The perennial consumer rights advocate Christoper Elliott is out with a new column entitled, First class for free? Try these innovative tactics to get an airline upgrade. In it, he offers horrific upgrade advice…
Far be it from me to accuse anyone of clickbait, but the answer to his “first class for free?” question is very easy. No. As it turns out, much of his article focuses on obtaining a better seat in economy class. Let’s start there before moving to first class upgrades.
Elliott says “certain flights, like the first flight of the morning, or the red-eye (overnight flight), tend to be emptier.” That’s not my experience, but okay. He interviews a passenger who offers his advice.
I watch the seat maps and wait until the end to board. If there’s still an open exit row, he asks the flight attendant if he can sit in one of the premium seats without paying extra. I’ve had it work every time the seat has shown open.
Again, we must be flying different airlines because United closely polices its exit rows and all Economy Plus seating. Unless needed for weight/balance reasons on a regional jet, you cannot just poach an exit row seat for free. FAs are specifically forbidden from allowing this.
Next, Elliott moves to the subject of upgrade bidding. You’re actually far more likely to receive an upgrade offer than an upgrade bid from the legacy carriers. The question is how to position yourself to receive one and whether it is worthwhile.
We are advised to “bid somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the difference between the cost of your original seat and the cost of your desired seat…Then pray.” Again, I’m not sure what airline he is referring to (Hawaiian perhaps?). Alaska, American, Delta, and United do not offer upgrade bidding.
If you do want an upgrade, be prepared to purchase it if you receive the option during check-in. That’s often when it is priced best.
An Unrequested Upgrade?
Elliott tells of an anecdote in which SAS upgraded a passenger without asking.
Actually, sometimes they’ll upgrade you – and charge you – without asking. That’s what happened to Robert Ryan, a marketing consultant from Chicago, who was flying from Copenhagen to Chicago recently. SAS decided to upgrade Ryan and his wife, even though they hadn’t bid on an upgrade.
“No airline should be able to force a customer to accept an unrequested upgrade,” says Ryan.
He’s right. I contacted SAS on his behalf and it refunded the $1,609 it charged for his business-class seat.
Let’s stop right there. Don’t you think a more likely situation is that Mr. Ryan put in a bid for an upgrade and forgot about it? I don’t think SAS or any airline is in the business of moving up passengers who did not request an upgrade then charging their credit card for it.
Three More Questionable Suggestions
Finally, Elliott concludes with three final suggestions to score an upgrade. First, be selfless. Of all the advice in the column, this one is the only one I would deem acceptable…though not because it is effective, just nice. He suggests that if you give up your economy class seat for another passenger, like a tall person wanting your exit row seat or a family wanting to sit together, flight attendants may upgrade you to first class. In my experience, they are much more likely to offer you free food and drink onboard.
Second, Elliott recommends you find something to complain about. If you find something wrong with your seat, like a broken reading light or inoperable IFE, approach the FA and asked to be moved. You might wind up in a better seat. My reply: you might also end up in a worse seat.
Finally, just move to a better seat. This can be a recipe for disaster and represents poor advice. For someone who loves to take a holier-than-thou approach to shaming airlines, this is encouraging people to steal. Airlines gain ancillary revenue from upgrades, including to better seats within the same cabin of service. Unless you have permission from a flight attendant, do not just help yourself to any open seat once the flight departs.
[F]light attendants can’t police every seat in economy class, so if you see an empty seat within your class of service, you have my permission to claim it.
Wow, just wow…
Christopher Elliott is great at helping consumers battle airlines when the airline refuses to take responsibility for a service mishap. I value his website for all the contact details on it. But his advice on upgrades is just horrible.