Jungle Rules: How To Score An Upgrade

Is there really a secret system that “those in the know” use to always get first class airplane seats and suites at the best hotels?  Yes, actually there is a system and it’s pretty simple.

Kongo flies about 200,000 miles a year on a single airline:  Delta Airlines.  He’s been doing it for several years now and is a charter member of the Diamond Medallion tier in Delta’s SkyMiles program.  This status pretty much guarantees that that whenever Kongo purchases a non-refundable lowest fare ticket (a requirement Kongo’s employer places on travel) that this ticket is going to be upgraded to first class.  How much of a guarantee is it?  Of the 92 segments Kongo flew on Delta in 2011 (a segment is every time he boarded a Delta flight) he was upgraded 90 times.  That’s 97.8% of the time!  Not bad for a monkey.   There are other perks that go along with this status such as a special telephone number for help or reservations so that you’re not on hold for hours at a time when a snowstorm hits the East Coast and free membership to Delta Sky Club.  There are also six free award upgrades a year for those times when you may not make the upgrade list.

The secret here is to pick an airline and stay with it.  Sure you might find a slightly cheaper fare on another carrier but if you play airline hopscotch trying to get the lowest fare  you’re spreading yourself so thin across the spectrum of airline loyalty that it’s going to take you forever to build up enough points to fly free or get an upgrade.  (Besides, Delta has a low price guarantee). 

 Flying free is one thing, but flying on an upgrade when you’ve only paid for a lowest price ticket is a very sweet deal indeed, in Kongo’s opinion.

The other fundamental truth here is that it takes time to build up points so you have to be patient and take advantage of ways  to increase your mileage without flying.  Do this by getting a credit card sponsored by your chosen airline.  Many cards give points for charge purchases so make all those Starbucks caramel macchiatos with an extra shot that Kongo sees you buying with a credit card work for you. 

It’s all about points, points, and more points.  Like in the movie “Up in the Air,”  Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) was obsessed with getting airline points.  In fact, he was so obsessed that it pretty much trashed his personal life because his priorities were all out of whack.  But the idea of maximizing the use of airline points is a good one and if you want those upgrades, you have to pay attention to points!

It’s pretty much the same with hotels too.  Join their loyalty points program and stay at your favorite hotel brand whenever you travel.  Kongo picked Hyatt as his hotel brand because it’s convenient to where he does most of his commuting and is now a “Courtesy Card” member in their loyalty program.  This is a membership tier that isn’t even listed on the Hyatt websites and you have to be invited to join but each time Kongo checks into a Hyatt hotel he is met by the manager who escorts him to a very nice suite stocked with a free mini-bar, bottles of wine, fruit, nuts, chips and dip, and other welcome delicacies that take the edge off the craving for real food after nine or ten hours in planes and airports.  He also gets a nice Christmas gift each year.  This membership level doubles the points Kongo gets each time he stays at a Hyatt hotel.

Now you have to decide what you’re going to do with all these points once you’ve got them.  You can donate them to charity.  You can use the points for free flights and stay in hotels for free, or you can use them for upgrades.   Kongo prefers to use the points for upgrades.  When you spend as much time on the road as Kongo, you want it to be as comfortable as possible.  The extra airline points Kongo racks up don’t sit idle for long.  He uses them to fly his children back and forth between the East and West Coast a couple of times a year and he and Mrs. Kongo fly overseas on a trip a couple of times a year.  The accumulated points mean that they fly first class for free and when they get to the other end, they’re pretty much staying in a suite for free.  Cheap and classy travel is the way Kongo likes to go. 

You can try dressing up and looking glamorous and suck up to the gate agent for an upgrade but this just never, ever works anymore.  The airlines are so overbooked and there are so many high tier travelers out there that some poor monkey without status, regardless of how cool they look, is never going to get an upgrade.  This may have happened twenty years ago.  No longer.  Even if you manage to get bumped and rerouted, you are almost always going to find yourself behind someone who is a member of the airline’s mileage program and if anyone is going to get an upgrade, it’s them.

Once you have reached an airline status where you’re eligible for an upgrade, you have to be clever about picking your flights.  When you’re booking your seats (even if you buy an economy ticket) look at the first class seat availability.  The more seats available in first class the better your chance of getting an upgrade.   Destination cities like Orlando, San Diego, Salt Lake City in the winter, San Francisco, and Honolulu tend to have fewer first class seats available because all those monkeys in the middle “fly over” states are using their miles to get out of town.  Instead, look for alternative airports like Long Beach, Oakland, and similar places where you might have a better chance.   Direct flights also tend to sell out of first class faster.  Kongo almost always goes through a connection stop in Atlanta, Salt Lake, or Minneapolis on his frequent treks between coasts.  It takes a few hours longer overall but the chance for an upgrade increases significantly.  Plus, it gives Kongo a chance to stretch his legs, watch people, and explore airports.  (See some previous posts on these topics)

Kongo picked Delta years ago and stuck with it.  Other airlines are probably just as good although everyone does have favorites.  Anyone can lose a bag (which is why Kongo almost never checks luggage), there are grumpy flight crews in every airline, and mistakes always happen but Kongo has always had a positive experience with Delta.  (The only time Kongo does not fly Delta is when he is going up and down the West Coast between San Diego and the Bay Area where Delta just doesn’t fly except by going through SLC.  For those two or three times a year, Kongo flies Southwest.  It’s only an hour flight and there aren’t any upgrades on Southwest anyway…or, as they like to say, “It’s all first class.”)

So, pick an airline and stay with it.  Pick a hotel chain and stay with it.  Get a credit card that gives you points for purchases.  Be patient.  Soon, you’ll be sitting next to Kongo.  See you there soon!

Travel safe.  Have fun.

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