First Class vs. Coach

You've spent two hours in the airport, schlepping from line to line. Next, you are herded onto the plane, stuffed into a pint-size seat and served a ration of peanuts. By the time you arrive at your final destination, you're lucky if you can unfold your legs and hobble to baggage claim-nothing a stiff drink and a day at the spa can't fix. Isn't it time for an upgrade?

A matter of class
When it comes to commercial flights, you have three basic levels of service from which to choose: first class, offering the epitome of luxurious accommodations; business class, offering spacious seating and extra amenities; and economy class (coach), offering the lowest cost seats with minimal service.

There are many advantages of flying first or business class as opposed to coach, not the least of which is comfort. Spring for an upgrade if you have special needs or if you just want to arrive in good physical condition, especially on international flights or long domestic routes.

When making flight reservations, be sure you know what you are buying. Some airlines have eliminated first class, making business class the top service level, whereas some low-end airlines have removed the larger seats and eliminated the amenities in favor of money-saving all-coach flights. Amenities can vary greatly by airline, plane type, and itinerary. There are also major differences in domestic service as compared to international. Don't assume that the service will be the same for every flight. Check with all of the airlines on your itinerary, especially if you have specific criteria.

Many first-class passengers are frequent travelers and savvy fliers who have discovered ways to upgrade their seats without having to pay the full published fare.

Here are a few perks you might enjoy:
The red carpet treatment: Check in is a breeze at special zones for first-class passengers. You might also be privy to a private lounge area for relaxing before boarding. You will be able to board the aircraft before other passengers, and you'll also be first off the plane. Some airlines even offer limo service for their first-class passengers on the ground.

Best seats in the house: Think leg room and seat width. Many of the newer seats have options such as electronic reclining, adjustable headrests and electronic adjustable lumbar support. Some seats swivel and many have individual powerport connections. Some airlines offer flat bed seats that convert to 180 degree beds, often with real linen sheets. And a growing number of carriers offer mini-suites-a bed, workstation and TV with dividers for privacy.

Wining and dining: Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are complimentary. Gourmet meals designed by leading chefs are usually served on white linen table cloths and with real cutlery, china and glassware.

Peace and quiet: You'll be subjected to less noise as the cabin is less crowded and seats are less likely to be occupied by young children. In addition, first-class passengers usually have at least one lavatory reserved for their exclusive use. You can breathe easy, too. According to a study by the US National Academy of Sciences, first-class passengers get about three times more oxygen per person than economy passengers. Other amenities may include individual reading lights, noise cancelling headphones and, of course, premium pillows and blankets.

Entertainment galore: Many airlines have upgraded their upper classcabins with high-end personal electronic systems which can offer movies, games, TV shows and music on demand for your in-flight entertainment.

What's it going to cost?
As a rule of thumb, you can expect to pay four times the normal economy fare for business, and ten to fifteen times for first class. But you don't have to be a millionaire to make your way to the front of the plane. Many first-class passengers are frequent travelers and savvy fliers who have discovered ways to upgrade their seats without having to pay the full published fare.

Here are some ways to avoid the coach-class crunch:
Call an expert: If you are serious about getting the best service at an affordable price, contact a travel specialist. Travel agents have access to information and fares that are simply not available elsewhere. They deal directly with the airlines, so you are sure to get what you are promised.

Go elite: Some airlines will upgrade elite flyers when there are unsold upper-class seats, while others give out certificates redeemable for a confirmed upgrade. Most airlines require you to fly 25,000 miles in one year to reach the lowest elite tier. However, airlines often have promotions that award elite status for completing certain activities within a specific time frame. Ask your airline of choice and start raising your rank.
Make the most of miles: Use frequent-flyer miles to upgrade to first or business class. Depending on the airline, route and fare you paid, upgrades can "cost" as little as 10,000 miles each way. Be aware that some discounted economy fares can't be upgraded, while others require copay. Know the rules before you buy.

Standby: Many airlines offer standby upgrades that allow you to upgrade a coach ticket on the day before or the day of your flight. Check with your airline to determine when you can confirm an upgrade and how much it will cost.

Surf for savings: Savvy surfers can often find the latest and best deals on Internet travel sites such as Farecompare, Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity. If you find a great deal, grab it immediately, because rates can change within minutes. You might also be wise to check the Web sites of individual airlines who do not give their fares on these travel sites.

Know your alphabet: On many domestic routes, airlines offer what they call Y-UP and Q-UP fares. These are full-fare economy fares that can be upgraded at the time of purchase to confirmed business or first class. They cost more than regular coach fares, but far less than normal first-class fares. Search for these special rates on Internet travel sites. Better yet, call your favorite travel agent for details.

The bottom line
Your cheapest route will always be to grin and bear it in coach, but a free or inexpensive upgrade is worth a little scouting and will make your trip much more pleasant. Your odds are best if you can plan in advance and allow some flexibility in your flight schedule. Shop smart and you can fly away in style with money left in your wallet.

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