Airlines. Upgrades and tactics.

It is getting harder to obtain a complimentary upgrade from an airlines

They will focus on their “platinum” level loyalty card holders these days … however on one glorious occasion we through sheer fluke achieved what we have frequently read is impossible … having been upgraded by a charming check-in clerk from economy to business (we were smartly dressed and on our twinklingest charm offensive best form) on an overbooked transatlantic flight … we were literally lost for words when at the departure gate our precious business class boarding passes were ripped up in front of our eyes … and … replaced with first class ones

That started our long relationship with American Airlines.  We joined their AAdvantage frequent flyer scheme.  Since then we have obtained “affinity” AA Amex (originally Visa) cards.  The main advantage of these is that any purchase (e.g. for groceries made during a month is enough to keep the frequent flyer miles “refreshed”. No activity on the account results in points expiring after 18 months with AA … so using the Amex card at least once per month seems a small price to pay.  You can use points to purchase an entire economy flight … but in our opinion there is a more cost effective approach … as AA allow you to use 25,000 points + $350 to upgrade on one leg from economy to business.

Given that economy fares to the East coast of the US can be bought for as little as £250 (and to the West coast for not much more), whereas business class fares with AA usually approx. £1,300 to the East coast, and £2,000 to the West coast, this can be a real Champagne way to travel … not that much more than Beer Money.  If 25,000 points seems an impossibly high target to reach … remember a return trip to the West coast will result in a credit of approx 10,000 miles.  And bonus miles are quite often available if certain flights are taken. And remember any AA Amex purchases rack miles at the rate of one mile for each £1 spent … which means £15,000 of purchases on your AA Amex card can get you an affordable upgrade on one leg of your London to LAX return flight …every year … indefinitely.  AA do not automatically upgrade you … you are put on a wait list … but naturally the points and money are not taken if you are not upgraded … leaving them available to be used next time …

But keep an eye on up-to-date prices … British Airways are currently offering Business Class flights to New York £1,099 … so it is not worth squandering those precious AA airmiles unnecessarily if New York is where you want to be

An example of how being flexible about timing can help … we were once due to fly back from Boston to London … but the airline had overbooked.  For a nominal fee ($300 per person no points needed to be redeemed) those prepared to be placed on a flight to New York and then onto a second transatlantic flight to London arriving about 3 hours later would be flown in Business on the New York – London leg.  We almost bit the hand off the check-in clerk accepting that deal (and were the last passengers to get it before the offer was withdrawn).  Be prepared to make decisions quickly … the best offers will not stick around long before someone takes them up … and upgrade purchases made with an AA Amex card result in double points

Some establishments will upgrade you without being asked.  We were once upgraded to the most wonderful cottage at the Cybele Lodge in South Africa ( by the charming young man on reception.  We try to make a point of e-mailing the customer service feedback address when this happens … so as to ensure the person in question is given appropriate recognition by their management.  We have similarly given positive feedback to airlines on cabin staff members who have been particularly helpful … it is only karma to do so …

With the AA scheme where the success of upgrade requests depends on availability some degree of planning/flexibility is required.  We have found that upgrades from Miami are hard to come by … those from Heathrow and New York considerably easier

AA are part of the One World airline partnership which means flights through other partner airlines (e.g. British Airways) can be consolidated into the AAdvantage scheme.  BA earned points are only worth about one third of AA ones … but it is much better to get them located into one scheme where you can start to extract some real value … rather than spread ineffectually over several schemes

More recently we have experienced problems getting the “request upgrade” to work …. on a the return leg of a trip to Hawaii in December 2011 a previously confirmed (by email) agreement to accept points in exchange for an upgrade was rejected at the terminal in Hawaii “because the office on the mainland US is currently closed and we cannot process the request”. So we now favour the “Mile SAAver” scheme where certain (presumably less busy) dates allow for travel between destinations for half the number of AA Miles. You need to be flexible with your travel mind set however … the offer rates often include some slightly odd routings and/or inconvenient terminal changes or overnight stays. My advice … try to make this into an advantage … one excellent deal to Hawaii entailed a 7:00 am arrival at LAX followed by a 22:00 hours onward flight to Hawaii … sounds a little gruesome at first … but wait … just leave the airport with your carry-on bag (the hold luggage is checked through to Hawaii) eat an early breakfast, head for, say, the Getty Museum (it is FREE, but remember to pre-book), for a couple of hours, taxi to Rodeo Drive for lunch followed by some retail therapy, taxi back to the AA lounge at LAX for some chill time before your evening flight.

While on the subject of lounges is has to be said AA’s Admirals (effectively Business class) lounges are not up to the standard of their international competition. It is worth trying to arrange at least one departure leg of your journey to be in International First Class from one of AA’s hub airports with a “Flagship” (i.e. First class) lounge — currently these are only located at Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Heathrow

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