When it comes to upgrades, the airlines are caught in what is viewed by many to be a real catch-22. Like any business, the airlines have an obligation to maximize revenue and make money for the company. Part of this revenue is generated from the outright sale of tickets in their premium cabins -- first class and business class. However, they also have an obligation to their best customers, namely the frequent flyer and more specifically, the elite flyer. Maintaining, and even growing, the base of frequent flyers of an airline depends almost entirely on the "value" of their frequent-flyer programs, especially for elite members. The value of most programs is often judged by the number of seats an airline allocates for either free or mileage upgrades in the very same premium cabins they are obligated to sell. This has created a conundrum for many airlines.
Today, with profits scarce, airlines are oftentimes not releasing premium seating for upgrades until days (or even hours) before the flight's departure, hoping to sell those seats at full cash value. Only at this point do the airlines release the empty (non-purchased) premium seats to their frequent flyers who use miles to get the reward or the upgrade. So frequent travelers must jockey for position to obtain one of the few coveted premium seats.
By now one may be asking, how do you put yourself in a position to gain that premium seat -- without the additional stress of racing to the airport or knocking down fellow passengers for the sake of an upgrade?
1. The first thing is to consider using your accumulated miles for upgrades as far in advance as possible (flights are often posted up to 330 days prior to scheduled departure). Even this far out the airlines will usually make available at least a couple of seats for mileage upgrades but not for rewards. This is important to understand.
Consider purchasing an inexpensive coach ticket and use your miles to upgrade. An additional benefit to doing this is you will earn qualified miles for the paid coach ticket (you receive zero credit on a premium seat using miles exclusively). If you want or need to use your rewards miles for securing a ticket (without an actual ticket purchase), you should follow the same rules of checking the availability as far out as possible.
2. Check the upgrade availability frequently. Although upgrade seats may not be available at the time you purchased the coach ticket, the inventory for upgrades is constantly changing, right up until the time of departure. You can check with your airline every day or several times a week or you can use a flight-alert service from some online services, such as ExpertFlyer.com.
3. If you don't have access to a service, such as flight alerts, check in with the airlines 24 hours prior to departure. If an upgrade is still unavailable at this point, check in online at the airline's website. Most airlines establish a waitlist for upgrades at the airport. Priority is usually given to those who have checked-in the earliest, and with online check-in available 24 hours prior to departure; this will greatly increase your chances of getting that elusive upgrade.
4. Another important thing to remember is that you do not need to print your boarding pass at the time of online check-in. Many travelers make the mistake of waiting to check-in online until they have access to a printer. Check-in as close to the allowable time and pick up your boarding pass at the airport. With nearly every airline offering several electronic kiosks, gaining a boarding pass will take only a few minutes.
These are a few tips to help you secure a premium upgrade when traveling, and if you still don't manage to get one, keep trying. At the very least you've been able to effectively manage the stress and anxiety associated with the whole process.
Chris Lopinto is the president and co-founder of ExpertFlyer.com, a service that helps travelers get out of the "Middle Seat" by providing in-depth flight info and alerts when Awards and Upgrades are available.