How to upgrade

By | May 20th, 1999

Q: I’m flying to Europe in coach class and wondering if you have any tips on how to get upgrade to the next class?

– Betty Heidler

A: Hey, what’s wrong with economy class? Aren’t you comfortable with the 28-inch pitch between seats? Is 14 inches of width not enough for you? Is the food that bad?

You wouldn’t be a complainer if you answered “yes” to all of the above.

In fact, 28 inches is barely enough legroom for most folks. If the person in front of you leans back, chances are you’ll end up with more like 25 inches of space.

Same with the width. Once you factor in the likelihood that the guy next to you has stolen your armrest, you’re literally wedged in.

And don’t even get me started on the food. Airlines buy the plastic-wrapped gruel for a dollar a pop (and sometimes less) and as they say, you get what you pay for.

An upgrade to the next class of service is the only humane solution I can think of. If you’re a frequent flier, check your mileage balance and ask if you can cash any of the unused points for an upgrade.

Your travel agent might be able to help you, too. Retailers often get coupons mailed to them by airlines that entitle the holder to a one-class upgrade. Ask your agent about the coupons before you buy the ticket.

At the airport, appeal to the gate agent’s kindness. Use any excuse at your disposal. If you’re wearing a cast, it could land you in first class. Other upgradeable conditions include mobility problems, advanced age or visual impairments. There’s no guarantee this will work, and the airline certainly isn’t obligated to bump you to the forward cabin.

Related story:   The Travel Troubleshooter: Help, my Amtrak tickets were accidentally canceled

If you’re on a full flight and the gate agents begin asking for volunteers, seize the opportunity. Inquire about volunteering but stipulate that in addition to the free ticket, you want a confirmed upgrade to the next class of service. If the airline is desperate enough, it will accommodate your request. (This brings me to another important point: book a flight during off-peak times if you can. That way, the chances are greater of there being an extra seat in the forward cabin.)

As a last-ditch effort, you could always flirt with the gate agent. A smile or a kind word is sometimes enough to get you a better seat. Gate agents have the authority to rearrange the seating chart at their whim. If one of them likes you, you’re as good as upgraded. My cousin, who is a gate agent for American Airlines, is constantly being offered everything from free cosmetic samples to flowers to hot dates in exchange for a better seat.

Finally, it’s a good idea to look like you belong in first class if you want to end up there. Wear a business suit — but please, make sure it’s reasonably comfortable for the long trip — and address the gate agents politely, and in complete sentences. Airlines like to think of their first-class sections as havens of luxury where everyone dresses like they’re going to church. The image has nothing to do with reality, of course.

Remember, nothing is ever final — including your seat assignment. If you’re seated next to an unruly passenger, you might plead with a flight attendant for a different seat. And that seat may be in business class.

Related story:   Can I get a refund for my river cruise to Ukraine?

Good luck, Betty.

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.