LAX: Getting Out : The Art of the Upgrade

Why fly coach when you can fly first class?” seems to be the mantra among today’s travelers, who spend more of their frequent-flier miles purchasing upgrades than they do using them for free tickets.

“It’s by far the most popular use of miles,” said Chris McGinnis, founder of Travel Skills Group, an Atlanta-based travel consulting firm and author of “202 Tips Even the Best Business Travelers May Not Know” (Irwin Professional Publishing, Burr Ridge, Ill; $11).

It usually takes a minimum of 10,000 miles to get one free domestic upgrade (compared to about 25,000 miles for a free domestic round-trip ticket). The airline mails you a certificate and you can use the upgrade on any flight you choose. Your upgraded seat is confirmed when you make a reservation.

But upgrade certificates “purchased” with frequent-flier miles are not the only way to get into first class.


Because upgrading is so popular, many frequent-flier programs offer free upgrades, in the form of free upgrade coupons, to their members who reach elite status, typically those who fly 25,000 miles or more a year.

Most programs also give their elite members stand-by privileges to get upgrades at the gate, even if they’re not holding an upgrade coupon. Travelers flash their elite-status membership cards when they check in and request to be put on the waiting list if there is any space in first class.

There is yet another route for getting upgraded, even if you don’t have enough miles or elite status in the airline’s frequent-flier program. If first-class seats are going begging, most airlines will allow their frequent-flier-program members to pay cash for an upgrade for less than the cost of the actual first-class fare, McGinnis said. These upgrades have to be purchased at the ticket counter.

There is some strategy to getting the most bang for your upgrade certificate. If you’ve used your own frequent-flier miles to get one, it will be worth the most to you if you use it on a transcontinental or international flight where the difference in price between coach and first class is the greatest, and you will most appreciate the difference in comfort levels.

There is also some strategy involved in getting stand-by upgrades. Veteran travelers suggest it’s often easier to get upgraded if you are flying during off-peak hours, such as mid-week afternoons or evenings. Transcontinental flights with stopovers are another good bet for getting upgrades since they are less popular with business travelers and there is less competition for the first-class seats.

It’s also worth noting that the waiting list to get into first class is not necessarily done on a first-come, first-served basis, McGinnis said. The airline also takes into account what fare was paid, and whether it’s an emergency.

It also pays to be nice to the gate agent, he said. Who knows, you might luck out, he said. “You can always ask.”


Of 24.7 million passengers who boarded at LAX in 1994, 18.75% flew United; 13.01% Delta; 10.08% Southwest; 8.94% American; 5.15% USAir. No more than 5% flew on any other airline.

Source: City of Los Angeles Dept. of Airports