ZURICH — There’s a certain dread in booking an overnight flight to Europe, or any long-haul trip these days. Oh no, please, not economy. Anything but trying to sleep upright while vying for armchair space.
The forward cabin beckons, every time, like a siren. So on a recent trip to Venice, I decided it was high time to try the latest strategy to settle my ample frame into a lie-flat seat: make a bid for it.
Several airlines started experimenting with offering auctions for premium seats within the past two years, and today the practice has become widespread. The way it works in most cases is relatively simple: book in economy, then wait for an e-mail before departure to place a bid to pay for an upgrade. It’s sort of the Priceline route to five-star treatment.
My maiden experiment was with Swiss (www.swiss.com/ch/en), Boston to Venice, connecting in Zurich. I purchased a round-trip economy ticket for about $1,400, and received an e-mail offering the upgrade auction for the return leg from Zurich to Boston. The bidding started at 750 Swiss Francs (about $785 at current exchange rates).
In a rare exception to Yankee tendencies, I didn’t make the lowest possible bid, but rather 1,000 Swiss Francs (about $1,047), thinking there would be stiff competition among upgrade-seeking fellow passengers. I was also in the frame of mind where it all seemed like a bargain, because the directly purchased business class roundtrip airfare was north of $8,000.
I never understood why I didn’t get a similar e-mail inviting me to bid for business class on the outbound flight. But therein lies the corollary to upgrade auctions. Many airlines continue to offer day-of-departure, pay-to-play upgrades — in our case, $649, at Logan, for the move from steerage to a luxury pod. The gambit is that you never know if this offer will be made, until you get to the check-in counter. It depends on the number of vacancies, and frequent fliers who may be entitled to upgrades.
Either way, was it worth it? About two weeks before the return flight, I was notified that $1,000 Swiss Francs was a winning bid for business class for Zurich-Boston. Bird in hand, we happily paid $649 at Logan for special treatment outbound. It was time to soak up the pampered perks.
We sashayed down the first class lane of security, acting as if we had paid that eight grand, and took the exclusive elevator to the Swiss lounge in the bowels of Terminal E. There we sampled every possible morsel at the buffet, caught up on last-minute work tasks, and posted on Facebook (only one cheese to have when headed to Zurich).
The fast lane to boarding had our name all over it. I wished we had packed more, so I could use the extra baggage allotment. Champagne before takeoff? You betcha. In the air, I rifled through the modular collection amenity bag, studied the Breitling handout as if I were seriously considering purchasing the luxury timepiece, and fiddled with every possible configuration of the seat. And then there was the menu, featuring wines from the Jura region (a crisp Blanc Neuchatel), paired with a three-course dinner. I learned it was not possible to order both the rosefish with pineapple and peppercorn sauce, and the gnocchi puttanesca. But no matter. Soon I was sucked into two and a half hours of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenent,” on my personal movie screen.
I should have just gone to sleep, of course, but there was no way I was missing out on these treats, having bargained my way in.
Once I settled in to sleep, turbulence high over the Atlantic jostled me, even as I was completely horizontal with a comfortable pillow. There are some things you just can’t control, no matter what the seat on the ticket says. But it was nice to be the first to emerge from the aircraft, following a civilized breakfast, particularly to make connections, or go through customs and immigration.
On the return, there was no time to seek out the first class lounge at the Zurich airport. There was also no same-day upgrade offer, for my wife, and the stern-faced gate agent informed me that business class was completely full. The forward cabin was once again plush, though oddly familiar, on another Airbus 330. I listened to music and tried to get some writing done, following the setting sun.
A Swissair spokesman said the Upgrade Bargain for passengers booked in economy began in March 2015 on long-haul flights, and that since July of this year, 2016 passengers booked in business class can also bid to upgrade to first class. Passengers have the choice to place a bid for a suitable amount they are willing to pay to upgrade, and if the bids are accepted, are entitled to priority services at check-in and boarding, lounge access, and mileage collection.
The bidding-for-an-upgrade system has made some frequent fliers grumpy, because those willing to pay grab seats that might otherwise be free for complimentary space-available upgrades. Call it the democratization of upgrades, however. For some extra cash, more customers can act like they have platinum status. I can hardly wait for the next auction.
Anthony Flint can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.