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Your Money > Smart Assets
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Upgrading your travel
5 Tips: Travel in class
February 9, 2004: 2:54 PM EST
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - President's Day is coming up and many of you will be traveling. So why not do it in class?

We've all been there. Crammed back in coach on an airplane and wishing we were up front in first class stretching out our legs and sipping champagne. Upgrades are usually given to passengers based upon available space, frequent-flyer status and the fare paid.

While there is no way to ensure an airline upgrade, there are a few tips that can help your chances. Here are today's five tips...

1. Get the right credit card.

Many flyers don't realize that choosing the right credit card is one of the most overlooked ways of improving your life in the air.

Matthew Bennett, known as Mr. Upgrade, is the editor of www.firstclassflyer.com. He says it's the miles you rack up buying -- more often than miles racked up flying -- that can provide the best way of boosting your chances of getting upgrades.

Participants usually earn one mile for every dollar charged. Log onto www.credit-land.com and www.frequentflier.com to find a list of several credit card deals.

Bennett prefers the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card. This program allows you to redeem miles on 33 different airlines. And, better yet, you get 25,000 miles for every $20,000 of spending. That means more chances to find flights and more chances to upgrade.

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Among the slew of credit cards out there, you'll come across bank-issued cards and airline cards. Bennett stresses that with bank cards you are basically earnings points within their own home-grown loyalty program. In other words, if you spend this much, the bank will award you a ticket, but, it will not award you a first class ticket. The points you earn are ONLY good for coach. The big plus of a bank card is that the points can be used on several airlines.

The other option is to rack up miles on a Visa or Mastercard affiliated with your favorite airline (ex. Continental World Mastercard). While these points can only be used on that specific airline, you can apply them to a first class upgrade. But annual fees and APRs for these cards tend to be somewhat higher than for comparable non-mileage cards. APRs can range from 15 to 18 percent.

Also, Travel & Leisure magazine says don't forget about code sharing. Many airlines can get you upgrades with their affiliates, too. American, Continental and U.S. Airways work together and have international partnerships with airlines like Qantas and British Airways. While you may get lucky and find yourself with a generous ticket agent, Bennett says the days of shmoozing gate agents is over. Airlines are too cost conscientious to just give first class seats away.

2. It helps to be among the elite.

If there are seats available, elite-status frequent flyers may receive a free upgrade. Elite status members are those who have earned enough frequent flyer miles to reach the upper levels of the airline's program.

The higher your frequent flyer miles, or actual miles flown, the better your chances of getting the upgrade. Typically, a traveler reaches the initial elite tier when he or she has earned 25,000 miles on an airline, or on the host airline's partners, during a calendar year. Broken down, elite status depends on actual miles flown where as credit card users are all about miles for redemption. In other words, an elite upgrade versus a mileage upgrade.

While elite status members do have a better chance of getting the upgrade, Bennett still calls it "upgrade roulette." There is that chance there will not be enough room on the flight. He suggests that if you want to play it safe, and not be stuck on a 6 hour flight in coach, use your miles earned and purchase the first class ticket with those.

As far as the elite status is concerned, most airlines have three tiers. They are often referred to as silver, gold and platinum. Silver requires a base of 25,000 miles, with one airline, during a calendar year. Gold requires 50,000 and those with Platinum status have flown 100,000 miles. Depending on your status, you'll know typically 24 to 100 hours in advance if your flight has the upgrade space confirmed.

3. Be strategic.

While using your miles is considered the most reliable option. It certainly can't hurt to be strategic when searching for the upgrade.

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CNNfn's Gerri Willis shares five tips on how to get an airline upgrade.

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Ed Hewitt, columnist for Independent Traveler.com says timing of the upgrade request is critical. If you do it at the time of booking over the phone it can make a big difference. If you wait to do it at the gate you'll have to compete with other passengers who also waited until the last minute.

He also says that upgrades tend to go better with a human being on the other end of the line. If you choose to wait until you get to the gate, be strategic with your arrival times. Travel & Leisure magazine says arriving early and taking the first flight of the day can help your odds. Without a long line of customers, the airline agent is more likely to be relaxed and willing to accommodate you. As we mentioned earlier, schmoozing may not help. But does it hurt to ask politely? Not at all. Some examples, "Is there an upgrade available for an affordable price?" "Do I qualify for an upgrade?"

Also, look beyond your home airport. Perhaps by making a connection through another city or buying a ticket to or from an airport nearby you'll be able to find a better deal. And, though it may sound obvious, make sure to dress the part of a first class traveler.

4. Take advantage of fare wars.

The battle among the airlines to get your business can lead to big savings. Keep an eye out for first class fare wars.

For example, what might normally be a $6,000 first class fare on one airline from Miami to Europe could cost as little as $999. In most cases other airlines will match it in order to get your business.

If you fly often, you might consider subscribing to a newsletter that follows the airline industry and looks for deals. Some charge a small fee to subscribe while others are free of charge, such as www.Independenttraveler.com, which updates its bargain section six days a week, several times a day), www.smarterliving.com and www.travelzoo.com. Also, some newspapers will list the latest deals in their travel sections. Independent Traveler says timing is a big deal as airfares change approximately one million times a day.

5. Consider paying the full fare.

Airlines have different fare classes. When you go to buy a ticket, the airline allocates only so many seats for the cheaper fares, usually referred to as the "L" fare. Then there are the seats a bit more expensive then the "L" fare, and so forth, until you reach the "F" fare for first class. This is a more expensive option, but passengers should consider the "Y" fare. This is a full, unrestricted fare in coach. It is usually dubbed a "Y-Up fare." Most domestic airlines offer a First Class upgrade free to passengers with a Y-Up fare.

Bennett says this is a good option for those flying on short notice, such as business travelers, or who someone who can't manage a "Saturday-night stay." It is also a choice for those trying to find a seat on a near-full flight and have to pay full-fare anyway. Bennett says this is a frequently overlooked option.

The fare code to ask for at the time of booking is Y-UP. It's not available all the time but it is something you ask for. The key is asking for it. Most agents will not volunteer the option. There are also international carriers that will do the same thing, among them Malaysia Airlines and Asiana Airlines. Also, think about it -- who would the airline rather have frustrated about not getting upgraded, those paying something in the neighborhood of $200 a ticket or those paying $2,000 a ticket?

Something to keep in mind about fares: One source we spoke to said there was a study done showing that on one plane that had 124 seats... there were 1,370 possible fares available.


Gerri Willis is the personal finance editor for CNN Business News. Willis also is co-host of CNNfn's The FlipSide, weekdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (ET). E-mail comments to 5tips@cnnfn.com.  Top of page




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