How to get a first class upgrade
The Business Class section of an Emirates Airbus 380. (Richard Sowersby/BBC)
Everybody wants a first class upgrade during the holidays, when aeroplanes are packed, nerves are frayed and there’s no better gift than a glass of champagne and a roomy seat at the front of the plane.
If you’d like to give that gift to yourself, here are some strategies that could help make that happen:
Fly when business travellers stay home
During the weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, demand for business and first class drops to an annual low -- so low that airlines put those seats on sale. In early December, British Airways dropped roundtrip, transatlantic business class fares to $2,012 (from the standard $6,000 to $8,000) for flights between 20 December and 5 January. Keep an eye out for similar deals on other carriers, many of which frequently discount business and first class seats during the holidays due to low demand.
"Very little business is conducted over the holidays because most business types take the last week or two weeks of December off,” said George Hobica of AirfareWatchdog.com, “So airlines find themselves with two weeks of empty business and first class seats."
Pay to upgrade
Airlines don’t like to give away those big seats at the front of the plane. They’d rather sell them to you when you make your reservation, which is the most expensive option. But most airlines will also take your money at the last minute, offering discounted upgrades when you check-in at the airport kiosk or when you arrive at the gate. For example, last month I paid just $39 at the airport for a first class upgrade on a Virgin America flight between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Last winter, I paid United $600 at the gate to upgrade from economy to business class on an overnight flight from San Francisco to Tokyo. Also, if you spy an open first or business class seat once you are onboard, ask the flight attendant if you can buy an upgrade on the spot — some airlines (such as AirTran or Virgin America in the US) will sell the seat using the beverage cart or seat back credit card swipe.
Offer to be bumped
During the peak holiday travel season, planes fly full and sometimes there are more passengers than there are seats on the plane. If you have the flexibility to take a later flight, let the gate agents know they can bump you, and when it comes time to negotiate what compensation you’ll get for volunteering, ask for an upgrade in addition to whatever other compensation they are offering — depending on your situation, the upgrade alone may be worth more to you than a voucher for a future flight. If you think you’ll be playing the bumping angle, it’s best to have carry-on baggage so it arrives on the flight you end up on, not on the flight you were bumped from.
Did you get three boxes of candy or chocolates at your office holiday party this year? Share your abundance with gate agents or flight attendants, who may be able to return the favour with an upgrade to a bigger or better seat. While this won’t work when the flight is full, you’ll likely end up with better in-flight service and you’ll feel better knowing you brightened someone else’s hectic day. You never know, one of them might remember you the next time you fly and return the favour then.
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel