springs over Denver.

MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK

When a flight is oversold in economy but there are empty seats in business and/or first class, an airline will sometimes upgrade a number of coach passengers to the next class of service. They do this because it’s cheaper than denying boarding to coach passengers, which requires both re-accommodation and compensation. This is called an operational upgrade, and the idea is to get the plane off the ground on schedule. Who gets upgraded in these cases? Well, there’s a pecking order that usually starts with an airline’s elite members and goes down from there, through the ranks of frequent fliers and those fliers who’ve paid the most for their seats. These upgrades are sometimes awarded a few hours before the flight, which means that checking in early is a good idea. And getting one of these upgrades is one of the last remaining reasons to dress well when you fly. While an Ermenegildo Zegna tie won’t guarantee a cushy seat, wearing your college sweatshirt and a pair of jeans probably won’t rocket you to the head of an upgrade queue either.

As for sweet-talking your way into an upgrade, rest assured that the gate agent has heard it all before. And the fact that you bear a passing resemblance to George Clooney or Angelina Jolie probably won’t help all that much. Unless, of course, you can convince them that you really are Clooney or Jolie, in which case, you don’t need me.

This story first appeared in Diversion.

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