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George Mitchell: Have the confidence to bag yourself a slice of luxury when flying abroad

Want perks without the price tag? George has some top tips (Photo: Aerodim/Shutterstock)
Want perks without the price tag? George has some top tips (Photo: Aerodim/Shutterstock)

I wrote recently about a trip I had to Europe, and the hassle despite being double jabbed, the Covid tests getting there and getting back.

I said: “Don’t bother”, as with the ever-changing Covid rules, you could come back seriously out of pocket and frazzled. My heart goes out to anyone who was in Mexico recently for a holiday only to discover it was going red. Which means, if they didn’t cut their holiday short and get back to the UK by a certain time, it was 10 days quarantine in a hotel at a jaw-dropping price of £2,285.

This, as I’ve pointed out and the feedback you gave me 99% agreed, is a farce. On this point, a UK Government minister has for months been flying around the world, often visiting red zone countries, and has never had to quarantine once. As John Humphrys said in a column in the Mail last week: “One rule for them and one for us.” Agreed, Mr H. Oh, and come back to Radio 4, John, I miss you on the Today programme.

If you do decide to take the plunge and go abroad, I’d like to offer a few tips that might just make it a bit easier, especially if, like me, you fly economy.

Making the most of economy

There are “no frills” airline economy flights with precious little legroom and sometimes no seat recline. Then there’s “full fare” airline economy, which is always a more enjoyable experience. But it’s still “economy”, so here’s how to get the most out of it. I’ve learned over the years that the seats in economy cabins are most definitely not all created equal.

Consider waiting and not booking your seat in advance on a BA flight to get a better one (Photo: Paul Glendell / DC Thomson)

Right, you’ve booked yourself an economy seat with say British Airways or KLM, on a flight where you may well be sitting for numerous hours. Unfortunately, most so-called “full fare” airlines – including BA, I’m sad to say – often now charge for a seat if you want a specific one booked in advance. But in these strange Covid times, lots of flights are near half empty, so I’d say don’t pay the ever-increasing fee for a seat ahead of travelling.

Go to the website seatguru.com. It lists near every airline, and every flight. Type in the name of the airline you’re flying with, the destination and the flight number. It will then produce your actual flight and show you the exact seating plan for the economy cabin.

For example, take KLM’s Boeing 737 – SeatGuru will tell why you should “be aware” of seat 10A, why 11B has a “mixed review”, and why 12A is a “good seat”.

Whichever aircraft you are about to fly on, this site will explain such things as: seat 9F may well have extra legroom due to the row in front being take out for a walkway, but that seat has a fold-away tray table in the armrest, which is never good to eat a hot meal off of. It may tell you that seat 20A does indeed have extra leg room, but since it’s situated beside an emergency exit, it has reports of being very cold during night flights.

It will tell you that seat 33B may be in a row with only two seats but avoid it because it’s beside the toilets which can be smelly on a long-haul flight. It will tell you that seat 37F is located right beside the galley, which means numerous people standing around you asking for coffees or drinks during the night.

You may be able to choose your preferred seat after boarding your flight (Photo: Shutterstock/sippakorn)

It may state that none of the seats in row 19 recline due to there being an emergency exit directly behind. It will also tell you that, say, seat 29A is very good because it has no seat in front of it, therefore giving you loads of extra legroom. Invaluable, free information.

On a nine-hour night flight to Yakutsk in Russia, I saved £60 by not paying for my seat in advance. First off, I checked the airline’s website just two hours before to see what seats were still empty, then I politely asked the member of staff at check-in if it was a busy flight. “No, not many people,” she said. So, I boarded late, chatted with a flight attendant and asked her to let me know when boarding was complete. She happily did so, then I got up and went straight to a row which had only two seats in it and no row directly in front. Business class style legroom on an economy ticket and no paying in advance for the privilege either.

Want to go one better? How about paying for economy and bagging an upgrade for free?

Bagging business class

Business class on full fare airlines when flying short-haul means a bigger seat and better food. Business class on long-haul offers luxury and privacy in a near fully flat seat, not to forget food inspired by top chefs.

“Impossible,” you may say.

Well, no; it’s difficult, but not impossible. Firstly, let’s get one thing straight – I’m talking about an upgrade from economy to business class only. Forget about a private cabin with a six-foot bed in long-haul first class that has access to an upstairs bar. If you even ask for that for free, you’ll be laughed out the airport.

So how to go about bagging the elusive upgrade? OK, here goes…

At the airport, get to check-in early and simply ask the check-in agent. It always pays to be smartly dressed and ultra-polite. Don’t waste their time telling them it’s your birthday or any sob story regarding why you feel you “deserve” an upgrade. They’ve heard it all before. It does help, though, if you have a history with that airline. It’ll all be on their computer system and if they see that you’ve flown with them over many years, it certainly goes in your favour.

Bear in mind that dressing smartly at the airport may help you to secure an upgrade (Photo: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock)

Just ask politely if there is any chance of an upgrade. Nine times out of 10, you’ll get a polite no, but not always. It worked for me once. If they say no at check-in, you can then ask if they have any paid upgrade offers. I’ve never done this, but I’ve spoken with others who have. Money talks, remember.

Business class on certain flights can often be near empty, and empty seats mean no pennies for the airline. So, they haven’t given you a freebie, but sometimes they will take an offer. A friend of mine had paid around £500 for his long-haul economy return. The business class ticket would have cost around £3,000. At check-in on his flight from the USA to the UK, he offered to pay £150 for an upgrade to business, which included a fully flat bed and all the luxury that goes with it. The agent made a couple of phone calls, and he got it. It was a 10-hour flight – money well spent, I reckon.

Right now, the airline industry is near on its knees due to Covid. On the few flights I’ve managed in the past year or so, the plane has been a third full at most. Never has there been a better time to try to make an offer for an upgrade.

But if you don’t fancy offering to pay, and let’s presume simply asking for a free upgrade didn’t work for you at check-in, all is not lost. Remember, business class passengers are always allowed to board first, so observe them getting on and count them. Then once it’s your turn to board and you enter the cabin, take a glance to your left and check out the situation. If business class is near empty, you’re in with a chance, so put your plan into action, but of course you first need a “reason” to ask for an upgrade.

EasyJet launches new flights from Aberdeen and Inverness.
Why not treat yourself on your post-pandemic trips? (Photo: EasyJet)

So, you’re now on your 10-hour long-haul flight, strapped back in cattle class. Have a good look around at your environment. You may discover that your seat doesn’t recline properly, or your tray table is broken. Or possibly the in-flight entertainment console doesn’t work. It happens. Or, worse, the passengers around you are very noisy. All valid reason to ask to move. Don’t get angry, just politely point the issue out and ask if an upgrade is possible.

This must be done very discreetly. Never press the buzzer overhead to summon the hard-working cabin crew and complain in front of other passengers. Wait until you’re in the air and the seatbelt sign is off, then go to the back area of the plane and quietly speak with them.

Go on, go for it – find a reason, and ask for that upgrade. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They say no. Big deal, you’re no worse off.

But if they say yes… you’ve just bagged yourself a slice of luxury.

Don’t be shy, give it a try!

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