With millions of people taking flights every year, it’s noticeable how few travellers give airline staff even the most common courtesy of a smile. In a busy, often crowded environment, being the stand-out passenger who smiles can prove the make-or-break difference when it comes to securing an upgrade. Manners cost nothing, so even if you fail to leave the economy class section behind, you’ll still have brightened someone’s day by being pleasant and offering them a smile. Remember, you are about to fly to another destination, which is merely a dream to some people. Enjoy the romance of being above the clouds. It’s a pretty special thing.
Kindness pays, so pay it forward with interest and you could be in first class in the blink of a smile. Andrew Phillips, Senior Technical Manager, recounts his lucky American flight upgrade: “Flying to the US a few years ago, I boarded the plane late (as usual) and there was an old chap sitting down in my seat. The stewardess (who I’d chatted to on the way in) was nearby and heard the guy saying he just wanted to sit next to his wife. I told her I didn’t mind sitting in his seat (it was the row behind I think) and off she went, only to return five minutes later. She asked me to follow her…all the way up to business class!”
To find out which model of plane you'll be on, look at your travel itinerary. There should be a three-digit aircraft code on it, which can be matched with the codes in brackets on SeatGuru's list. If you can't find it, you should also be able to get the info by getting hold of the airline's flight schedule, which should be downloadable from its site.
Certainly it wasn’t all chance that brought first-class upgrades floating one’s way, and a heavy battery of hard and soft tactics arose to increase your chances. Dress neatly, speak politely, fly the same airline regularly, inquire when offering your frequent flier number to the telephone booking person, stand a little taller at check-in if you can (for the tall-person sympathy upgrade), volunteer to give up your economy seat so a family might sit together, volunteer to be bumped on an overbooked flight.
It doesn’t hurt to dress as though you’re travelling in business class even if your ticket says economy. Because airlines work the assumption that not every passenger will show up they often overbook flights. That invariably means that a couple of economy class passengers get ‘bumped up’ to business. Ask nicely when you check in if there are any business class seats available and you may get to turn left when you board your flight.
I’m obsessed with Christmas and always collect some kitsch bauble or other from the places I travel to. It started with trips to Solvang, Calif. Before we lived full time in California, we would come out to visit in November when it was cold in London, and we’d drive up the coast to visit Solvang. It’s one of those Nordic-influenced American towns, where there are Danish pastries the size of small family cars, and it also has a year-round Christmas shop, Jule Hus. We'd go there and get little reindeers. Now we have all these kitsch things from around the world in our house at Christmas; it comes from my mother, who, in particular, has a thing for the naffest possible Christmas decorations. My brother got her one from Lourdes, which was an LED Jesus: You plugged him in, and he opened his arms and his heart flashed, then popped out. My sister lives in Singapore now, so she brings [more] back for us. A lot of the flashy ones, you plug in and stand on a sideboard like that. The best ones are from Asia.
“You can get earned and courtesy upgrades if you’re an elite frequent flyer, but an ordinary person, turning up at the check-in podium at the gate, and hoping to get upgraded — those days have departed,” says David Rowell, founder of The Travel Insider. “The computerized customer relationship software that all airlines have these days lists every passenger on every flight in terms of upgrade priority, and no matter where you are on that list, you’re not going to get an upgrade until everyone above you on the list has been given upgrades first.”
Though I’ve never not taken a flight because I was afraid—that’s a slippery slope—there have been times when it really debilitated my life, when I’m shaking and crying to even get on a plane. So now I watch the fear-of-flying videos they have [on the in-flight entertainment system]. I watch them every time. I could recite the British Airways one, where the guy sounds like the one in Mary Poppins and says ‘Turbulence is never dangerous. We’ve all got families of our own to get home to.’ Then I practice a technique called realistic thinking. One of my children had chronic anxiety last year, and we learnt the technique together. It’s similar to positive thinking: Find something that is true, and you believe to be true, and repeat that over and over. During turbulence, for example, I think to myself: ‘How many times have you been through this on other flights and how many times has it gone wrong? Never!’
Airlines reward their elite and frequently flying customers as those bring them increased revenue. So when it comes to cheap first class flights, these passengers are on the top of standby lists. To become one of them, you can simply join frequent flyer programs offered by all airlines. Strictly speaking, “true” elite clients get their premium seats in any case. However, you have all the opportunities to achieve that status with time. By the way, it works more effectively when you constantly earn points from a particular airline of your choice.