Personal Finance > Saving & Spending > Travel
Making the upgrade
January 26, 1998: 7:15 p.m. ET

Tips and tricks for enjoying the benefits of first class at lower prices
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NEW YORK ( - It's the promised land of airline travel: first class. So how do you get there - or at least an upgrade to a better section?
     Checking in early won't get you anywhere. Claiming an injury that would make coach seating uncomfortable rarely works. And giving the ticket agent a box of chocolates or a bouquet of long-stem roses usually won't help you either although the handful of success stories are admittedly charming.
     The fact is that airline seating upgrades are awarded to passengers based upon available space, their frequent-flyer status, and the fares they originally paid. And that's all. Following are some guidelines to help you along the path to a more comfortable flight:

Be elite

     If there are seats available, elite-status frequent flyers may receive a free upgrade. Some airline frequent-flyer programs will accept requests in advance while others only take them at the gate. But the rule of thumb is that the "most elite" wins - the higher your frequent flyer status, the better your chances of receiving the upgrade.

Use your miles

     You can trade in frequent flyer miles for an upgrade. The amount of miles needed for an upgrade depends upon the frequent flyer program to which you belong, but most airlines charge a minimum of 10,000 miles. So if you're planning to take a long flight, you might want to store up some extra miles and aim for an upgrade.

Investigate paid-seat upgrades

     If you are a member of a frequent flyer program and you paid full fare for your coach seat, you can pay an additional fee for an upgrade. The cost of upgrading is much lower than if you had originally purchased a ticket in first class. Alaska, America West, Canadian, Continental, KLM, Northwest, TWA, US Air, and Virgin Atlantic all offer low-cost upgrades, with costs generally corresponding to the length of the flight.

Take advantage of special deals

     Many airline frequent-flyer programs offer special deals to their members.
     For example, US Airways' Dividend Miles program offers a pack of 11 upgrade coupons for $300. The coupons can be used by the purchaser or transferred to another party. The coupons are used based upon the length of the flight, with longer flights requiring more coupons. The coupons can be used in North America only and can be used for full fare or discounted fare tickets. When you use a coupon and get upgraded to first class, you will accrue first class mileage for that flight.

Combine with hotel programs

     Membership in a hotel frequency program grants you a variety of bonuses. You can get discounts, extra amenities (such as free meals), coupons, and airline seat upgrades. Frequency program members accrue an average value of $10 per visit although points earned in many hotel programs expire one year after being earned. Other hotels set no expiration date on their frequency points, but require members to stay at a participating hotel at least once per year in order to keep their accounts.
     Several hotel frequency programs also allow guests to earn airline bonus miles instead of hotel points. Hotels affiliated with airline programs typically offer 500 to 1,000 miles per stay. Some hotels require you to fly a particular airline combined with your stay in order to qualify for miles, and most hotels make you choose between hotel points or miles.
     However, Hilton and Westin allow you to receive both hotel points and airline miles for the same stay as long as you pay a qualifying room rate. Back to top


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Continental OnePass

US Airways Dividend Miles

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