Road Warrior


By Sheila J. Kittle

July 10, 2003 -- In the current economic climate, most companies have eliminated paying for first-class travel within the continental United States, even for top management. Therefore, today's frequent flyers must be creative to sit in one of the coveted seats in the front of the plane.

How they achieve that goal without paying the premium fares is where it gets interesting.

Most major airlines offer their top frequent flyers--silver, gold or platinum--complimentary confirmed or standby upgrades, in addition to those that can be purchased with accrued flyer miles or cash. To get these rewards, a traveler must fly the required number of miles on a particular airline.

The easiest way to obtain upgrades is to patronize one airline as much as possible. This may involve taking connecting rather than direct flights, but your company may benefit from this since it could result in a lower fare. All factors being equal (number of days purchased in advance, same class of service, etc.), most major airlines match fares for flying between a particular pair of cities. Southwest Airlines and other similar low-fare carriers are the exceptions.

If your company is large enough to have its own dedicated travel agency, the easiest way to get upgraded is to ask the agency manager for a complimentary status upgrade certificate for your airline of choice. Airlines can provide limited status upgrades if your company or agency produces enough sales volume with that airline.

In most cases, these types of soft-dollar incentives are reserved for company VIPs and road warriors who are being wooed by competing airlines. However, it is always worth asking to see if the incentives are available.

Once you achieve premium frequent flyer status, you can automatically receive upgrades based on the status level and fare type. Depending on your status level, you can upgrade from 24 hours to 5 days in advance of departure. (Some airlines permit the upgrade at the time of ticketing.) A few carriers have strict rules that prohibit upgrades until exactly 24 hours prior to departure. Others, such as Northwest Airlines, will allow you to call at 12:01 a.m. on the day prior to travel. While some travelers may not want to stay up until midnight to call in for an upgrade, if there are only a couple of first-class seats left, it may be worth the effort.

Another type of incentive given by airlines to travel agencies or the company's travel department is space-available and confirmed-upgrade certificates. These incentives are usually in limited supply and are based on total air volume with a particular airline, but they are complimentary if your company qualifies.

There is one caveat: Because the airlines have tightened their policy on these incentives over the past few years, some of the certificates may not be valid on the most deeply discounted airfares. Remember to check the fine print before trying to redeem one of these certificates for a better seat.

In certain circumstances, the airlines will provide a complimentary upgrade. For example, if a flight is overbooked and you are asked to take a later flight, you are typically rewarded with a free airline ticket or voucher. While rebooking your flight for the later departure, you can ask if it's possible to have a seat in first class. In the case of denied boarding (the result of overbooking), the airlines are eager to accommodate an inconvenienced traveler, so it is worth asking for the upgrade.

On the day of your departure, you should stop at the main terminal ticket counter if first class is full but you want to be put on the waiting list for an upgrade. If anyone is a no-show for first class, the waiting-list names will be called first by frequent-flyer status, and then in the order they were added to the list.

If you have a standby upgrade certificate, or are going to try your luck without one, go directly to the gate. Given the industry's pressure to achieve on-time departure performance, an airline gate agent has considerable control over the boarding process.

When you're trying to grab an at-the-gate upgrade, observe how the gate agent relates to the passengers in front of you. Pick an agent who seems to enjoy her or his job and is friendly with the customers. If one of the agents appears abrupt or stressed, it is best to choose another agent if possible. Some business travelers swear by the "pick your agent carefully" methodology and have found themselves in first class through their personal charm.

Your demeanor, attitude and dress often play a significant role in whether you get chosen for an upgrade over another passenger--provided all of their premium frequent flyers have been accommodated. In the travel industry, the irritating squeaky wheel rarely gets the grease or the first-class upgrade.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Sheila J. Kittle. All rights reserved.