Best way to upgrade

This item appears on page 41 of the November 2009 issue.

Nancy Tan of Fresno, Cailfornia, wrote, “What is the best way to upgrade your cabin class on a flight? Buy the ticket and then use miles? Pay for the upgrade? Just buy an economy-plus or business-class ticket to start with? Can an upgrade be made before we get to the airport?”

We asked our subscribers to answer Nancy’s questions, reminding you that with any examples given to please include approximately when and where you flew and with which airline. Responses are printed below. If you have something to add, write to Best Way to Upgrade, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the address at which you receive ITN). ITN does not cover destinations in the United States.

I traveled from Dallas/Fort Worth to London on British Airways in June ’09 and decided to try to upgrade to business class, since I recently had a bicycling injury that made it very painful to sit for long periods. I’d never flown business class before.

I was going on Grand Circle Travel’s “Great Rivers of Europe” cruise, and the airfare was included in the tour cost. GCT advertises that business-class upgrades are available, so I called GCT and was told the cost would be an additional $3,200 for both directions. I wasn’t so concerned about the flight home and declined to purchase the business-class tickets.

On the day of departure, I asked at the check-in counter and found that I could purchase a business-class upgrade for only $250 (outbound flight only).

I was told that the airline sets the discounted cost of upgrades shortly before the flight and that $250 was about as low as it ever gets for intercontinental flights. British Airways’ Club World cabin has seats that convert into a flat bed — exactly what I needed. Once on board, I didn’t see any empty seats.

On the return flight, I asked at check-in in London and after much punching of keys was told that, although business-class seats were available, my ticket did not qualify for an upgrade, presumably because it was one of a block of seats purchased by the tour company. When I mentioned that I’d purchased an upgrade on the same ticket at DFW, he merely shrugged and waved me aside. DFW 1, London 0.

On future trips, I always plan to ask at the counter.

Susan Tartaglino

Alvord, TX

It is sometimes possible to pay for an upgrade as you check in at the airport counter. Go to the Business Class counter to ask.

Two of us took a tour to Borneo with smarTours in February ’09. We were told by both smarTours and Malaysia Airlines that there was no way we could purchase an upgrade to business class since we had a group-class ticket from the tour company.

Upon check-in at LAX, at the business counter I again asked the clerk, and we were told that we could upgrade for $700 one way to Kuala Lumpur. What a surprise and what a great price! Upon our return from KL, we were told that we could not upgrade due to the type of group ticket we had. So you never know unless you ask.

On another trip, to Egypt from New York’s JFK in February ’06, we could pay for an upgrade on EgyptAir for $500 one way. It turned out to be the worst business class that I have ever seen, with terrible seats and food. It certainly wasn’t worth the $500.

The best way to decide if you want to attempt to pay for an upgrade at the airport is to, first, call the airline and ask what type of plane you will be flying on, then go to and click on the airline and type of plane.

You will find an illustration that gives an excellent idea of the configuration and types of seats on the plane, including various descriptive details.

Stan Steele

Stockton, CA

As frequent travelers, mostly with Delta Air Lines and their Sky Team Alliance members, my wife, Joan, and I find that a request to upgrade a ticket from economy class will be more readily acceptable if you are a frequent flyer of the airline. Therefore, we will not fly on an airline of any other alliance unless there is no other option.

The airlines know by their computer with whom they are dealing at the counter, and rank in their program does have its privileges and benefits. However, all upgrades are capacity controlled, even for a highly frequent flyer.

In some of the remarks I have read from travelers, it would appear that unallied airlines are being used to travel from A to B, which fragments any chance of accumulating the best mileage possible. It is important to pick an alliance and stay with it as much as possible.

As a Delta Platinum Medallion member, I can only address the steps which may help travelers upgrade with Delta’s alliance.

One of them is the fare class being purchased. On international flights with Delta and/or Sky Team, if we buy a nondiscounted Y, B or M fare ticket, we are on the top of the list to be upgraded. A full-price Y fare will almost certainly guarantee an upgrade; the B and M grade fares are right behind in importance, usually with no more money to be spent!

The other discounted coach-class fares (H, Q, K, L, U and T) may or may not be upgraded, depending on capacity controls, and we have to spend an additional sum for the upgrade. The L, U and T fares are seldom available for upgrades because the nature of the fare will not permit it anyway.

Most flyers want to fly as far as possible with as little out of pocket as necessary. Airfares, in the total scheme of travel, are probably the least expensive part of a trip today.

Delta now allows us to buy an upgradable fare ticket and use frequent-flyer miles to upgrade. That is a very good option for domestic flights, but it will not be as accessible on international flights.

In certain situations, we can use the complimentary upgrade coupons that are given to Platinum Medallion members when booking a flight. In order to use these upgrade certificates, a Y, B or M fare ticket must be purchased at the time of booking. This prebooked upgrade is guaranteed (unlike waiting for one at the airport check-in, which may be iffy, at best).

We also improve our chances for upgrades by flying in the off-season (November through March, but not during Thanksgiving or the holiday season which follows), when there is less traffic. At this point, however, there may be no off-season, as the airlines have so reduced the number of flights that all flights are usually full — and that doesn’t help us in getting an upgrade.

One recommendation would be to subscribe to the newsletter First Class Flyer (2511 Garden Rd., Ste. B-150, Monterey, CA 93940; 831/644-9990,, It devotes itself solely to obtaining upgrades on all carriers. I think the annual subscription rate of $95 is a worthwhile investment for someone serious about upgrades.

Andy McConnell

Holliston, MA

I hit a bit of a snag after I bought a ticket for a May ’09 flight from Washington Dulles to New Delhi, India, on Continental Airlines, then paid $1,000 plus 80,000 air-miles for upgrades in both directions. Due to weather on the outbound leg, Continental ended up putting me in coach on Air France, with a stop in Paris. On the way back, the upgrade did go through.

When I got home, I called Continental’s OnePass frequent-flyer office. They told me they would immediately credit the miles but said I had to call another number to arrange the upgrade-fee refund. When I called those folks, they said, “Okay, allow up to 90 days for processing.”

It turned out they gave me only 50% credit on the miles, and after 90 days I still don’t have the $500 credit.

The lesson here is that, if your upgrade includes both a fee and miles and then fails to happen, you may have to make multiple phone calls to recover.

David Emery

Reston, VA

My wife and I have used United as our primary airline for several years and have accumulated well over a million frequent-flyer miles. Over the years, we have used them for upgrades from coach to business on all flights over five hours.

United is our primary airline due to the mileage program. When we go to Europe, which is about twice a year, the easy part is getting the upgrade from coach to business using miles.

First I go online and check schedules to wherever we are going, then I check coach-class prices. I usually do this at least 333 days prior to our “return” flight, to make sure seats are available.

After finding the right flight, I call United to confirm the BEST price and get the correct fare code that allows for an upgrade. Then I will buy the tickets at their website, thus saving a few bucks.

Immediately after, I call United and tell them the seats in business class that I want. (From United’s schedule, I will have determined the type of aircraft the flight is using and then gone to to check the seating configuration.)

This method has always worked well.

A note of caution — when booking through one airline a flight on a partner airline, you cannot get a seat assignment, and thus an upgrade, until checking in at the airport.

We normally fly United from LAX to Heathrow. Once in Europe, we use Lufthansa as it is a partner of United. However, the only way you can request “good” seats from Lufthansa is to book the flight with them direct rather through United. If the flight is booked through United, Lufthansa will NOT give you the upgrade you want until you check in for the flight. Needless to say, by that time all the business-class seats are gone.

Jerry Becker

Bronxville, NY

On United we always buy a full-fare economy ticket and use miles to upgrade to business class. We’ve never had a problem.

This is one case where we don’t book online. You can avoid problems by calling an agent and taking care of the ticket and upgrade at the same time. We did this last year when we flew to Hong Kong in September and also this year for our tickets to Italy in September.

There are a limited number of upgrade seats available, so it helps to be flexible with your dates.

Inga Aksamit

San Rafael, CA