Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Holy Grail of Air Travel: Upgrades

With a middle seat assigned, I knew I needed to take action.

So, for a flight from New York to Vancouver last year I headed to the check-in counter at Cathay Pacific (my carrier), despite the fact that I'd checked in on-line 10 hours earlier. A Cathay Pacific staffer, noticing my home printed boarding pass told me, in a polite and friendly manner, that I didn't have to wait in the line as I was already checked in. I responded that I'd been placed in a middle seat and was hoping to change that, and then made some silly joke about my assignment being a metaphor for my life.

We shared a laugh and then he glanced over to the fellow behind the counter and jerked his thumb up in the air.

Two hours later I was being plied with champagne in my reclinable business class seat.

Jet Airways Business Class, Photo by Schuey
The Cathay Pacific attendant didn't know my name and I had no miles whatsoever saved up with this airline. (I think it had been about a decade since I'd last flown it). I have no idea why the Cathay Pacific attendant gave me his kind gift, though I'm guessing it was my stupid joke.

I tried the strategy on the way back, made someone laugh...and stayed in economy class.

So is there a sure-fire way to get an upgrade? Perhaps I'm overly cynical, but with the airlines trying to squeeze every penny out of their passengers nowadays, it seems like the only way to do so consistently is to either pay for it (and sometimes you will pay less if you go for the upgrade at the check-in kiosk at the airport); or use miles to obtain.

Still, other experts disagree with me and since there's a good dose of serendipity to the process, I'll point you to an article that appeared today on snagging the upgrade that suggests such strategies as dressing like a first class passenger (a bizarre concept, I think: as I'm making that march to the back of the plane I've noticed as many people in sweats in biz class as in economy lately).

To my mind it boils down to luck and money (or miles, which are a form of currency). But who knows, maybe I'm mistaken.


  1. I'm so jealous! I had to pay £380 (~ $650) on the way from London to LA to upgrade to business class on Air New Zealand. The best £380 I've ever spent, but I'd have loved to get it for FREE ;-)

  2. It was my first, and ONLY, free upgrade. As I said, I just got very lucky. I guess when you fly as much as I do, every once in a while you get lucky

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