An international upgrade on AA (against dire odds)

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Sitting in The Wing lounge at Hong Kong International Airport and obsessively checking the American Airlines app on my phone, the prospects for an upgrade to Dallas didn’t look good. While I had seat 16J secured in economy – an aisle and bulkhead seat with lots of legroom – I was still staring down the very real possibility of 14 and a half hours sitting upright in a cramped aluminum tube. As a savvy traveler and purveyor of advice about points, miles and upgrades, it would have been a colossal failure on my part.

The flight over to Hong Kong in early October had been much easier. I waitlisted both upgrades when I booked the ticket, and Los Angeles to Hong Kong cleared into business class several months before the trip. The return from Hong Kong to Dallas stubbornly remained in economy and on the upgrade waitlist, with business class seats continuing to vanish in the weeks and days before the flight. By the time I arrived at HKG on the day of the flight there was just one seat remaining for sale in the business cabin. My fortunes would depend entirely on my placement on the upgrade list… and I ended up at number two.

The only thing worse than flying nearly 15 hours in coach is knowing that you’d be enjoying a flat bed if there were just one more seat on the flight.

I had a strategy by the time I arrived at the gate. This was a three cabin aircraft, with first, business and economy classes. Using Expert Flyer I could see that there were two seats left in first class in addition to the one in business. If anyone was trying to upgrade from business to first that would create room for me to upgrade from coach to business. I approached the gate and asked the agent, but no one was trying to upgrade from business to first.

Cue mild panic.

My mind raced – maybe someone booked in business hadn’t checked in? I just needed one person booked in business not to show up and a flat bed would be mine. “Sorry sir, all business class passengers have checked in.”

I was running out of options. The agents cleared the first person on the coach-to-business upgrade list into the only seat remaining in business, and I was staring down an upright seat for two thirds of a day. Then, to quote Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless, an idea began to form in my mind.

I walked over to the boarding queue for first, business and elite members: “Hi everyone – sorry to bother you, but is anyone here booked on a paid business class ticket who would like to fly in first class – on me?” I received a few looks like they suspected I was a Nigerian prince asking for help moving millions into a foreign bank account. An American traveler finally gave me a tentative yes, so I pulled him out of line and to the counter.

“Hi, I’d like to upgrade this gentleman from business to one of the open first class seats using one of my systemwide upgrades.”

The gate agents didn’t quite know what to make of this at first, but to their credit they adapted quickly, using one of my upgrades to move the gentleman from business to first class, thus freeing up a seat in business for number two on the upgrade list – me.

It was unorthodox, it was desperate and it cost me two systemwide upgrades, but it was more than worth it to avoid flying one of AA’s longest flights in coach. The takeaway: think creatively and keep working for that upgrade or award ticket all the way until the gate closes.


About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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