Friday, July 28, 2006

Want to bludge an upgrade? (of course you do)




I fly a lot, and I don’t fly between Europe and NZ in economy class. I simply wont do it. Call me a snob, but sitting in an upright seat for stretches of 10-13 hours with bugger all legroom is no fun, after eating the plain meal, watching movies, queuing up for 15 minutes for the toilet, which is usually stinky because there are very old or very young passengers who find it hard to avoid soiling it, either having to get people to stand up to let me out, or having to stand up to let others out – long haul flying in economy is drudgery.
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By contrast, business class with seats that increasingly fold down flat as beds, is a relief, with classy meals, more room and an overall civilised experience. Business class has evolved from large reclining chairs to the lie flat but slide down seats of Singapore Airlines and Qantas, to the lie flat bed seats of Air New Zealand (pictured) and British Airways. Once you’ve tasted being up the front, with the room, the sleep, the service, the lack of queuing for most things, plus the lounge access, the lack of wait for luggage, you simply don’t want to go down the back again on long flights.
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So, besides paying three times the price of economy to sit up the front (and sometimes there are cheap deal, like 2 people travelling for the price of 1 full business class ticket), how do some people get an upgrade? Are some “lucky” while others are not? Well a lot of people annoy check in staff at airports trying to bludge a seat up front, particularly in the UK and US. I’ve been upgraded umpteen times, but most times it is because I used airpoints or had an upgrade voucher from the airline because of my frequent flyer status, only a few times was it spontaneous and always on Air NZ (which probably also reflected by frequent flyer status).
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So, assuming you don’t want to pay to go business or first class, the first option is:
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Use frequent flyer points to pay for a standby upgrade: Usually whatever programme you are in (Air NZ Airpoints, Qantas frequent flyer etc) will explain on its website what points you need for an upgrade. Most airlines only allow upgrades on standby, so you will probably only know if you are upgraded when you check in or even at the gate. Air NZ does allow confirmed upgrades with airpoints, but you need a lot of airpoints dollars to do that.
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It helps if you aren’t just a basic grade frequent flyer. Air NZ and Qantas grant upgrades in priority from their top tier status flyers down. So for Air NZ, the priority order is Gold Elite, Gold, Silver then the basic grade (Jade). Of course depending on the airline, status frequent flyers themselves can get free upgrade vouchers (2 in Gold Elite and Gold, 1 in Silver for Air NZ). US airlines are particularly good at this for domestic flights. Of course, the way to get status is to fly on the same airline or its alliance partners more often, and not on the ultra cheap fares. In other words, this option really only works if you fly regularly. If you only do a couple of domestic flights a year and go overseas every couple of years, forget it, unless your overseas trips involve going business class to Europe for work (then you should get enough points to get an upgrade on one flight at least).
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By the way, airlines vary in how easily they upgrade with frequent flyer points. Air NZ is more likely to grant an upgrade than Qantas, simple as that. It is easier to earn Qantas frequent flyer points than Air NZ airpoints dollars, but harder to spend Qantas frequent flyer points - so that's the tradeoff. However, upgrades are also by far the best value you can get from frequent flyer points – the upgrade is worth a lot more than the economy class seat (if you paid for it), and usually costs less points that getting a free economy trip.
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OK, so you’ve checked and you don’t have enough points. What now? Well, to be honest, by and large the odds are low that you’ll get an upgrade. Whether it happens depends on a whole host of factors, of which the ones below will add or subtract from your upgradeability:
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Frequent flyer: If you are a member of the airline’s frequent flyer programme (regardless of status), this definitely helps. If you are a member of one of its partner airline’s frequent flyer programmes, this helps a little less (check Star Alliance and OneWorld websites to see). If you are not, then you’re just like many tourists – you fly the airline occasionally, so your loyalty matters less than everyone else who is a frequent flyer. Don't try claiming because you are a competitor's frequent flyer that makes you special - it doesn't (but remember the airline partners - the competitor might actually be in an alliance with the airline you are flying and you can earn points with it)
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Dress, appearance and hygiene: What this basically means is this - the better dressed and tidier you are, the more likely you will be considered “upgradeable”. If you look like a backpacker, or like the main benefit you'll get from business class is more alcohol – forget it. The airline will more likely upgrade passengers who will quietly enjoy the experience and not wreck it for others. The messier, noisier and smellier you are, the less likely you are wanted in business. Airlines don’t want people who paid to sit up front complaining about you (frankly it would be nice if you did this anyway).
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Be polite: If you are hoping for an upgrade, then be nice to the check in staff. If you are rude, ignorant or demanding then why should they bother? Be complimentary about the airline, be grateful for the service, say thank you a lot and be gracious. Act like a guest, the only reason to get angry is if the airline screws up on something basic - remember the staff have most of the power, and in their shoes, would you upgrade someone who treated you like dirt?
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Lying or claiming you have “some right” because of your trip or condition: This is a huge negative. Don’t even try it. People make all sorts of things up to get upgrades. In the UK one survey indicated that 1 in 10 people pretended to be a celebrity to get an upgrade. 1 in 20 claimed to be pregnant (because that gives you the right!) and 13% tried to bribe their way to an upgrade. Others claim there is a medical reason – in which case presumably you are stupid enough to fly against medical advice in the back of the plane. All of these fail miserably. Saying you’re going to a funeral doesn’t work either, neither does “you’re on your honeymoon” – (forget the Friend’s episode, Monica and Chandler showed you exactly what happens when you ask). At best you’ll get a polite decline, but more likely you scuttle your chances of being considered and might even get a poorer seat allocation in economy. Check in staff have heard it all before, you’re not the first and probably not the first on that day. They are more likely to think of you as just another timewasting try hard freeloader.
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Special meals: If you have requested a special meal, you won’t be upgraded (unless we are talking about an upgrade request made with airpoints before the day of flight). Special meals cost money to make, and the airline wont throw away that meal to get you a flasher one in business – and it wont go through the logistics of loading an economy class special meal to carry to business class for you. Forget it.
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Children: If you are travelling with children, forget it. You wont be upgraded with your kids, because children don’t get upgraded. They are the least predictable travellers and can be the greatest nuisance for others, so why risk upgrading children to sit beside adults who have paid. You wont be upgraded without your kids, because the airline doesn’t want to be parent to them. Your kids wont be upgraded without you for the same reason. If you have bought business class for you, and economy for your kids then basically tough luck. After all, what the hell do kids need a flat bed, pre takeoff bubbly and after dinner port or cognac for? BA’s policy when parents ask for an upgrade for the kids when a parent is in a higher class than their children is simple - offer the parent a downgrade – capisce? Sit down the back with men, or pay to take them up front. Yes, quite a few parents do (I've seen it).
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Travelling together or in a group: The more the less merrier. If the odds of upgrading you travelling alone are low, they are extremely low for two of you and zero for more than two.
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Where do you request?: Many spontaneous upgrades happen at the gate, not the checkin. This is because airlines often wait to see how many booked passengers on an overbooked flight turn up, then if a cabin is overbooked, move some forward. Requests at checkin are more common that at the gate, though more are trying at the gate now. Requests at the lounge may have greater success, BUT you have to have the right to lounge access in the first place (which means either frequent flyer status or member of Koru Club, Qantas Club). If you have status or a paid up club member you already are ahead of the proletariat in terms of your upgradeability.
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Busier flights/holiday periods: Essentially this means you have more chance of being upgraded on flights full in economy than not, because if the flight is overbooked the airline needs to do something with the extra passengers. It costs the airline to put you in a hotel or shift the ticket, both in money and in pissing off the passenger (“but I paid for this flight”), so if the next class up has spare seats, the airline will bump people up. It may even bump up two people one step, (shift premium economy to business and economy to premium economy) to make space. The bump up will give priority to frequent flyers with high status etc etc. Also note that holiday periods have less business traffic so more business class seats.
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Routes with poor business class sales: Some routes are packed with business class passengers, others are nearly empty. For example, Trans Tasman routes where the airline uses larger planes (e.g 747s, 777s, 767s, Airbus A340s) will tend to have a reasonable number of premium economy or business seats empty – but not those using 737s or Airbus A320s. Auckland to LA and San Francisco tends to be busy in business and premium economy. Auckland to Osaka tends to have plenty of business class seats (almost everyone on board is Japanese and not paying business class and not being entitled to an upgrade). On Air NZ premium economy is less popular to Asia (where the class is not offered by most Asian airlines) so flights to Asia may increase your chance of an upgrade. Similarly premium economy LA-London is not popular, but business class is. Tahiti to LA typically is full in business because of wealthy American tourists, but Rarotonga to LA is not.

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Dates with poor business class sales: Midweek and Saturdays are less likely to have business travellers, and Sunday morning departures as well. However it is route dependent. Plenty leave on a Saturday to get to Europe on Sunday for a meeting on Monday. Few businesspeople fly midweek to Europe because they would arrive at the destination on the weekend or Friday.
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Be willing to move seats when asked: If the airline calls you at the gate and offers to change seats (probably so a couple can sit together or to sell another seat in your class), there is a chance the new seat you are offered is an upgrade.
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The fare you pay: The cheaper the fare you paid the less likely you’ll be upgraded. Full fare economy passengers are more likely to be moved first, because they are more valuable customers. “smart saver” or “super saver” fares will be last chosen. If there is a small difference between the bottom fare and the next one up, it may be worth choosing, especially if you get more frequent flyer points.
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Airline policy: Airlines have different policies and it is difficult to glean what they are. Assuming you aren’t ruled out by one of the points above, one article I read suggests the following:
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Qantas and Singapore Airlines do not respond to upgrade requests and upgrade spontaneously only when absolutely necessary (frequent flyers have preference).
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Thai, United and American Airlines tend to respond to upgrade requests positively if there are spare seats, but preference given to their own frequent flyers with status, and then partner airline frequent flyers with status.
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BA, BMI and Lufthansa tend to respond to upgrade requests only if the passenger is in economy, and it is overbooked and you are a frequent flyer with status. Partner airlines' frequent flyer status comes next.
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Genuine complaint: If the airline has screwed something up (don’t lie about this) and you have a genuine complaint, you are more likely to get upgraded if there is a seat available. My girlfriend did this on a recent flight from LA to London, and got bumped up to premium economy because the checkin staff were rude, denying something that had previously been agreed with the airline over the phone. You can’t plan this, and you probably don’t think yourself lucky if there is a balls up by the airline. This will be done to assuage you, but it wont be done if you demand an upgrade in compensation. It is more likely if you are polite, humble and explain what happened and why you are unhappy, and be grateful for the gate or lounge staff for listening.
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Even if you can tick all of the above, you still are, most of the time, going to miss out. Either some have “paid” for upgrades with vouchers or airpoints, or business class is sold out. Just because it looks empty when you walk, doesn’t mean it is – many business class passengers sit in the lounge and get called for the flight as the final call, so they get on last.
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Remember, most of this advice is the hard way of getting a seat up front on the plane. The easy ways still are:
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1. Buy a business class ticket;
2. Use frequent flyer points/upgrade vouchers to request an upgrade (the airline has given you these as a reward for loyalty).
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An alternative is to try premium economy, it is between 20% and 50% more than economy class, and gives you about half a foot more legroom, double the recline and a bit more service. It isn’t business class, but is a relief from the cattle class down the back. Air NZ is the only airline flying to NZ which has premium economy, but BA and Virgin (which fly to Australia and the US) both have it as well.
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You might not feel it when you fly down the back on a long haul flight, but most airlines make little money from economy class passengers. In fact, if there are no first/business/premium economy passengers, your economy class fare would probably be about 50%-100% more than it is, or the plane wouldn’t be able to fly. So don’t sneer at those who personally or through work have paid 3 or 4 times what you have for their tickets – they are, in effect, subsidising your flight.

3 comments:

Cactus Kate said...

Genius

Anonymous said...

Fabulous article - thorough and well presented. A must read for any frequent traveller.

The Travel Tart said...

Thanks for the article. I agree, the easiest way to score an upgrade is to burn points, which I did recently. I never want to experience cattle class again!