It used to be that if you were interested in racking up enough frequent flyer miles for business class upgrade, that it was pretty uncomplicated. You'd make sure that you always flew on an airline that was affiliated to your credit card, and pretty soon you would have enough miles to make a go of it - free tickets, even an upgrade to first class if you were lucky.
The summer travel season is upon us, and things are beginning to look distinctly different already. If a business class upgrade is on your mind on, say, flights to Asia, then you should probably be prepared to understand the airlines' new position, communicated to you via about 10 inches of single-spaced fine print; and be prepared to work out percentages and complicated formulas. For instance, frequent flyer miles don't always pay for the whole trip these days - they usually expect that you pay an additional fee. It doesn't end there; whether you get to upgrade or not, depends on what kind of seats you buy. There are certain kinds of coach seats you must have the privilege of holding to be eligible for an upgrade. Not all seats make the cut in eligibility for an upgrade. Typically, Delta Air Lines is the most hard fisted, while American and Continental-United can be somewhat more reasonable. It may seem tempting to believe that all frequent flyer plans are more or less the same, give or take. They really are not, even in a very competitive market.
It is a kind of trick the airlines play on you. When you go buy your coach seat, they make it look pretty much like any seat would be eligible for a business class upgrade. In reality, it all depends on what fare base you buy that coach seat on - and these can be bewilderingly complex - they have a dozen kinds of fares on any given flight, on any given class of travel. And airlines have every reason to keep the truth from you in the way they package everything. If you don't dig too deep, it will make your seat look more attractive than it really is.
There are other significant pieces of information airlines keep under their hats too - for instance, not all the business class seats on a flight are open to upgrades. Only a few are. And they have a complex policy of what frequent-flier options and programs to make available to you, depending on what part of the country you live in, and what airlines you have, serving your market. If you choose Delta, the stingiest airline, they'll ask you to buy the most expensive coach seats if you want a business class upgrade. American will let you upgrade even if you do have the cheapest coach seat.
Airlines have been cutting down on the number of seats available for years now. That, in combination with the way the economy has been improving, gives the airlines more leverage in how they will make you pay, or cut back rewards. Still, American and Continental on the whole are more rewarding airlines to travel on, if you're looking for specials like a business class upgrade. For instance, when I tried to pull that upgrade on Delta, they demanded that I do it both legs of the trip. On American though, they'll let you do it on only one. But anyway you look at it, the rewards on airlines are on their way down, and prices are on their way up. Don't be surprised if pretty soon, the whole concept of the business class upgrade begins to evaporate
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