Flight TipsGalavante Confidential - First Class, Up in the Sky
Galavante Confidential: Insider Tips and the Latest in Travel News
Let’s face it: Once you have a taste of Business and First Class, it’s tough to go back. But, unless your employer is picking up the tab, who can really afford to shell out the $15K for a private suite on Emirates? If you can, keep it to yourself. With banks capping cash bonuses at amounts that wouldn’t pay for one Swedish nanny, much less two, for the banker with no kids, times have changed. And when times get tough, it’s time to get creative.
There is a difference between domestic and international upgrades. The good news is that for domestic flights within the U.S. and the Caribbean, you’re more likely to get upgraded if you have airline status, and sometimes the airlines will offer an upgrade purchase option for $100 or so at the airport if First Class has empty seats. For some airlines like Delta, members with Elite Status automatically receive unlimited, complimentary domestic upgrades when they’re available. That also includes a travel companion, so if you don’t have status, fly with someone who does. And, every once in a rare while, the gate agent will even upgrade commoners who have no status at all.
International flight upgrades are a completely different story. It’s in these situations that the Airline Scrooge comes out. It costs them money to put passengers in First Class, which means there’s little generosity in an industry where margins are razor-thin. Thus, even with your charm, it’s rare that just your pretty face will get you an international upgrade. As for the claims that dressing up for Business and First Class works? It doesn’t hurt, but 99.9% of the time, it won’t help either.
The glass-half-full news is that you may already have the tools you need to work the system, including your credit card points, frequent flyer miles, and airline status.
If a flight isn’t oversold (more on that later), then you’ll need to do some pre-planning, at least seven days in advance, to ensure your First Class seat. The prices to upgrade and outright purchase First Class seats skyrocket within seven days of departure, as airlines capitalize on companies who have no choice but to send their worker bees on a last-minute trip – and you definitely don’t want to compete in this arena. Here are a few of our inside techniques:
1) When you buy, and when you fly, matters.
Generally, the airlines re-price and run sales on Tuesdays, so by 3pm or so, you’ll find the best prices available until about Thursday. This is a prime time to shop and book your fares. The most expensive times to buy are on the weekends, so avoid that danger zone. Also, when you fly matters. Flights are less expensive when you can fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturday, and optimal when you can stay over a Saturday evening.
2) Buy an upgradable Coach ticket.
Certain Coach fares will allow you to use your miles and upgrade certificates to get into First Class. In some instances, the pricing is not egregiously more than buying a regular Coach ticket, and it’s generally less expensive than buying First Class outright. If a round-trip upgradable ticket is still too rich for your blood, look into the one-way upgradable fare. Sometimes just a few hundred dollars more will put you in First Class, one way. Hey, it’s better than nothing, and often worth it when you’re flying out so that you arrive fresh and new.
3) Ask for a discounted Business/First Class ticket.
Airline prices have gone up in the past couple of years because of fuel costs and fewer flights, but sometimes you can get a discounted Business/First Class ticket for around $2100 to destinations like Milan or London. Half the challenge is knowing to ask for it, because the oh-so-helpful ticket agents don’t always offer it.
4) Pay with points.
Check with your credit card on options that will allow you to pay for a ticket with your credit card points. For example, when you book with American Express, you have the option to pay for all or part of your ticket with points. Combined with buying the upgradable fare or the discounted Business/First Class ticket, and you may end up paying out-of pocket the same as a Coach ticket. Even better, if you rack up lots of credit card miles from work and personal expenses, this ticket may be gratis.
5) Pay with mileage.
Yes, it’s often 200,000 to 250,000 miles for a First Class ticket. But once again, there’s a loophole. If you are willing to have a stopover and your dates are flexible, the 100,000-mile First Class ticket does exist. Don’t try to book this type of award ticket online. Call the airline and settle in for at least 45 minutes as you make them price out the best options for you. Nothing that’s good comes easy, a philosophy that applies to getting the best price on your First Class seat.
If you’re rolling the dice and hoping to get upgraded internationally on the day of your flight, your best chance is to hope for the good graces of the airline at the gate, where they have discretion. This fairy-godmother moment usually only happens when the flight is oversold. Even under normal circumstances, keep in mind that the check-in folks generally have little magic power––it’s at the gate that the airline bestows upgrades, so this is where you want to turn on that famous charm. Technically those upgrades go to those with airline status first, but it doesn’t hurt to ask nicely to be put on the wait list. As you can see, the stairway to First Class can be treacherous, but it’s well worth working the system to get to the top.