If you've been traveling for a long time, you remember the days when it was much easier to upgrade your coach seat to business or first class, but rigid rules have made getting a better seat more difficult, since they are usually reserved for an airline's top customers. Not an elite flyer? Here are a few ways to snag more legroom on your next flight.
Often, you can pay the airline itself for a better seat—whether it's in economy plus, business, or first. You can usually buy-up to economy plus—which has a little more legroom than economy—when you make your reservation. Upgrades to business/first are often available online prior to check-in or at check-in. You can also check for upgrade possibilities when you get to the airport.
Each airline has a slightly different system for paid upgrades, but most are only available after their elite customers have been upgraded according to specific rules of the program. Some airlines, like American, only offer paid upgrades to business or first to members of its AAdvantage frequent flyer program. If you don't have elite status, you can only buy upgrades for flights on which you've purchased a full-fare coach ticket in the Y or B fare class. The cost is $30 per 500 miles. On Delta, more fare classes are upgradable, but not all routes are eligible. The price will depend on your ticket's fare class and the distance you're flying. For example, upgrades from the continental United States to Hawaii range from $269 to $399 per person on Delta flights. Check with your airline for its rules on paid upgrades.
Most airlines will allow you to use miles to upgrade a coach ticket to business/first. Be aware, however, that it's usually not a great value and you'd be better off waiting until you have enough miles in your account to redeem a ticket instead of using them to upgrade. Not all tickets can be upgraded (it depends on the fare class of the ticket) and some airlines—like United—charge a cash co-pay in addition to the miles, making the proposition even less appealing. For example, if you're traveling within the continental U.S. on a United flight, you can upgrade for 7,500 miles and no cash co-pay up to 20,000 miles and $250, depending on the fare class of your ticket.
If there are no seats available, no amount of kindness will make a difference, but treating a gate agent respectfully and kindly can go a long way toward helping your case. (Whatever you do, don't try to bribe them!) If a seat does open up, you might luck out and get that coveted first-class spot.
Sometimes the airline needs to upgrade passengers for "operational" reasons. Most often, the company has oversold the economy cabin and now needs to upgrade some customers from economy to business/first in order to get everyone on the aircraft and into the air on time. The gate agent has latitude to upgrade whomever he or she deems appropriate. So, how can you improve your chances of getting selected? When you arrive at the gate, introduce yourself to the agent (when he or she isn't busy assisting other passengers). Explain that you have a seat in economy and would be interested in upgrading if economy is oversold. Be friendly and straightforward. If the answer is no, offer your thanks and mention that you'll be in the gate area if anything changes. Stay in the immediate vicinity so you're easy to find if the agent needs to make an upgrade. This only happens rarely, but in the event that it does, you'll want to be in the best position to take advantage of the situation.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a writer based in New York City. She covers cruise and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, and other websites and magazines. She also teaches travelers how to leverage their frequent flyer miles at FrequentFlyerToolkits.com.
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There's almost always a list of people with preferred status that are eligible for upgrades so I would not count on charm working if you don't already have status with that airline/alliance. The same goes for Operational Upgrades.