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Frequent flyers share ways to get first class upgrades

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The perks of being a frequent flier are not as valuable as they once were. That is especially evident to travelers hoping to score a free upgrade to first class.

Airlines, more and more, would rather get money for those upgrades. So they are using last-minute deals to entice passengers to pay to move to the front of the plane, while leaving frequent fliers languishing on the waiting list.

That is how Caroline Libresco, a documentary filmmaker and Sundance Institute program director from Los Angeles, was able to pay only $50 recently to upgrade one of the legs of her $388 round-trip coach ticket to first class, on her Alaska Airlines flight from Burbank, California, to Seattle. When she originally booked the flight, refundable first-class tickets were listed in the $900 range.

As an employee of a nonprofit, “I’m definitely a budget business traveler” who would never purchase a full fare first-class ticket, Libresco said.

Frequent fliers are seeing those inexpensive upgrade offers, too, of course. But it is a case of being asked to spend money on a perk they once had a better chance of getting free.

Take Dan Pellegriti, a bond salesman for Cambridge International Securities in Westport, Connecticut, who flies as many as 200,000 miles a year.

“When I booked my seat, I got an offer to pay to upgrade to first class,” Pellegriti said, describing a recent trip. “Then, when I checked in 24 hours before the flight, I got another offer.”

In the past he probably would have received a complimentary upgrade, he said.

The shift from free first-class seats to paid ones has been happening gradually over the last few years. It has everything to do with airlines’ efforts to wring more money from travelers however they can, in this case by monetizing the chance for roomier seats and pampered service that constitute first class.

“When I paid $90 to upgrade to first class on a flight last month, it meant someone didn’t get it for free,” said Seth Kaplan, an editor at Airline Weekly, an industry publication.

In the past, airlines used a much blunter approach, Kaplan said, by pricing domestic first-class tickets at three or four times the price of coach seats. As a result, many went unsold. So the airlines gave those empty first-class seats to frequent fliers to reward and encourage their loyalty.

In 2011, for example, only 14 percent of Delta Air Lines’ first-class seats were paid for. The rest were given away or remained empty.

Recognizing that this was not a profitable use of airplane real estate, Delta and the rest of the industry began to look for new ways to earn revenue for more of those seats, even if it meant narrowing the price gap between first class and economy.

The offers are working. By last year, slightly more than half of Delta’s first-class passengers had paid to be there. By 2018, Delta says it hopes that percentage will grow to 70 percent, which would leave less than a third of the best seats available for free upgrades. Other big airlines, including United and American, cite similar shifts.

“We’d rather have travelers pay a bit and know they get a seat in the front, rather than get on a list and feel disappointed if they aren’t given an upgrade,” said Andrew Wingrove, Delta’s managing director for merchandising.

And so frequent fliers like Pellegriti are having to learn a new consumer calculus. They must evaluate the risk that they will not be upgraded and compare it with the price of a guaranteed first-class seat.

For shorter flights, Pellegriti is more likely to take his chances by putting himself on the waiting list for a free upgrade. One of his typical routes, Newark, New Jersey, to Miami and back, costs about $400 round trip.

At booking, he is often offered an upgrade for each leg of the trip for $200 to $300. Closer to departure, he might be offered the same upgrades for $129 each. Even then, he is likely to take his chances on the free-upgrade list, he said.

But when flying farther, like Newark to Los Angeles, Pellegriti is more willing to pay to be comfortable. A $550 round-trip coach ticket might initially be offered with a $650 upgrade each way, he said, but the upgrade price might drop to $279 closer to the flight. That is when he is likely to grab it, he said.

“I don’t mind the short flights in coach, but on a cross-country flight, I’d rather pay and know for sure I’ll be in first class,” Pellegriti said. “I hate wondering at the gate to see if I made it off the list.”

Depending on their status level with the airline, travelers can be added to the waiting list for a free upgrade during booking or on arrival at the airport gate. Several factors determine who on that list will get the coveted spots at the front of the cabin — including how frequently they fly with the airline, what they paid for the ticket and the number of first-class tickets still unsold.

“I still get the short-flight upgrades, but I rarely get upgraded on transcontinental flights anymore,” said Daniel J. Korn of New York, a marketing professional for Havas Worldwide who travels frequently for business. He typically flies coach, unless he gets a free upgrade.

Airlines might be more concerned about alienating loyal frequent fliers if they thought travelers had more alternatives. But Kaplan, the editor, said consolidation had given consumers less leverage. “An unhappy frequent flier doesn’t have as many other options as before,” he said.

Some airlines let customers offer their own price for an upgrade, and take the highest bids. Hawaiian Airlines recently announced a new auction service, offering guests the chance to bid for a first-class upgrade on flights between Hawaii and the mainland by email 10 days in advance.

International airlines are also introducing cheaper ways to upgrade. Customers flying on the Israeli airline El Al may bid on an upgrade to business class when they book tickets.

It is all part of a customer-segmentation strategy that major airlines are following. Traditionally, travelers had only two choices, first class or coach. But the new gradations include “premium economy” seats with a little more legroom and a few other small perks.

For some frequent fliers, as a result, the new if lesser prize is an automatic upgrade to premium economy. A top-level flier on United, American and Delta who buys a regular coach ticket may choose a seat in the premium economy section.

Nancy Brown, a molecular geneticist in Davis, California, and a United frequent flier, is always automatically upgraded to premium economy. As for the ever-more-elusive upgrade to first class, she puts herself on the waiting list, but ignores offers to pay for the privilege.

“I just wait to see if I get it,” she said.

Six Tips for Getting Cheap or Free Upgrades

As airlines dangle last-minute lures for travelers willing to pay to upgrade to first class, it takes more strategizing than ever to find the best cheap or even free deal. Try these tips to increase your chances:

Fly When Others Aren’t: Off-peak days and less popular departure times are when the most first-class seats will be available. These periods vary with the destination and season, but Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday flights are generally less crowded. And midday flights are a better bet than the first thing in the morning or the end of the business day.

Scout Ahead: Check how many first-class seats have been sold and the size of the first-class cabin when choosing a seat on an airline’s website to hazard a guess whether a cheap upgrade will be offered on your flight.

Be Compulsive: Once you have booked, log into the airline’s mobile app or website periodically to check for low-cost offers to move to first class. Upgrade pricing is always changing, based on inventory.

Take It a Leg at a Time: On a flight with a layover, consider paying to upgrade only the longer segment of the trip.

Know the Pecking Order: For free upgrades, elite frequent-flier status trumps the ticket price paid by a less frequent flier. But within status levels, the free first-class seats may go first to fliers who paid most for their economy seats.

Stay Loyal: Stick with one airline if possible to attain a high status level. Frequent-flier miles are less valuable than they once were, but free upgrades still tend go to the most loyal customers.

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