Everything You Read in the Media About Upgrades is Wrong

In the summer of 2004 I reviewed Joel Widzer’s Penny Pincher’s Guide to Luxury Travel and enjoyed it but found some of the advice a bit off and some of the stories to be impossible, due to factual errors — Widzer claimed that Hawaiian Airlines offered no first class on intra-Island flights, that he was regularly upgraded from business class to first class on Delta, and that it was worth paying Avis for their Preferred service (they don’t charge for it).

He was an occasional columnist and every so often I’d link to his pieces, agree or disagree. And then in 2007 a notice went up on his website that he had died. Then the notice was taken down. But I haven’t seen anything written by Joel since then.

So imagine my surprise to see an article on how to get free upgrades extensively citing him. And best as I can tell, the author just read his years-old book, got excited by it, and decided to regurgitate some of what was read without having tested it out or understood it.

I have a long, transcontinental flight coming up. I dread being cramped in a coach seat, but I can’t afford first class. What are my chances of getting bumped up for free?

They’re actually better now than ever. To cut costs, some U.S. airlines have been offering fewer flights in recent years, and coach can be overbooked. If a carrier bumps passengers, it’s frequently required to provide either a substitute flight or a refund or both, per government regulations. The airline may not want to bump people if first class seats are available.

So how do carriers select the lucky few who get ferried to first class? It’s all about the miles. Computers track frequent flier and program miles and upgrade passengers automatically, based on who has earned the most.

About 95% of those in first class on domestic flights last year were upgraded or used frequent flier miles (sometimes with an additional fee), according to Joel Widzer, author of “The Penny Pincher’s Passport to Luxury Travel”. But you need a lot of miles to qualify: Delta requires you to fly at least 25,000 a year to qualify for its Silver Medallion level.

Here the author confuses operational upgrades (an airline bumping passengers up to a higher cabin on a sold out flight in order to get everyone a seat and get the plane out) with complimentary domestic upgrades for elites which most domestic U.S. airlines offer on every flight, filling every empty first class seat with an eligible frequent flyer.

But yes — both things happen — the former mostly on international flights (because the first class cabin isn’t already full of elites) and the latter most all the time. Though if you want an upgrade regularly, with changes that are “better than ever” then suggesting one reach for Delta Silver Medallion status probably isn’t setting the right bar, Silvers won’t have a great upgrade percentage…

And of course this also ignores the difference between domestic and international travel, only top tier elites at most airlines get international upgrades as a result of their status, and many airlines restrict even those.

On the other hand, you can sometimes find upgrade certificates for sale online, courtesy of frequent fliers who can’t use them before their expiration date. For instance, some United/Continental vouchers on eBay start with bids as low as $1.

The author actually recommends buying upgrade certificates on eBay, without mentioning that the certificates are generally void if sold, the airlines do monitor eBay and craigslist, and you can find yourself out the cash and without the upgraded seat — or even your originally assigned coach seat, taking whatever is left in the back middle if caught.

And the implication seems to be that certificates can be had online for just a buck, while it may be technically true that auctions start at $1 they rarely end at $1. And the price the auction ends at is really the relevant figure here.

But even if you don’t travel often, simply being a member of the airline’s frequent flier program helps your chances. It indicates some level of brand loyalty. Having an airline-sponsored credit card in your name helps, too, though those may come with hefty annual fees.

Yeah, good luck with that!

The airline credit card may help accumulate miles that could be spent for upgrades. But having such a card isn’t going to do much to get bumped up front. Although spending money on the card’s annual fee is probably a better idea than spending money for upgrade certificates on eBay!

Does dressing up so that you look like you’d belong in first class improve your chances of getting upgraded?

Looking polished helps, but not as much as it once did. There’s one outfit that seems to work better than even the finest couture: a military uniform. In the past few years, it’s not unusual to see a first class passenger give up his or her seat for military personnel.

Great advice! Impersonate a uniformed military officer in hopes of an upgrade!

That will rarely ever work, even if it happened every day it would represent a miniscule chance of happening on any given trip to any given service member.

Although being in uniform would help a non-status passenger on American or United to board earlier into the coach cabin, increasing the likelihood of getting overhead bin space. So perhaps getting a uniform at an army surplus store isn’t such a bad idea after all!

John E. DiScala, founder of travel advice site johnnyjet.com, reveals that chocolate helps him get upgraded — or at least moved to a better coach seat — about half the time. DiScala says he brings one-pound chocolate bars for the gate agents and flight crew, who have discretion on seating after the cabin door closes.

When Loyalty Traveler noted this claim last week, I commented:

      Certainly being nice matters for operational upgrades where the agent has discretion to do what’s necessary just to get the plane out. But several airlines even have procedures for this. And how often are those premium cabins empty, at least domestically?

      Being nice to agents is great, but I am skeptical that an UPGRADE is forthcoming based on CHOCOLATES > 50% of the time.

      I’m also curious about John needing a better coach seat that often, though I suppose if he’s booking all his tickets last minute when seat maps are full and under airport control, though the next question is how many of those better coach seats would he have gotten without the chocolates.

      Definitely be nice. I like giving gifts. But don’t do it because you think it will get you upgraded.

At least the author finally zeroes in on spending miles for upgrades and yet manages to get even this wrong:

Finally, before you book the flight, you may want to consider trading in your frequent flier miles for an upgrade, though the numbers may be steep: On Delta, it takes 10,000 miles for an upgrade on domestic round-trip tickets and 30,000 miles for flights from the U.S. to Europe — but that’s not applicable on certain discount fares.

Here’s Delta’s upgrade chart.

It seems weird to say “the numbers may be steep” and then say it’s 10,000 miles roundtrip for an upgrade. Steep, really?

Of course, the not is “not applicable on certain discount fares.” The mileage amounts quoted are for full fare tickets only. Maybe give readers an idea of just how expensive those are (often about the same price or even higher than advance purchase discounted business class fares).

But maybe it’s not so many miles, after all?

“When you consider that one can earn three points per $1 spent on a credit card, 10,000 miles seems less daunting,” Widzer points out.

Three is an odd figure, no? My American Express Premier Rewards Gold card earns 3 miles per dollar spent on airfare. But I sure wish I could do that on all spend.

Well, but what about upgrading at hotels?

A friend of mine ended up getting upgraded to a suite at a hotel in Vegas. She’s not a high roller, so how did she land that freebie?

Just as with airlines, brand loyalty really helps. If you’re visiting a chain hotel, sign up for its frequent traveler program.

Also, according to Widzer, you’re more likely to get upgraded if you book directly with the property, on the hotel’s website or by phone, rather than with a third party, such as hotels.com. “Booking direct is by far the biggest thing you can do to get an upgrade,” Widzer advises. If you see a lower price online, call the hotel and ask them to match it.

You know, I’ve actually written how to get the best hotel upgrades. And funny, I mentioned that where you book matters — though one way to get an upgrade is precisely to book through a third party like a Virtuoso agent and not directly with the hotel!

      If you’ve got an American Express Platinum or Centurion card, consider checking the Fine Hotels & Resorts rate at a property which will generally include an upgrade, breakfast, and an additional amenity. Centurion members can do even better, with an additional amenity beyond what’s shown for Platinum members like a folio credit.

      Similar deals can usually be obtained by booking a property through a Virtuoso agent, so an Amex card isn’t really required.

      Now, booking channel isn’t the only thing that determines your upgrade of course though the right booking channel can give you leverage or an opening for negotiating with the property. They’re supposed to try to give you an upgrade anyway, so might as well try for the best one possible. And you’re part of an overall relationship that they value.

So I guess my advice would be literally the opposite of what’s offered here!

But wait, there’s more..

Another strategy DiScala says has worked for him: Befriend the bellman. “I visited Vegas at a not-busy time once and tipped the bellman well,” he says, “so he gave me a free upgrade.” The same tactic may work with the concierge.

The bellman? I suppose that would be “another strategy.”

Personally I’ve tipped the clerk at check-in in Las Vegas, $100 on a 4-night stay at the Bellagio which yielded a suite with five bathrooms. The bellman wouldn’t be my first thought of whom to tip. Just sayin’.

I guess I’ll just have to keep writing here, because with all the bad advice out there I have my work cut out for me!

(HT: Lufthansa Flyer)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Not everything, I think. After all, you’re “the media” too.

    And, if you really want to make a point of it, you could just change the title of the article to Everything You Read in the Media is Wrong. Reports outside of the travel space are no more accurate.

  2. Thanks for the laugh Gary. I stumbled onto that article myself yesterday, and felt compelled to read all the way to the end just to see if it could get any worse than the first few paragraphs.

  3. I read the same article and had the same, exact, point-by-point response. It’s so remarkably inaccurate that it’s almost funny — except that a travel newbie might actually try some of this stuff.

  4. No I do not think he ACTUALLY passed away. It was a bizarre circumstance. A notice went up on his website, it was taken down, his family confirmed he was still alive, but no further publications were written.

  5. Are operational upgrades on international flights common? I will be flying from Delhi to Newark in a few weeks, and am a bit terrified of 15 hours in what looks to be a packed to the gills coach cabin. I’ve only got CO gold status though. Any advice?

  6. Oof, that article is painful. Keep up the good work setting the record straight, Gary.

    CNN is just awesome at travel and aviation coverage. They recently had a report on the 787 on TV and the narrator stated: “the wings actually bend up and down, making for a smoother flight.” Good research there. Even if you know nothing about planes you can’t just say blatantly incorrect things. Journalism often requires becoming an expert in something you previously knew very little about, in a short span of time. Sure, errors are possible. But making no effort (as here) to make sure you’ve got a good grip on what you’re talking about is both lazy and disrespectful to your audience.

    P.S. I can officially confirm that Joel is alive and well, unless there’s an impersonator out there who has taken over his identity.

  7. I’ve been playing the mileage game for decades (Man, I feel old.) and have read more nonsense articles than I can remember. So, for me to say that this was the least accurate article that I have ever read would be saying something.

    This is the least accurate article that I have ever read.

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