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Travel Talk

Travel Talk: Come up with your upgrade strategy

Chase Binder

Chase Binder

I’m grumpy about flying these days. Part of it is just the hassle of the process, but now there’s even more. Bud and I had a decades-long strategy of managing our US Airways frequent flier status to maximize free upgrades on domestic and European routes, as well as to secure virtually free first-class seats on flights to Oceania, Southeast Asia and Africa. Trust me, there’s nothing like being pampered in first class on Singapore Air to take the sting out of flying! Sadly, airline rewards and loyalty benefits are going the way of free meals – or free anything – in the air.

The Old: Back in the day, you earned elite status (and the accompanying benefits/privileges) by actually flying the miles. Most promotions (say, double “qualifying” miles for status on certain routes) targeted existing members to encourage loyalty. This kept the rarified air of first-class upgrades cozy. Special check-in lines, private lounges with free cocktails and food – like that. Upgrades were doled out according to rigid rules – highest status first. Then came along airline affinity credit cards that allowed anyone holding them (imagine!) to use the first class check-in process – no matter if you had a lowly economy ticket. Promos of all kinds expanded until there were lots of ways to get upgrades and privileges – resulting in more competition among flyers and less actual revenue generated from the premium seats. Hmmm, thought the airlines . . . what to do?

The New: 2014 will bring changes galore – many of them retooling loyalty programs to extract more revenue. For one thing, the merger between American and US Airways is a done deal. Those of us who spent 25-plus years being loyal to US Airways (and the Star Alliance network) will be acclimating to American and One World. For starters, American allows passengers to bid on seat upgrades – more revenue for them, less availability for elite members.

For another, there are fewer international routes on One World than on Star Alliance. So . . . fewer destinations, fewer seats. Some airlines (Delta and United) will require minimum spending of $2,500 to more than $10,000 in addition to miles flown or earned to achieve status. This while many airlines are reducing the number of premium seats available – though they are actually installing better seats.

What To Do: So should we bother with elite status any more? George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, wrote on the subject recently for USA Today – and says not so much. Better to scan the internet and watch for deals on premium seats, especially last-minute upgrades – or upgrades offered as you check in. Bud and I passed up $50 upgrades to premium economy seats on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London in November – something we will never, ever do again! For specific tips, try farecompare.com in addition to airfare watchdog.com, frequentflier.com or try a free trial at the pricey (but maybe worth it) firstclassflyer.com.

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