Certainly it wasn't all chance that brought first-class upgrades floating one's way, and a heavy battery of hard and soft tactics arose to increase your chances. Dress neatly, speak politely, fly the same airline regularly, inquire when offering your frequent flier number to the telephone booking person, stand a little taller at check-in if you can (for the tall-person sympathy upgrade), volunteer to give up your economy seat so a family might sit together, volunteer to be bumped on an overbooked flight.
But these days, when everything flight-related has a price tag, you'll pay $99 for an "upgrade" to the front section of coach, just for the right to get off the plane more quickly (although in some cases it does also buy you an inch or two of extra legroom).
Many factors have created the present "zero upgrade" environment -- like the airlines' love of fees and surcharges, computerized seat assignments (which make it much easier to know where everyone is well before flight time), very full flights, and increased competition for upgrades due to the degraded state of flying coach.
Just because your chances of getting an upgrade have gone down, you don't necessarily have to give up. But first, let's realize that, for many domestic flights...
First Class Ain't What It Used to Be
Don't get me wrong -- when I am filing past the first few rows of seats on my way to the back of the plane, those big leather seats with folks already drinking wine in them have a strong allure. But those seats come with a cost, whether in cash or in miles, and on domestic flights you don't get all that much more than the folks in coach -- it's usually the same meals, albeit for "free," the same headphones with the same movies or DirecTV, and the same limited seat incline.
On the plus side, one big difference these days that must be mentioned is that first-class passengers often avoid some parts of the slog through security and check-in; the way airports are run these days, shorter lines could well be worth more than bigger seats.
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For international flights, you are talking about an entirely different situation. Much more critically than better food and drinks, first- and business-class seats in most international aircraft convert into beds that are actually pretty darn comfortable. On a flight back from Tokyo in first class a few years ago, I was actually disappointed when we began our final descent; when is the last time that happened in coach?
Okay, that's out of the way; let's move on to maximizing your (still slim) chances of an upgrade these days.
It Ain't Easy Getting Upgraded
David Rowell, who writes The Travel Insider, notes that "it is enormously harder to get upgrades these days than it used to be. Well, correction, it is harder to get undeserved upgrades these days. The procedure for getting upgrades that one is entitled to has become almost 100 percent automatic and hands-off, and with all flights being full in both cabins, there isn't much 'wiggle room' for people to exploit."
And it is not just a combination of luck and automation that will shut you out of upgrades -- at some airlines, it may be a matter of policy. "Most airlines state, in no uncertain terms, that their policies prohibit arbitrary upgrading, both at check-in and onboard," says Randy Petersen of InsideFlyer. "It's a firm rule, with no room for negotiation or interpretation." Petersen agrees about the root cause: "This becomes understandable when you consider that upgrading is now often done electronically, rather than by queuing up at the check-in counter."
These electronically issued upgrades are doled out by a number of metrics, whether to the highest-ranking elite flier, or the person who purchased an upgrade-eligible coach fare, or the person who cashed in her miles.
That said, since stories and rumors of free upgrades persist, here are some tactics to get you into that privileged group that seems to snag upgrades -- or at least says they do.
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Tactics for Getting the Elusive "Free" Upgrade
Some ground rules to follow if you are serious about getting an upgrade:
Next, making it happen. Petersen offers the following tactics for getting a free upgrade:
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More Tricks of the Upgrade Trade
Ask Your Travel Agent
My own travel agent has a relationship with certain airlines that let her book her customers into preferred seats that are not released to everyone (usually toward the front of the plane, in exit rows and the like). She can also see upgrade availability fairly quickly, and many agents can add comments to your reservation that increase your chances of being chosen for an upgrade. Ask about these the next time you talk to your travel agent.
Watch for Business-Class Sales
Most leisure travelers ignore advertised business-class fare sales entirely. I have recently seen transatlantic business-class sale fares for around $1,100 at a time when it costs that much to fly coach. This will take some persistence and sleuthing, but you can sometimes fly in the front of the plane for less than the folks crammed into the back of the plane.
Look for Two-for-One Sales...
If you are traveling with family or a companion, a two-for-one sale on first- or business-class fares could cut the cost of upgrading, well, in two. At current coach prices, these could result in a wash with respect to price, if certainly not with respect to pleasure.
...or Two-for-Two Sales
One interesting tactic to find yourself some breathing room offered by Petersen might appeal to folks traveling on very cheap sale fares: buy two coach tickets. Say you find one of these $65 roundtrip fares to Florida or the like; the airlines that offer these usually make up the difference in fees for checked bags, movies, food and other extras. However, if you don't need headphones or to check a second bag, you can skip all those charges, and get yourself a heap of legroom for $35 -- a lot less than the cost of most premium seats.
If you use this tactic, it will be important for you to check in your second seat, as well as present the boarding pass at the gate -- otherwise your seat could be given to a standby passenger.
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If You Have a Title, Use It
David Rowell notes that judges, ministers and sometimes doctors are more likely to get upgrades. By all means, if you have a title, put it on your reservation.
In all honesty, your chance of falling into one of these free upgrades is slimmer all the time -- even Rowell has stopped trying entirely. That doesn't mean you have to; if you have had recent experience with surprise or unpaid upgrades, let us know in the comments below.