July 21, 2010 — -- We're all sick of airline fees. But, sometimes, you can make them pay off big-time on the comfort scale. And isn't it time steerage passengers like us got a taste of the high life?
Here is one way: use some of the current fees to get upgraded to first or business class for less. It wasn't exactly easy for the airlines to figure out ways to get passengers to pay for these individually "unbundled" services, but since they have, we might as well pay the fees for things we really want.
And some of these are worth it, thanks to certain realities like the sheer cost of "upper class" plane travel today.
For example, I checked out the price of first class versus economy on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York in August. With a Sunday to Friday itinerary, a coach passenger would pay $483 roundtrip. The first class passenger, however, would pay a whopping $5,373. The good news is, you can make a change without a penalty fee -- plus, you get to check a bag for free. Okay, that may not quite make up for the scandalous price differential.
Is it any wonder the rich are departing first class in droves? Or making other arrangements, as Paris Hilton so merrily tweeted recently: "This Private Jet takes Huge to Another Level. Loves it!"
We loves it too, Paris, only we cants afford it. We can, however, sit in first class if we play our cards right, and here are my strategies to do just that.
One of the basic ways to fly first or second class for cheap is to buy (or earn) an upgrade, only that's not particularly cheap. So instead, here are five other ways you can sit up front without busting your wallet.
#1: Do Your Online Check-in at Earliest Opportunity
It's 24 hours before your flight leaves and that's your cue to check-in. Set an alarm if you have to. The reason do this at the very start of this window is because that's when cheap upgrades may be available. They won't last long, though, so if the price is right, grab one.
The reason airlines offer discounted upgrades at this point, is because if they haven't gotten rid of these pricey seats yet, they make nothing on them. So they'll take what they can get, even if it means a big discount. Better something than nothing.
Yes, it sounds redundant, but never mind that you're already checked-in and saw no upgrades low enough to interest you -- go ahead and swipe your card at the airline's airport kiosk. Here's why: your carrier may not have gotten rid of all their first or business class seats and at this point, they're getting a little desperate.
If they have any left, you can be sure the discounts will be even bigger. At this point, you may see new prices and say, "I can afford that." But chances are, you can. So go ahead and swipe -- you've got nothing to lose.
Next time you're sitting around the gate area waiting for your international flight, take a good long look at the gate agent -- does he or she look a little anxious? Do you see a pad of paper and a pencil with the agent? You could be in luck.
My friend and co-founder of FareCompare noticed just such a scenario right before he took off from Scotland for the U.S., and he quickly figured what was going on: agents were offering passengers "extreme" last minute upgrade deals. It worked this way: an agent would briefly confer with a passenger, then write a number on his pad -- a monetary figure --show it to the individual, and wait for a "yes" or "no."
My partner was waved over, but he didn't like the price he was shown, so he suggested his own, lower figure, and it was accepted. In other words, he and his son each got an upgrade to business class worth thousands, for pennies on the dollar. Sweet.
#4: Become an Elite Member with Help from a Hush-Hush Program
This is the old fashioned, tried-and-true method of getting an upgrade: you simply become an elite frequent flier club member.
Okay, maybe it's not so simple, unless you're in the habit of flying thousands and thousands of miles each year. But, I'm going to share a one carrier's secret on how to make the process easier.
American Airlines, which invented the miles club concept, has a little known hush-hush program you won't find on the carrier's website. It's called the "Challenge." It's a short-cut to elite status where you earn extra miles and it's especially designed for people who know they'll be flying a lot in a short amount of time.
If that's you, hook yourself up with the veteran travelers on the FlyTalk forum; they know all about the Challenge and can help you get started.
When you're ready, you must call American Airlines' AAdvantage Customer Service desk to sign up and start earning your super-status miles.
Elite miles club members are probably thinking, "Hey, what about me?"
I'll answer that. Yes, your pool of benefits is being reduced by all this tinkering by the airlines. On the other hand, the airlines are aware of this and are trying to juggle the needs and expectations of their elites. Frankly, it's no easy balancing act. But the airlines are trying.
#5: Try Southwest Airlines' 'First Class'
I hear the howls of protest: "Southwest doesn't have a 'first class'!" This is technically true, but you'll never convince one of my employees who prefers to remain anonymous. "Sheesh, Rick," she told me the other day, "Do you have to give away my personal 'best tip ever'?" Well, yes, I do.
It's not really a secret. It's Southwest's EarlyBird check-in, which can be a dazzling bargain. I mean, for the price of an Alexander Hamilton --a sawbuck, a ten-spot -- you too, can be among the first to board.
My employee has done it half a dozen times and on each flight she got her choice of sitting in the very front row or anywhere else on the plane. Plus, bin space galore. No, there was no lobster and champagne, but she did get free peanuts (which is more than Spirit will give you. Yes they charge for that, just as they charge for a carry on bag).
Or save the ten bucks, and travel on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday (when there are more likely to be empty seats), put a scowl on your face to make sure no one wants to sit next you, and -- voila! -- the "poor man's first class."
Either way, this is such a great deal, who knows, Paris Hilton might even "loves" it enough to try flying with us regular folks.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.