Ok, here are the ways you can get to fly first class (some won't be applicable to you...you'll know them when you see them):
1) Buy a first class ticket. Depending on when you book, and how full the flights are, these can actually be had relatively inexpensively. Case in point, I just booked a first class fare (well, it's actually a coach fare, but it automatically books into A, which is a first class fare code, so it might as well be a paid F fare) from AUS
for $465 one way on AA
. This is in about 2 weeks.
2) Buy a first class ticket using miles. This is what you're referring to in this post as not being available. Most airlines have a tier of mileage awards (e.g. not the Saver awards) where as long as there is a F seat available for purchase, you can buy it using miles. For example, on AA
, a one way F SAAver ticket is 25K miles. An AAnytime Award (what I just described) is 50K. Hardly worth it, but if you're on a long domestic flight, some people (myself included) would splurge for the 25K award.
3) Buy a ticket in coach, and upgrade using miles (and possibly a copay). I've just done this myself, for a trip this coming weekend AUS
. I had a paid ticket (the fare class doesn't matter...these were deeply-discounted coach fares), and called AA
and said I wanted to do a mileage upgrade. Domestically, this costs 15K miles one way, plus a $75 copay. These are always subject to availability, but as long as you're not trying to do it on a very full flight (that is, don't try and do it within a couple of days of departure), I've never had a problem. I got waitlisted once MIA
(25K miles + $350 copay at that point in time...it may have changed), but it cleared at least a month before departure date.
4) Use frequent flyer elite status. Different airlines handle this differently. Many (UA and DL
, among others) offer complementary upgrades to all of their elite members. This entails being put on a list, and depending on availability, these can clear as early as days in advance, or as late as stepping onto the jetbridge (happened to me JFK
). When your upgrade clears depends on a few things. First and foremost is your elite status. The highest tier elite members will have their upgrades clear before anyone else (at AA
, Executive Platinum clears at 100 hours, Platinum is 72 hours, and Gold is 24 hours). Other things that can play a part are when the upgrade was requested, your fare class (if any members at a certain level are on a full-fare coach ticket, these will clear before any other members at that tier, regardless of when you requested the upgrade), whether you're an originating or connecting passenger, among other things. AA
's elite upgrade system is different. Rather than provide complementary upgrades to all members (EXP still get them), AA
provides you the opportunity to buy/earn 500 mile electronic upgrade segments. What this means is for each 500 miles you fly, you're required to use 1 sticker. So for a flight from DFW
, which is 1,800 miles give or take, you're required to use 4. Elite members earn 4 for each 10K miles flown, or you can buy them for $30 each online ($35 at the airport). If your upgrade clears, these 500 mile segments (known colloquially as "stickers," which I believe is an archaism from when these were actually stickers in a booklet of some sort, but I could be mistaken) are deducted from your account. While this method may seem bad, because they actually require some payment, for the lower tier elites it is actually better because not everyone will list for an upgrade for every flight. Unlike on airlines like UA
, where if you're at the lowest tier, you know every single person with higher status on your flight will get an upgrade before you, your "competition" is coming from a smaller pool of people.
5) Be an airline employee. If space is available, you can non-rev in premium cabins.
6) Be in the military on active duty. Many airlines will upgrade servicemen and women if there is space available, as long as they're traveling on orders.
7) Get an "op-up" (operational upgrade). Though in practice these very, very rarely happen to the general public (frequent flyer elites will usually get them), in situations like an oversale, where there may be a number of seats in F open, but coach is oversold, some lucky souls may reap the benefit of being in the right place at the right time. Particularly if you're on something like a honeymoon, a gate agent may be feeling generous. Can't hurt to ask, can it?!
In terms of what you're likely to see, #4 is by far the most common. As a general rule, at least 50% of people in F domestically are elites who have upgraded. Followed in decreasing order of prevalence by #2, #3, #1, #5, #6, and #7.
Hope this helps.
As an aside, I just spent a lovely weekend in your fine city. I'd never been, and I really enjoyed myself. It reminded me a lot of Austin.
[Edited 2013-01-27 22:49:23]