Required Reading for Frequent Flyers
Required Reading for Frequent Flyers
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Red Carpet Treatment
[Feb 2013 Issue]
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  • Navigating the path to flight upgrades.


    For many coach travelers, enjoying a roomy in-flight experience and a lie-flat seat with wine and meals may seem out of reach. Eyeing the first and business class cabins on their way to the back of the plane, customers accustomed to coach might not even contemplate settling down in a seat in the first or business class cabin, thinking that you have to pay a few thousand dollars or redeem twice as many miles to acquire a more desirable seat.

    But frequent flyers know that there are several ways to get upgraded, some of them easier and more reliable than others. Members who redeem miles to upgrade a purchased fare or who purchase a full-fare ticket (also known as Y-Up fares) that are instantly upgraded to first class generally receive confirmed upgrades when making reservations.

    Elite members aren't guaranteed a complimentary upgrade, but the higher your status, the better your chances are of being upgraded. One frequent flyer we contacted for this story commented, "When you're a low-level elite, every upgrade is a cause for celebration."

    Achieving the highest elite status is the strategy many members use to travel in the premium cabin without paying any extra money (not including the investment of money required to achieve elite status in the first place). And if you're lucky enough to fly an airline from a non-hub airport, your chances of being upgraded improve even more. Other tips for getting an upgrade as an elite member is to check in early and apply for an upgrade at time of booking if that's an option. And that includes purchasing tickets as far in advance as possible. Some programs rank upgrade requests by your membership status first, but then by the time of your upgrade request.

    You can also choose planes with larger first/business class cabins (use sites like seatexpert.com to see seating charts for the different planes) so that you know if you'll have a better chance of getting upgraded. You can also up your chances of getting an upgrade by avoiding certain flight times, like the first flights out Monday morning and Thursday evening flights. In the same vein, flying on weekends might increase your chances and some flyers stick to flights that have a good upgrade history. Many elite-status frequent flyers use ExpertFlyer.com to be notified when upgrades are available and are known to check themselves for upgrades by calling the airline and asking them to manually clear the upgrade instead of letting the airline's automation of upgrades do the calculations. "Call frequently," is what one frequent flyer commented. "Too many times the so-called 'automatic computer program' has failed to upgrade me." If you are traveling with a companion, splitting the reservations record could make the difference between getting upgraded or not. ("Sorry, dear, I'll be behind the curtain having free cocktails and will see you when we land.")

    And then, there's the old tried-and-true option of gentle bribery. "Bring chocolates or peace offerings to gate agents," said one flyer. In our current automated world, this approach does not work as well as in the past, but it doesn't hurt to politely ask. And if you happen to be on your honeymoon, it just might work.

    If you're not an elite member, most frequent flyer programs offer upgrade awards--the option to use your miles to upgrade to a higher class of travel for all members. The airlines state the fare classes that can be upgraded and some do not allow upgrades from discounted coach fares. Upgrade awards are always priced per one-way trip and can be redeemed with your miles for someone else just like other flight awards. Some airlines require cash co-pays when redeeming upgrade awards while others do not.

    You can also sometimes upgrade based on owning a co-branded credit card. For example, United MileagePlus Premier members who are primary cardholders of certain Chase-issued credit cards (MileagePlus Explorer, MileagePlus Club Card and others) are eligible for complimentary Premier upgrades when traveling on award tickets on United-operated flights. These upgrades on award tickets are prioritized after the lowest paid fare class and the benefit does not apply to companions traveling on award tickets.

    It's possible that members won't know until they arrive at the gate or even after they board the plane whether or not their upgrade will eventually clear. There's an element of uncertainty in the upgrade game and the airlines don't always notify members if their upgrade has cleared or not. The most reliable way to check is to either call the airline or check your flight reservation and seat assignment once you are within your elite upgrade window. Upgrades that do not clear prior to check-in are transferred to the airport upgrade standby list and members may still be upgraded at the gate. Mobile tools have allowed the upgrade process to be more transparent. United's app, for example, includes the upgrade standby list and members can view their position on the list. If your upgrade clears at the last minute and you have a mobile boarding pass, you can refresh your boarding pass on your mobile device so it reflects your new, upgraded seat assignment. US Airways checks every hour for an upgrade and will email your upgrade status to you; and if you don't get an upgrade, they will tell you why.

    And lastly, some airlines allow passengers to pay at check-in for upgrades. The cost of paid upgrades vary, but prices tend to correlate with the distance of the flight.

    We'll take a look at the airlines' complimentary elite upgrade policies and mileage upgrade awards to help you sit near the nose of the plane without paying through the nose.

    Air Canada Aeroplan
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    Air Canada is launching the new Altitude elite program that will go into effect on March 1, 2013. The program adds two new tiers and members can choose eUpgrade credits as an elite benefit.

    Elite members who book Latitude fares can receive complimentary upgrades when making reservations. For upgrades from Tango Plus fares, the upgrade window for Prestige 25K members is two days, four days for Elite 35K, five days for Elite 50K, six days for Elite 75K and seven days for Super Elite 100K. Super Elite 100K are also eligible to request eUpgrades on ClassicFlight awards on Air Canada flights within North America at check-in. Elite 75K and above can request eUpgrades on Air Canada Vacations reservations to Sun destinations. Elite members can only request an eUpgrade within their booking window. If upgrade space is available, the upgrade will be confirmed upon request. Otherwise, the member will be put on an upgrade waitlist.

    Elite 35K and above can redeem eUpgrade credits for other travelers, called eUpgrade Nominees, even when they are not traveling with them.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    Aeroplan members can only upgrade from four booking classes, full-fare economy Y and B and business class C and D. Mileage upgrades can be requested anytime after your paid ticket has been issued on participating Star Alliance carriers on eligible routes. Upgrades will be confirmed at the time of request if seats are available.

    You will need to call Air Canada reservations to request a mileage upgrade.
    7,500 miles -- upgrade from Y or B fares on short-haul flights on Air Canada only within North America.
    10,000 miles -- upgrade from Y or B fares on long-haul flights within North America.
    30,000 miles -- upgrade from C or D fares on long-haul flights within North America.
    15,000 miles -- upgrade from Y or B fares between North America and Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean/Central America.
    35,000 miles -- upgrade from C or D fares between North America and Hawaii.
    30,000 miles -- upgrade from C or D fares between North America and Mexico, the Caribbean/Central America.

    AirTran Airways A+ Rewards

    Elite members (10 or more credits within 90 days or 25 or more credits within a year), along with one flight companion, can get complimentary business class upgrades from all coach fares available at the gate 40 minutes prior to departure, based on order of flight check-in; or automatic upgrades at time of booking for Y and B fares.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    4 credits -- one-way business class upgrade; must call to claim anytime beginning midnight the day prior to departure.

    Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    MVP members receive complimentary upgrades on qualifying fares (Y, S or B) anytime and 48 hours prior to departure on all other fares. MVPs also receive complimentary day of departure upgrades on Delta Air Lines.

    MVP Gold members are eligible to receive complimentary upgrades anytime (plus an upgrade for one traveling companion) when booking two additional booking classes, M or H, in addition to Y, S or B fares. All other fares are eligible for upgrades 72 hours prior to departure.

    Gold 75K members can be upgraded within 120 hours of departure. Upgrades are processed within each elite level in the order they were placed on the upgrade waitlist. Flights purchased in qualifying fares are placed on the upgrade waitlist first. All other fares are placed on the upgrade waitlist in the order they were received within each elite level. Having a higher elite status improves your chances of being upgraded but purchasing your flight early can also help.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    Members can redeem 15,000 miles for a one-way upgrade when purchasing a Full Flex or Value fare (Y, YAS, S, B, M or H). First class upgrade awards can be requested by calling Alaska Airlines reservations or you can request a mileage upgrade within 24 hours of departure at the check-in kiosk or when checking in online.

    American Airlines AAdvantage
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    AAdvantage Platinum and Gold members receive complimentary upgrades (plus a companion) on Y and B fares and Executive Platinum members receive complimentary upgrades on all published fares and companion upgrades if the companion is traveling on a Y or B fare.

    Elite members also receive four 500-mile upgrades for every 10,000 qualifying base miles flown. The 500-mile upgrades can be used on American, American Eagle or American Connection flights between the 50 U.S., Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda and Central America. Each upgrade is valid for 500 miles of travel and can be confirmed at your elite upgrade window. If an upgrade is not available, you will be added to the Airport Upgrade Standby list. At the airport, upgrades will be given according to elite status first and then based on the date and time you requested the upgrade initially. Non-elite members can purchase 500-mile upgrades for $30 per 500-mile upgrade but can only redeem them when flying on Y or B fares. AAdvantage Executive Platinum members receive eight systemwide upgrades that can be requested and confirmed at the time of booking from most coach and business fares. Systemwide upgrades can also be used for others and are not restricted to traveling companions.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    Mileage upgrades can be requested at time of booking by calling AAdvantage reservations.
    5,000 miles -- upgrade from Y or B fares within continental U.S. and Canada.
    15,000 miles + $75 -- upgrade from most discounted fares within continental U.S. and Canada
    8,000 miles -- upgrade from Y or B fare within and between continental U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
    15,000 miles + $50 -- upgrade from eligible discounted fares between continental U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
    8,000 miles -- upgrade from Y or B fare between continental U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii.
    15,000 miles + $175 -- upgrade from eligible discounted fares between continental U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii.
    8,000 miles to 40,000 miles + co-pays of up to $350 from coach and $550 from select business fares -- upgrades to rest of the world.

    Delta Air Lines SkyMiles
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    All elite members receive unlimited complimentary upgrades from full Y fares when making reservations. Complimentary upgrades from discounted fares on Delta flights within North America are processed according to elite status. Eligible routes include flights within or between the U.S. (excluding Hawaii) and Bermuda, Canada, Central and South America (exceptions apply), the Caribbean and Mexico.

    Upgrades for Diamond members will be cleared five days prior to departure. After Diamond upgrades have been processed, Platinum upgrades will also clear five days prior to departure, followed by Gold (three days), Silver (24 hours) and traveling companions (24 hours). Within each elite tier, travelers flying on paid fares will be upgraded first, followed by those flying on award tickets and Pay with Miles travelers who used miles to book a revenue ticket (only available to Delta SkyMiles credit cardholders). Fare class will also impact the upgrade order and travelers paying higher fares will be upgraded before those flying on less expensive fares. Within each elite level, upgrades will be cleared in the following order: B, M, H, Q, K, L, U, T, E. If elite level and fare class are identical, the person who booked their ticket earlier will be upgraded first.

    Platinum and Diamond members can select systemwide upgrades as an elite benefit. Systemwide upgrades are valid on Y, B, M, H, Q or K fares for flights within North America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. For all other routes, they are only valid on Y, B and M fares.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    Delta does not require cash co-pays on mileage upgrades but upgrade awards are limited to more expensive fare classes.
    5,000 miles -- upgrade from Y fare within mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada.
    12,000 miles -- upgrade from discounted fares (excluding L, U, T and E) within mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada.
    7,500 miles -- upgrade from Y fare between mainland U.S., Alaska, Canada and Bermuda, the Caribbean or Mexico.
    15,000 miles -- upgrade from eligible discounted fares between mainland U.S., Alaska, Canada and Bermuda, the Caribbean or Mexico.
    7,500 miles -- upgrade from Y fare between mainland U.S., Alaska, Canada and Hawaii
    15,000 miles -- upgrade from eligible discounted fares between mainland U.S., Alaska, Canada and Hawaii.
    10,000 miles to 40,000 miles -- upgrades to rest of the world.

    Frontier Airlines EarlyReturns
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    Summit members (25,000 miles or 30 flight segments) can upgrade for free to a STRETCH seat when booking or checking in and Ascent members (15,000 miles or 20 flight segments) can request an upgrade when checking in. STRETCH seating is available in the front rows offering five to seven additional inches of legroom and Zone 1 boarding.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    Not available.

    Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    Pualani Gold -- discounted paid upgrades with online check-in 24 hours prior to departure for mainland U.S. flights on Hawaiian Airlines.

    Pualani Platinum -- discounted paid upgrades with online check-in 24 hours prior to departure for mainland U.S. flights on Hawaiian Airlines. Complimentary upgrades to first class for Interisland flights on the day of departure. Two one-way complimentary upgrade certificates between Hawaii and the mainland U.S. (mailed to member).

    Mileage Upgrades:

    HawaiianMiles members must call Hawaiian Airlines reservations to book upgrade awards.
    7,500 miles -- interisland first class saver
    15,000 miles -- first class flex
    25,000 miles -- Continental U.S. to Hawaii first class saver
    50,000 miles -- Continental U.S. to Hawaii first class flex
    30,000-110,000 miles -- other upgrades
    There are no co-pays for mileage upgrades.

    JetBlue TrueBlue
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    TrueBlue Mosaic members (30 segments plus 12,000 base points or 15,000 base points) who earn their TrueBlue Mosaic badge in 2012 will get six Even More Space seats for flights through Dec. 31, 2013 that offer at least 38 inches of legroom plus early boarding.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    Available when booking with extra points. The number of points required for a TrueBlue award flight in an Even More Space seat is based on the published base fare at the time of booking.

    Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    Southwest Airlines does not offer business or first class seating or a section with extra legroom. But A-List status (25 one-way flights or 35,000 Tier Qualifying Points) members automatically receive a Group A boarding pass.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    Not available.

    United Airlines MileagePlus
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    Confirmed complimentary upgrades for Premier members on select United and Copa-operated flights are available to the member plus one traveling companion on the same reservation according to Premier status. Instant upgrades are confirmable at time of ticketing, if space is available.

    Premier members get six one-way systemwide upgrades, called Global Premier Upgrades, at hitting 100,000 Premier qualifying miles (PQM) or 120 Premier qualifying segments (PQS), plus two more for each 50,000 PQM or 60 PQS earned thereafter. Systemwide upgrades are not eligible from discount coach fares (Z, P, S, T, K, L, G, N). They are transferable to others and are eligible on Copa flights.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    7,500 miles -- upgrade from Y fare within mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada.
    10,000 miles -- upgrade from B fare within mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada.
    15,000 miles -- upgrade from J, C, D within mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada.
    15,000 miles -- upgrade from J, C, D, Z, P, M, E, U, H, Q fare within mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada; plus, a $75 co-pay (waived for Premier members).
    17,500 miles -- upgrade from V, W fares within mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada; plus, a $75 co-pay (waived for Premier members).
    20,000 miles -- upgrade from S, T, K, L, G, N fares within mainland U.S., Alaska and Canada; plus, a $75 co-pay (waived for Premier members).
    10,000-35,000 miles -- upgrades to rest of the world; plus, some co-pays from $125 to $600 (most international co-pays are not waived for Premier members).

    US Airways Dividend Miles
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    Preferred members who purchase full-fare (Y or B class) economy tickets on US Airways are eligible for an instant upgrade to first class. After the reservation is ticketed, if an upgraded seat is not available, US Airways will automatically attempt to upgrade you around the clock until a seat becomes available.

    Any fares other than Y or B class are prioritized by Preferred level, and within each Preferred level, by the number of Preferred-qualifying miles you've flown on US Airways and US Airways Express operated fights in the last 12 months. One traveling companion on the same reservation can be upgraded at the same time as the Preferred member.

    Chairman's Preferred members get two, one-way upgrades, eligible on any paid coach class flight to or from Hawaii, Europe, South America and the Middle East. These upgrades are not transferable but like the other upgrades, one traveling companion on the same reservation can be upgraded.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    5,000 miles -- flights within the U.S. and Canada less than 500 miles in length; plus, $25 upgrade fee (waived for Preferred members, except for Envoy upgrades, or if you buy a full-fare ticket, Y or B class).
    6,000 miles -- flights within the U.S. and Canada between 500 and 999 miles in length; plus, $50 upgrade fee (waived for Preferred members, except for Envoy upgrades, or if you buy a full-fare ticket, Y or B class).
    7,500 miles -- flights within the U.S. and Canada between 1,000 and 1,499 miles in length; plus, $75 upgrade fee (waived for Preferred members, except for Envoy upgrades, or if you buy a full-fare ticket, Y or B class).
    9,000 miles -- flights within the U.S. and Canada between 1,500 and 1,999 miles in length; plus, $100 upgrade fee (waived for Preferred members, except for Envoy upgrades, or if you buy a full-fare ticket, Y or B class).
    10,000 miles -- flights within the U.S. and Canada 2,000+ miles in distance; plus, $150 upgrade fee (waived for Preferred members, except for Envoy upgrades, or if you buy a full-fare ticket, Y or B class).
    15,000-40,000 -- flights to other parts of the world; plus, upgrade fees between $150 and $300 (mileage upgrade fee for Envoy is waived if you buy a full-fare ticket, Y or B class).

    Virgin America Elevate
    Complimentary Elite Upgrades:

    Elite status members do not get complimentary upgrades, but Silver members can purchase upgrades to first class up to 12 hours before departure for the member and one companion; or up to 24 hours before departure for Gold member and their companion.

    Mileage Upgrades:

    First class award seats are available for points like any other seat. The points needed for Virgin America Elevate first class awards fluctuate in the same way that airfares change because the program is a revenue-based frequent flyer program.

    Your Upgrade Chances

    Although members of frequent flyer programs often lament that they do not get as many upgrades as they would like, there are still many who do receive upgrades on a fairly regular basis. In a recent survey we conducted among almost 70 frequent flyers, 34.8 percent said that they received complimentary upgrades for more than 75 percent of their flights in 2012. In comparison, 24.6 percent said that they received complimentary upgrades less than 25 percent of the time. Nearly 70 percent of those same flyers commented that they did not use miles for upgrades--they seem to prefer to get that sometimes elusive free upgrade. Sixty percent said they have not used cash at the airport or at check-in to pay for an upgrade.

    When analyzing these numbers, it might be said that most frequent flyers are relying on their elite membership to supply flight upgrades. And 68 percent rated getting upgrades as "extremely important", followed by 24.6 percent saying it is "somewhat important". Only 2.9 percent said getting upgrades was "not important".

    As one frequent flyer said, "... the most rewarding upgrades are after a long week or rough couple of days of work and you're not expecting the upgrade and it comes through. To be able to stretch out a little, relax, get a glass of wine or cocktail and have a flight leader or first-class attendant be welcoming and attentive always makes me breathe a little easier and stop to appreciate that I have someone flying me home, someone working to make me comfortable and that life really isn't so bad."

    With this guide in hand, you might soon find yourself stretched out in first class, where life really isn't so bad.



    *1 - Some programs offer optional ways to earn elite, such as segments flown. For comparison, we are listing only miles.
    *2 - You’ll earn status for the lesser amount when flying solely on Alaska Airlines, or the higher amount including select airline partner flights.
    *3 - Air Canada is introducing a new elite program, launching March 1, 2013.

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  • Elite Upgrade Clearance Comparison
    Airline Elite level Time before departure Miles needed for status*1
    United AirlinesGlobal Services5 days / 120 hoursInvite only
    Air Canada*3Super Elite 100K7 days100,000 miles
    American AirlinesExecutive Platinum100 hours100,000 miles
    Delta Air LinesDiamond5 days with priority over Platinum125,000 miles
    United AirlinesPremier 1K96 hours100,000 miles
    US AirwaysChairman’s7 days100,000 miles
    Air Canada*3Altitude Elite 75K6 days75,000 miles
    Alaska AirlinesMVP Gold 75K120 hours75,000 / 90,000 miles*2
    Delta Air LinesPlatinum5 days75,000 miles
    United AirlinesPremier Platinum72 hours75,000 miles
    US AirwaysPlatinum4 days75,000 miles
    Air Canada*3Altitude Elite 50K5 days50,000 miles
    Alaska AirlinesMVP Gold72 hours40,000 / 50,000 miles*2
    American AirlinesPlatinum72 hours50,000 miles
    Delta Air LinesGold3 days50,000 miles
    United AirlinesGold48 hours50,000 miles
    US AirwaysGold3 days50,000 miles
    Air Canada*3Altitude Elite 35K4 days35,000 miles
    Air Canada*3Altitude Prestige 25K2 days25,000 miles
    Alaska AirlinesMVP48 hours20,000 / 25,000 miles*2
    American AirlinesGold24 hours25,000 miles
    Delta Air LinesSilver1 day25,000 miles
    United AirlinesSilverDay of departure25,000 miles
    US AirwaysSilver2 day25,000 miles
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