How to get cheap upgrades when you fly

December 31, 2010
Fares from Washington DC:

    Dress nice, ask nicely, be patient. When it comes to first class upgrades, these are some of the old favorites that you’ll hear experts leaning on constantly, as if it were still the 1980s, when a starched shirt and a handsome tie could get you everywhere.

    That’s not to say that looking smart can’t still work miracles today. My friend Richard was upgraded once on Air Canada from economy to first for no other reason, the gate agent told him, than the fact that he was wearing a nice suit. He probably stood out from all the people in dirty T shirts and flip flops. But why leave anything to chance when you can buy a first class seat for next to nothing?

    Ever eager to squeeze every penny out of every flight they possibly can, the airlines aren't always keen to reward their frequent flyers by handing out free upgrades like candy. Nope —now, some carriers are just unloading them more democratically — first willing to pay, first served.

    Don’t wait for them to write it in the sky or slap it up on a billboard, however– even though buying an upgrade can be extremely simple, finding out about availability is sometimes anything but. For example, US Airways advertises its GoUpgrade program when you check in for your flight but on the most popular routes, you’ll often find the seats you wanted are long gone unless you know how to book them ahead.

    What you probably didn’t know: You can call (800) 428-4322 starting 24 hours (to the minute) before your flight is scheduled to depart, and snag any seats before the web check-in crowd starts logging on. More often than not, being on the ball pays off.

    Then there’s Virgin America. On this small but seriously cool airline, the first class seats are worth every penny. Although many of their coast-to-coast flights can be had for as little as $89 to $119 each way, their ultra-luxe first class product costs over ten times as much. But, with impeccable timing and a little bit of luck (consider that there are only 6 First Class seats on each Virgin America Flight) you can snag the remainders exactly 6 hours before your flight for a lot less (airfarewatchdog.com was saddened to learn that the airline recently reduced the check in window from a previous 24 hours) depending on how far you’re going. (For transcontinental, you could be looking at a $270 upgrade — pricey, but trust us: Worth it.)

    Many other airlines are less willing to shell out the good seats to commoners like us; at least not until they absolutely have to. Say hello to the surprise kiosk upgrades. Say you’re flying from New York to Denver on an early weekday morning in the middle of November. It’s not ski season, nobody really needs to be in Denver. You check in for your (let’s say United) flight on your own, using the automated system, and suddenly, the machine wants to know: Would you like to sit in First today, for just $75? Yes, please. In fact, most airlines now offer last minute kiosk or gate upgrades, but only when demand is low from paying customers or those with frequent flyer status.

    Then again, hoping for a miracle at a kiosk is often as reliable as hoping for a miracle at the video poker machines in Vegas. If you choose your airline right, you may not have to wonder at all. Well, unless, of course, they’ve already sold out. More details about cheap first and business class upgrades in this handy chart.

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