If you're travelling during the holidays, there's one piece of good news to keep in mind as you're jostled by crowds and hefting those heavy bags. "People always think that over the holidays is the hardest time to get upgrades. It's actually one of the easiest because most business travellers are off the road," says Brian Kelly, who runs ThePointsGuy.com, a blog that explores how to maximize your frequent-flier miles and other travel points.
Getting a free upgrade from economy to business class may not be a cake walk, but if you want to experience life at the front of the plane, you need to know what's myth and what's going to get you a champagne flute and those comfy slippers.
Dress for success?
Dressing sharp may have worked in the olden days when flying was glamorous and riff-raff never rode up front. These days, it may not hurt your chances of getting an upgrade, but it doesn't significantly help, either. Put on your finest suit and chances are you might even stick out in the business-class cabin. "The typical person flying business-class these days is wearing jeans and a polo shirt," says Steven Frischling, an airline consultant who runs a blog called Flyingwithfish.com. And in a digitized world where your information is on a computer screen when you check in, someone who rarely flies isn't likely to get an upgrade, no matter how fine their tailoring.
Ask and you shall receive?
Like dressing the part, coming out and asking for an upgrade when you check in won't hurt your chances, but don't hold your breath. "How many times a day does someone who works at the airport get asked for an upgrade?" says Matthew Bennett, founder and publisher of Firstclassflyer.com. What makes you so special? To stand out from the crowd, offer to pay for the upgrade, Mr. Bennett says. "If you're ever going to get something for free, it's because you offered to pay for it." Even if you wind up having to shell out $200 for an upgrade for a 10-hour flight, it's probably money well spent, Mr. Bennett says.
Time it right
Remember, you're trying to get into the business-class cabin. So why are you booking flights at times when you have the most competition from people who are travelling for business? "Flying in off-peak times" is a good bet, Mr. Kelly says. Don't book flights on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays in the morning or evening. If you can be flexible, time your flights for when the fewest business travellers will be occupying the big cozy seats up front. "Most business people generally don't travel on Saturday afternoons," Mr. Kelly says.
Your best chance is ...
Join loyalty programs. Most airlines have programs that offer members free upgrades throughout the year, depending on how much they travel. For instance, members of Air Canada's loyalty program with at least 35,000 status miles get e-coupons for upgrades during the year. (The exact number varies because members can choose upgrades from among a menu of rewards, according to a spokesperson for the airline.) And, of course, use credit cards wisely, Mr. Kelly says. Some credit cards offer a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles. That and some careful shopping can easily get you upgrades. When you show up at check-in, loyalty programs and credit cards will help much more than mere charm. "These days, the upgrade systems are so regimented by computer systems that rank who gets what that [gate agents] don't really have a lot of say," Mr. Kelly says.
... If all else fails
Even if you can't enjoy the comforts of business class, one luxury is probably within your means, Mr. Bennett says. Buy your way into the airport lounge. Compared with the madness and discomfort of the terminal, the lounge practically feels like a spa, he says. Prices vary, but you should be able to get into most lounges for $25, Mr. Bennett says. Grab a plush seat, a copy of the newspaper, a cup of coffee and relax. And if a problem with the flight occurs, you'll be right where you want to be. "When there's a delay, who gets taken care of? The guy who's 50 deep in line at the counter out front, or the guy who's sitting in the lounge?" Mr. Bennett says.