1. Check the seating chart the morning of your flight. The day you book your flight and choose your seat, you’ll probably see only a certain number of seats available. Choose the best one for you, but try to remember to look again the day your flight leaves. That’s when unsold seats often suddenly “appear.” You may even find an emergency exit row seat without a fee.
2. Ask the gate agent if any upgrades are available. Corollary of sorts to #1. The day of your flight, especially minutes before departure, is when the airline has a clear picture of what’s available and what they can give away (since it won’t be sold). You may think you’re ineligible for an upgrade, but simply by asking you may put yourself in position for something. I’ve gotten Economy Plus seats with more legroom just by asking day-of. Sure, it’s not First Class, but it’s a nice improvement.
3. If you’re flexible, offer to be bumped from a busy flight. You’ve got to be in the mood to hang around an airport for a few extra hours, but if you’re amenable to that it can pay off in spades. I volunteer to be a “victim” all of the time, most recently from a Delta flight from Atlanta to LaGuardia. That route has a flight every couple of hours, and Hartsfield-Jackson is one of the friendlier and nicer airports in this world, so it was okay by me. (Since it was my return flight I wasn’t in as big a hurry anyways.) I got a $600 voucher, good for a year on any Delta flight, plus some partner flights. A couple on that same flight said they’d been bumped both ways and thus received $1200 each in vouchers.
On another occasion I volunteered to be bumped, it turned out there was no need. However the gate agent told me she appreciated my gesture and instead put me in a seat in business class – which was fine by me. You never know how a little flexibility might pay off.
4. If you’re ever rebooked by an airline, investigate your options. When you book those dirt cheap tickets, they’re usually dirt-cheap booking codes that give you little flexibility. But when an airline rebooks your flights, say in the instance of a missed connection or bad weather, often it will be in a more flexible economy fare. Look into it – go online or call the airline and (again) ask what your upgrade and mileage options are. Just recently I got 125% of the miles on a rebooked coach flight.
5. Miles, miles, miles. Hustling for miles is so easy I don’t see why everybody doesn’t do it. Some people fly across the world and don’t bother to sign up for a program. I sign up for every program I can, and check who’s partners with whom, on every flight. Why not? It’s free, and the airlines are just hoping you’ll forget. If you buy things online with a credit card, an airline card can’t hurt either if you’re careful with it. When I buy things like jeans or shoes online – things I would buy anyway – I always make sure I get at least one mile per dollar. More often than not I get multiple miles per dollar. I’ve gotten 2,800 miles for a single magazine subscription, and 2,500 for a TV. Again, I’m not suggesting you go into crippling debt to get miles. Just be smart about it and exploit the programs as best you can. And even in this era of stripped down perks, membership can have its privileges. Every year I get two free passes to the United Club mailed to me. It’s a helluva lot more relaxing than sitting in the main terminal in Newark International.