Upgrades often feel like trade secrets from a James Bond movie. Is there availability? How many miles or dollars does it require? A lot of this stuff is literally hidden from public view entirely or stuffed under a gigantic haystack in Dr. No's laboratory. Whether you are a first time flier or a top tier elite flier, finding upgrade availability often requires legwork....

The best solution is to find a solution before you book. Once booked you are subject to change fees and quite often, still faced with no availability. Every airline has slightly different policies about mileage required to upgrade, fare required to upgrade and so on. In general you can only upgrade one class of service higher (economy to premium, premium to business, business to first) and the lower the fare class you paid (if allowed), the more miles will be required. I highly recommend checking SeatGuru to make sure the flight you are considering upgrading is worth the upgrade. Not all seats up front are created equal and many, on short flights, are simply not worth it. If I am going to pay for the more expensive fares generally required to upgrade with miles, I sure as hell am going to be sure I can unlock the value of an upgrade and associated benefits like flat beds and lounges for my extra money. 

The best method to lock in an upgrade or check inventory is the dreaded phone call. Though you can prepare yourself for a complimentary 40 minute flute solo, you will also be able to chat with a live person and evaluate your options. Do your homework first, find out what type of fare your airline requires to upgrade. In general the more expensive, the more likely to be eligible, though there are exceptions. I also like to search for tickets in the cabin I'd like to upgrade to before I call. If I know the seats are wide open, I am putting myself in a far more likely upgrade situation than hoping for a nearly full cabin upgrade. When possible, offer some flexibility in your dates and be polite. To ensure you are getting a fair deal, I'd also do an online search to make sure you are not being sold an unnecessarily expensive fare. Upgrade availability changes so even if you are initially told that there are no options available, call back closer to your date, you never know. If I am flying with Delta from New York to San Francisco, I know that I need to book a K fare (a moderately priced economy fare) to be able to use miles for an upgrade. Alternately, if I am flying New York to London, I know that I need to buy an M or better class fare (very expensive) to be able to upgrade with miles. By calling I can ask about the different flights with immediate upgrade space on the days I would like, as well as price quotes for each individually. Quite often I will hear that the 9:00AM or whatever is full but that the 12:00 is wide open. By calling and shopping around I save myself the hassle of potentially having to change my initial booking and often am able to lock in an upgrade straight away. If I am not presented with any cost efficient options, I know that I am better off just booking a deeply discounted economy ticket and sticking it out, saving my miles and money for another day and another upgrade. I could always change to a higher fare if upgrade space becomes available....

Your results will always vary. Some airlines are impossibly tight with upgrade space and whatever is out there is booked far before you even consider it. Others, often closer to flight time open up availability to "up sell" the flight. If you are told no, don't give up until you board and even then, you can hope for a hail mary! The more you know about required fare classes or cabin needed for an upgrade, the more willing to be helpful an agent will be.

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