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Is There an Affordable Way to Travel in First Class?

Dear Tim,

I’m not a very frequent flyer, and when I do fly, I pay as little as possible for my tickets. But I’m curious about first class. I see people waiting at the departure gate for upgrades, which I assume are free or at least cheaper than the fares for first class, which are far beyond the means of average people.

I guess my question is this: Is there an affordable way to travel in first class?

Dear Reader,

While it’s nearly impossible to pry specific data loose from the airlines, my best guess is that fewer than 20 percent of the passengers occupying those comfy first-class seats have actually paid first-class fares.

The bulk of that first-class real estate is occupied by frequent flyer program members. Some have redeemed their miles to upgrade from coach fares; others have been granted complimentary upgrades in recognition of their elite status in the carrier’s program.

Because you’re not a frequent flyer, and therefore not likely to reach elite status, let’s look first at mileage upgrades since that’s the more realistic option.

All major airlines permit frequent flyer program members to redeem their miles to upgrade from paid coach tickets to the next-highest class of service, typically first class.

There are some differences among the major carriers’ policies, but a one-way, one-class upgrade from full-fare coach is generally priced at 5,000 miles for trips within the U.S. and Canada and 10,000 or 15,000 miles for trips between North America and Europe. Of more interest—since most travelers purchase cheaper restricted tickets—are upgrades from discounted fares. Domestic one-way upgrades from select discounted fares are priced at 10,000 or 15,000 miles, depending on the airline. And upgrades from cheaper fares to Europe are priced between 20,000 and 30,000 miles.

While the airlines’ award levels fall into a narrow range, suggesting that the programs are quite similar, there is at least one area where a close reading of the fine print reveals significant differences among upgrade policies—the definition of “select discount fares” eligible for upgrades. For example, in the discount fare category, United only allows upgrades between North America and Europe from M- and H-fare tickets, while American allows upgrades from most discounted fares, albeit with a $250 co-pay in addition to the miles collected.

Until there’s both uniformity and simplicity on this issue, consumers will have to take pains to determine whether the tickets they purchase are eligible to be upgraded. Because the rules are so convoluted, the best approach is to call the airline’s service center and confirm eligibility with a reservations agent.

The situation is somewhat simpler for elite members of the largest airlines’ mileage programs. (In most programs, entry-level elite membership is earned by flying 25,000 miles during a calendar year, with higher levels of elite status awarded at 50,000 and 100,000 miles.)

The new industry standard is to allow elite program members unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades from most coach fares. The upgrades are confirmed automatically, typically 24 hours before departure for lower-level elites and 100 hours in advance for top-level members. The earlier the upgrade can be confirmed, the better the odds of snagging one of the few available premium seats.

While “unlimited complimentary upgrades” sounds enticing, it should be remembered that the upgrades are space-available and that revenue tickets take precedence. In fact, some disgruntled would-be upgraders—finding the promise of first class more often unfulfilled than not—think the policy borders on misleading advertising.

Perhaps that’s why American restricts unlimited complimentary upgrades to its very best customers, and United restricts the automatic upgrades to those traveling on full-fare tickets.

If you find upgrades too complicated or simply out of reach, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. Spurred on by a combination of downward pressure from the low-cost carriers and pushback from business travelers, the mainline airlines are gradually lowering prices for first-class tickets.

It won’t ever be cheap to fly up front, but maybe some day it will be affordable. Until then, take comfort in the money you’ll save by flying coach.

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