…and when do I wait to see if I cleared for free?
One of the biggest debates I have with myself is when to use upgrades. When a seat is available, but the cabin is empty, I don’t want to waste 9,000 miles on guaranteeing myself one of the empty seats. (Especially when I later find out First Class wasn’t even FULL by the time we take off due to lack of elites). But I always kick myself when I saw a seat available and didn’t take advantage of my US Airways miles and end up in the back of the plane.
But luckily, I have pretty good luck with guessing whether or not I should use my miles to take advantage of one of those seats. I take some routes very often, so I have a good intuitive feel as to whether or not I’ll clear. For example, most flights to Phoenix—I snatch upgrades if they ever actually become available. But other ones, I have a “system” to determine whether or not I should use US Airways miles if/when an upgrade clears.
First off, check out this great primer on how to use KVS. I use this software heavily in determining whether or not I want to call to use miles for an upgrade. It costs money, but is worth it for how much value I get.
Edit: Please check out this great suggestion instead: Wandering Aramean: If you’d rather get that exact same inventory information without paying for it just go to http://www.flightstats.com/go/FlightAvailability/flightAvailability.do. That’s the source KVS is using for that query.
First, I look at the availability tab. The most seats it will show you as free for first class are 9 seats (it won’t show you ten or above). If that number shows five seats open or less when my flight is a few weeks out, I start considering an upgrade. With three seats left, I’m definitely applying those miles.
I use upgrades for cross-country flights, and flights I’m taking with my husband—I want him to enjoy travel so I try to pamper him as much as possible! I don’t want you to think I willy-nilly apply miles to my jumps between DCA to CLT or BOS or PHL or any short hop like that. I always clear on those anyway.
So let’s say KVS shows at least 9 seats free, but this is a flight you feel anxious about and definitely want to be in first for. What I’m going to tell you to do involves some risk, because sometimes the upgrade availability will go away and you are SOL. But it has been a good proxy for me to see if I clear.
Look at when your upgrade window for your status is.
Chairman: 7 days
Platinum: 4 days
Gold: 3 days
Silver: 2 days
Then look at the flight you are planning to travel on. Look how full first is today. If it isn’t even full on the day the flight leaves, there’s a good chance it isn’t a heavy elite route and you’ll clear fine. But let’s do more research either way.
Continue looking at the amount of availability in the flight number of your flight every day for the next few days out through when your window would be. If the flight is full of elites today and tomorrow, but flights after that are pretty empty, then you are probably competing with Silver elites. So compare that to your status.
Flights like DCA (Washington Reagan) to PHX (Phoenix), a whole ton of elites are fighting for one or two complimentary upgrades. People on that route (i.e. Senator John McCain and other “important people”) tend to buy first class seats outright, so even more than one week out, the cabin can be completely full.
If you start seeing the plane filling one week out, you know the competition is generally in Chairman.
Just to be on the safe side, I also check out the flight I’m traveling on the same day of the week I’m traveling. So if I am traveling Thursday, May 23rd, I may check out flights on Thursday, May 2nd just for an idea of how much these flights fill up on Thursdays. There can be a huge difference between Monday and Friday. (Do people tend to go there for the weekend or leave for there after the weekend?, etc.)
Here’s an example.
I’m flying to Phoenix roundtrip, and then immediately to Denver this month (May). When I checked my flight to Phoenix four weeks out, both first classes were almost filled. I checked the same flight numbers on the same days of the week in April, and those were sold out 10 days ahead of time. This suggests to me I had no chance of clearing on my own window. So I kept an eye out for upgrades.
One opened up for my return flight and I scooped it up. I got the last upgrade available. My outbound flight sold out completely three weeks out, without an upgrade ever opening.
My flight to Denver was a different story. When I checked the same flight number to see how many seats were available on the day the plane was leaving, most seats in first class were empty. When I checked the day of the week I was traveling (which was only three days away from when I checked), the first class cabin was completely empty. Even though upgrades were available, I didn’t upgrade my flights. I figure when my upgrade window opens, I’ll be more than okay.
So let’s look at these flights. Both my flights are Friday flights.
Let’s see how the upgrades are today (note: I looked at all these flights early this morning, before the upgrade window would have opened today).
My flight to Phoenix:
I’m not surprised. With US Airways generous upgrades, there’s no real chance of there being unassigned First Class Seats between two hubs (well, DC is a quasi-hub). The F0 is where you see how many seats are left.
My flight to Denver’s availability today:
This is rare for me to see. There are two seats open in first the day of the flight. Since Silvers clear two days out, it looks like all the elites on this flight who booked ahead of time cleared. These seats may get filled by elites who move up their flight, miss an earlier flight, or ask to switch so they can be in first (I’ve seen it before).
But this is a Wednesday Flight, and my flights are on Fridays, so let’s see how Friday’s flights look.
Friday is two days away, so that is when Silvers clear for first class. Please note that I did this before the upgrade window opened, so no Silvers have cleared for either flight yet.
Phoenix has no availability on it, so if I were a silver, I would apply an upgrade if one opens up on US Airways so that I can be in first class. It just seems like there’s no chance on this route.
Denver has some availability, so a silver would have a good chance (but not guaranteed chance) of clearing. It all depends on how you rank up against the other silvers, and whether or not an elite who outranks you books a last minute ticket.
But I’m not a silver, I’m a chairman (I guess I like mentioning that ;P ). So my upgrades clear a week out. So let’s see how my upgrades would do if my flights were in a week.
I start feeling hopeful here. There’s room for three people in first class a week before this Phoenix flight, and Chairmen have less competition for spots than Silvers do–there’s simply not too many Chairmen. But note also, since this is a busy route, there’s more of a chance of running into Chairmen.
So if my future flight were flight 43 on a Wednesday, I’d leave the upgrade to chance and assume I’d probably clear.
Meanwhile, with the Denver route…
If I were on this flight (1531) to Denver on a Wednesday, I’d be completely sure I’d clear. This is complete availability, and none of the Denver flights are hurting for space in First Class.
But my flight isn’t on a Wednesday, so I should double check whether or not the day of the week matters. So let’s look at next Friday to see how those flights are doing.
Whoa, flight 43 has less availability next Friday than it does two days earlier! Since my flight 43 is a Friday flight, I’ll go crazy checking for upgrade availability, and as soon as I see it, book it immediately with US Airways miles. I mean, immediately. I’ve booked upgrades for flight 43 while in a bar with friends. Luckily, it was at the Austin MegaDO, and they all understood! 😛
How about Denver?
I’m still confident in clearing this Denver flight, and I wouldn’t think twice about ignoring available upgrades.
Please let me know if I can clarify anything here, or if you have a test-case you want me to run (will your upgrade from PHX to SFO clear?!) Hope this helps! Good luck with your US Airways miles.