How to upgrade your next flight for less than you might think

George Hobica, September 29, 2007
Fares from Washington DC:

    Have you noticed that padding on airline seats is getting thinner? Back in the days of the Lockheed Constellation or the DC-6, seats used to be less punishing (they were more like La-Z-Boys). Some of you may remember airliner seats like those in this DC3:

    Or in this Eastern Air Lines Super Constellation (looks more comfy than my living room at home):

    Or how about the plush two by two seating on this Northwest DC 6? (There was no first class back then, just one class for everyone. How socialist!).

    So, yeah, don't expect to find cushy swivel chairs (or June Lockhart) on your next economy class flight. Today, in order to save fuel and squeeze in more passengers, the padding has been minimized. (And look what further "improvements" might be in store.)

    And the rows of seats, as we all know, have been placed closer together. All of which adds to considerable discomfort, unless you happen to have a well-padded back porch.

    Okay, enough living in the past--or the future. Here are some strategies from to alleviate the pain now.

    Making the best of economy class

    Fly JetBlue

    This is easy. JetBlue has added extra legroom on its Airbus jets, with at least a 36 inch seat pitch in the first 11 rows of its Airbus 320 fleet and at least 34 inches in rows 12-25 (seat pitch is the distance between any one point on the seat and that same point in the row ahead or behind). Some airlines have 32 or even 31 inches between seats.

    Pay for exit rows

    Yes, some people think it's obnoxious to charge for what was once free, but this perk is well worth it. Northwest and Airtran will sell you an exit row seat, with more leg room than in first class, for $15-20. Frequent flyers on Northwest get to reserve these seats when booking, for free if they're "elite" members; mere mortals can book them within 24 hours of flight time.  Northwest also sells other "premium" seating for $5 to $25 per leg within the 48 states (may be higher for Hawaii, Alaska, and international routes).

    Premium economy

    United Airlines sometimes offers passengers upgrades to "Economy Plus", with up to 5 inches more leg room, when checking in, for relatively little money. If you're a frequent United customer, check out Economy Plus Access, which allows you to reserve economy plus for yourself and a guest for a full year or travel. The basic plan costs $349 per year.

    If you're an elite member of United's MileagePlus program, you'll be offered complimentary, space available Economy Plus seating.

    Fly Airtran

    If you're flying somewhere on their route network, Airtran offers very inexpensive confirmed upgrades to their roomier business class. Pay between $40 and $140 and you can upgrade from any full price coach fare at time of purchase. For about a year now, they've offered a "special promotion," with first come, first served upgrades from any fare, not just full fare coach. Spirit Airlines sells what they call a "Big Front Seat," with two by two seating, at the front of their planes, for far less than other airlines charge. Don't expect any amenities (no free booze) other than a more comfortable seat.

    Fly Midwest Airlines

    This airline has all first-class seating—every row of the plane—on some routes (they call this " Signature Service"), all at economy class prices. And the food for purchase is great too. This past September, the airline announced that it would add a few rows of "Signature" seats to its entire jet fleet, charging those who wish to upgrade $60 per flight.

    Upgrading to business or first for less

    Use Miles 

    With economy cabins so crowded and uncomfortable, and with coast to coast flights still available for $200 round-trip when there's a sale, I think the best way to use frequent flyer miles these days is to upgrade to first or business class, rather than to buy economy fares. Depending on route, the fare you paid, your frequent flyer status, and airline, mileage upgrades from economy to business or first "cost" as little as 7500 miles each way. It's important to note that airlines vary as to how many miles they require to upgrade a discounted economy fare. American charges 15000 miles to upgrade "most" economy domestic fares; and 7500 from full coach; Delta charges 5000 miles for full coach upgrades and 10,000 for upgrades from "select" discount fares (they're very mysterious about what these fares are, advising passengers to "check with Delta."

    Airline specials

    From time to time, airlines have very good deals on business and first class. Just look under the specials section of your favorite airline, or at the Airfarewatchdog  blog. In a repeat from years past, Continental has a sale on its very comfortable BusinessFirst cabin to Europe for holiday travel between Thanksgiving and January 11. Fares are less than half what you'd normally pay. Other airlines are likely to follow suit. Also look at the newer all-business class airlines, such as MaxJet, L'Avion, EOS, and Silverjet. They're rewriting the fare rules for international business class, and offer frequent specials, such as two for one fares.

    First / business class consolidators

    Another strategy to is to buy first or business class fares from consolidators. specializes in low cost business and first class fares at savings of 50% or more. Another good source is Planet Amex/Cook Travel.

    These discounted fares may have restrictions that full fare business and first don’t have.

    UP fares

    On many domestic routes, most airlines offer what they call Y UP, H UP and Q UP fares. UP as in upgrade. These are restricted full fare economy fares that can be upgraded at the time of purchase to confirmed business or first class for much less than a full first class fare. The only downside is that they're not changeable or fully refundable without paying a penalty. You can find these fares by searching for business or first class fares "with restrictions" or choose the "all types" option. On Travelocity, for example, you need to click on the less-than-obvious "more search options" link from the home page and then search for business class and choose "All Types" under fare type to include restricted business/first fares. So, for example, you could find a confirmed first class flight on Delta from New York JFK to Los Angeles for $1200 roundtrip plus tax. Clicking on the "adult fare rules" you'll see this fare code: H7UPNBV (see the "UP"?). A fully refundable "Y" fare on this route might cost $400-$800 more.

    Attain upper levels of frequent flyer programs

    Frequent flyers already know this route to a comfortable seat. Many airlines will award free or low-cost space-available upgrades to their very best customers, so it really does pay to fly often and to give all your business to just one airline.

    And it doesn't hurt to dress and act nicely

    A friend of mine was flying on Air Canada from San Francisco to Vancouver recently, and the gate agent handed him a first class boarding pass even though he had bought an economy ticket. He asked why he was being upgraded, and she told him, "Well, you're very nicely dressed and the station manager put you in first class." Simple as that. No, it doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen. Especially when flights are oversold or canceled, airlines tend to re-assign their best customers to first class if there are no seats left in economy. These are called "operational upgrades" in airline speak. And if you're an upper level frequent flyer and there's only one seat left in first class but a lot of people with the same frequent flyer status are waiting at the gate for upgrades, it seriously doesn't hurt to stand out as the nicest, friendliest, and best dressed customer. All else being equal, why wouldn't they choose you over the others?

    And whatever airline you're flying, it never hurts to ask if the check in agent can offer a paid (or even a free) upgrade to a more comfortable seat. You'll sometimes see Airlines tinker with upgrade options, often just  before departure, and you just never know what you'll find if you ask.

    Please feel free to leave your own tips in our comments. And see you up front… or at least, I hope, in the exit row!