October 3, 2021 Upgrade Mindset 101
How you define the word ‘upgrade’ defines how you’ll travel for the rest of your life.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “upgrade” was first used in 1873. It was a noun meaning an increase in grade, as in the grade of a road getting steeper. In 1901, it was first used for another meaning: as a verb, “to improve; to raise the quality of…”
Somewhere between 1901 and now, the word “upgrade” took on another meaning, once again as a noun: the move from economy to Business Class (or Business to First), usually on a particular flight that has already been booked. It has been effectively hijacked and taken on a whole new meaning to those that can’t escape CAIT (Conventional Airline Industry Think).
Here at FCF, we’re on a crusade to correct that “undersight” because upgrading in its original form is what we’re all about, that is, improving travel in ways that go beyond merely moving from one cabin to another on a particular flight that has already been booked.
Good luck if you’re only playing in that limited lottery.
What Do You Think of When You Hear the Word, “Upgrade”?
Do you think only the best dressed person gets those seats that become available in the front cabin? Or a benefit given as a bonus to an airline’s frequent flyers (infrequently)? Or something you’re offered for extra cash paid at the gate when groveling doesn’t succeed? Or, in your mind are upgrades only anything else that moves you from one class to another on a particular flight that you’ve already booked?
You wouldn’t be alone. That’s what most people think. And when I tell them that there are SO MANY OTHER WAYS to improve their travel experience, to “upgrade,” in other words, their eyes light up.
Why the Disparity (and Despair-ity) Around the Word “Upgrade”?
I’m putting it out there: Too many people are waiting around for things to happen to them, instead of making things happen for themselves. Settling for what’s given is usually a choice. Most people don’t come with The Upgrade Mindset. Governments, corporations, and cultures certainly don’t foster it.
“Take what we give you and be happy,” they insist.
So most consumers see an “upgrade” as a pseudo-lucky break. “Isn’t Fly-High Airlines wonderful for upgrading me to Business Class?! But then again, I was wearing that A-line skirt I got at Saks, so it wasn’t like I had nothing to do with it.”
Er, no. Trust me, you had nothing to do with it.
Here’s the thing: The airlines (and almost every other monopoly) have conditioned people to have this mindset, even if indirectly. At the same time, the last thing they want is for people to actually consider all the different ways to score an upgrade. That’s not in their best interest.
They don’t call me “Mr. Upgrade” for nothing, so bear with me for a moment while I share my definition of “upgrade.” I’m going to do it with an example. Let’s say you’re thinking of paying $3,299 for a Business Class ticket on Japan Airlines to Tokyo on a published fare. I would say, why don’t you “upgrade” to First Class — to a $21,334 ticket, by the way — by buying American miles for $2,952, redeemable for that $21,334 First Class ticket? By any other name, that’s an upgrade, right!?
Of one class plus some cash.
And that, in a nutshell, is what we mean when we say there are tons of ways to upgrade.
If you were about to book a Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy ticket for $2,000 Atlanta-London next June, and there was a Business Class fare sale on Delta for a day or two later for $2,200 that works with your schedule, wouldn’t you “upgrade” to Business Class for a measly $200?
What do you call that if it isn’t an upgrade? At the very least, it’s a significant improvement. Email me at with your ideas for a better, truer way to describe such things, as we’d love to hear them.
The Many Ways to Upgrade
A better flight is a better flight by any other name, to paraphrase Mr. Shakespeare. That could result from a random lucky move from coach to Business at the royal behest of Queen Victoria (oh, I mean Vicky at the gate). But who wants to wait around for lucky breaks?
I’m all about upgrading whenever it makes sense. It might be getting a better deal on a car, a better cut of meat from the butcher, or a better TV for similar or little extra money. The key is to play a proactive part in helping them come about. It’s being engaged and aware, and not just sitting back and hoping good things will fall in my lap. That rarely happens, in life.
Travel Upgrades Are Everywhere
Things are always changing in travel — fares, rules, restrictions, competition, new routes, fashionable new destinations, discrepancies in loyalty programs, different ticketing strategies — and out of that comes opportunity.
But who keeps up with all that turbulence?
Everyone’s so busy. No wonder people are happy to go with the default option. It’s easier. Well, it seems easier. But I hope I’m starting to convince you that the opportunity to “upgrade,” or improve your travel experience, is everywhere, and it’s pretty easy too, once you know how.
Better Equals More $, Right?
Another default way of thinking is that quality costs a lot.
While that is true much of the time, it’s not true all of the time. And in the gap between those two statements lies golden upgrade opportunities.
If you pay a little more for a lot more quality, that’s a upgrade — in comfort or pleasure.
If you pay less than the standard price for something, that’s an upgrade — in value.
Mr. Upgrade’s Definition of Upgrade
Noun: An improvement to an existing option whereby the new option’s benefit(s) exceeds the increase (if any) in cost(s).
Verb: The activities or processes related to improving an existing option.
The penultimate upgrade is coach to Business for just a bit more than the price of coach, the same price as coach, or sometimes even less than coach.
The ultimate upgrade is turning your coach ticket into a First Class experience. It’s even possible that this upgrade ends up costing you less than the price of coach – although that is quite rare. Often it just costs a bit extra.
Each of these upgrades can be achieved through strategies that First Class Flyer invented or perfected over the last 25 years.
Let’s take a look at some of those free and paid upgrades that the average traveler is not aware of.
EXAMPLEs OF 10 GREAT Upgrades
1. Round-the-World on ANA First Class for Price of Business on Delta to Asia
This amazing Round-the-World (RTW) deal is with All Nippon Airways—an Amex points-transfer partner—with tickets starting at 105,000 miles in Business Class or 160,000 in First Class, for flying any Star Alliance airline(s) for up to 18,000 flight miles for the entire itinerary.
Savings perspective: This is a staggering opportunity. Consider that Delta charges 160,000 miles (34% more) for a simple Business Class round-trip ticket between the U.S. and Europe, and 170,000 miles (38% more) from the U.S. to Asia.
Talk about a (free) Massize Trip Upgrade.
2. Upgrade from Business to First Class to Asia and pay $347 LESS at the Same Time
You could pay cash for Business Class, Los Angeles-Tokyo on Japan Airlines for $3,299 or you could buy 160,000 American miles at the cost of 1.8 cents each when on sale for $2,880 plus $55 taxes, $2,935 total for First Class, which normally runs $21,334. That’s not only a one-class upgrade, but also 86% less than normal First Class fares and $347 less than the Business Class fare you were about to purchase. Boom!
3. Free Side Trips, AKA “Trip Upgrades”
We recently alerted you to a free stop over in St. Croix, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in St. Thomas, as well as The Over-the-Top (Under-the-Cost) Way to Asia + Europe and Loop the loophole to India in Business Class via Europe or vice versa for less.
4. Get a Delta Business Class Ticket for Just 10,000 More Amex Points than Premium Economy
Most Delta travelers use Delta credit cards to earn Delta miles. Sounds obvious, but there’s a more lucrative option that leads to, yes, you guessed it, a cheap “upgrade.”
You could fly Atlanta to Munich in Delta Premium Economy Class for 90,000 Delta SkyMiles round-trip. Or you could transfer points from Amex to Virgin Atlantic (a Delta partner) and still fly on Delta, in Business Class, for 100,000 miles.
Get Business Class for just 10,000 miles more than coach for 18 and a half hours flying at 40,000 feet?! Who wouldn’t take that upgrade?
5. No-cost to Low-cost, One-way Paid Upgrades
A Dallas-Amsterdam round-trip ticket costs $1,821 in Premium Economy on American. But if you fly in Business Class to Amsterdam (an overnight flight), and return in Premium Economy (day flight), the total cost is $1,784–$37 less. And you arrive in Amsterdam on the right foot, well rested and ready to go. More on that here.
Premium Economy R/T on American to Amsterdam…
Or Business Class on the Departure, Premium Economy on Return…
6. Get an Iberia Business Class ticket for just 8,000 to 15,000 more Amex or Chase Points than many economy awards on American, Delta, and United.
7. Use the Leg Stretch Strategy
Instead of buying one trip on one ticket, you can buy two vacations’ worth on a single ticket.
FCF’s out-of-this-world Leg Stretch Strategy (where airlines connect three continents for an extremely low price) can string together flights in Business Class for the same price as coach, or just a bit more.
8. My Favorite Close-in Upgrade to First Class
Let’s say you started out with a $10,000 First Class ticket on Lufthansa. That’s valuable property because you can cancel it to fly in First Class for 200,000 Air Canada miles a week or two prior to departure.
At a cost of 2.5 cents per Amex point, that same ticket is $5,000–a saving of $5,000. A big wallet upgrade. That price comes down even further with the current Air Canada buy-miles promo, for as little as $2,600, and a good chance LESS THAN what you paid for Business Class. More on that here and here.
9. Free Vacation Upgrades
Stay at the Fairmont Orchid in Kona and fly economy class and you would pay $8,522 if you booked them separately (as most do) for travel February 7 through 14, 2022. However, book as a package through United Vacations in Business Class and you pay just $5,866, a $2,656 / 31% savings. In my book, this is not only an upgrade but what I call a “cheaper-than-free” upgrade at that.
10. Free (Same Class) Seat Comfort Upgrades…
All routes are not created equal. Take American’s Phoenix-Maui route, which flies on both A321s (narrow body) and B787s (wide body). The fares are exactly the same, but the seats are not. Business Class on the B787s recline to 180 degrees, but the A321s only recline a few inches. Or take United’s Chicago-Denver route, which flies on both B737s and B777s, with the same fares. The Business Class seats on B777s recline to 180 degrees, but the B737s only recline a few inches. That’s a big difference in comfort for no difference in price; more on that here.
I say don’t wait for the airlines to upgrade you, when there are countless ways to upgrade.