The following are the major perks and drawbacks of a 4 hour business class flight that I experienced on my recent upgrade. Note that these perks may be different depending on your airline of choice, model plane, and other factors unique to your personal situation. (Photo "United CRJ-700" by redlegsfan21)
Like most check-ins at Pittsburgh International Airport, the experience all depends on the staff that is working that particular day. When I arrived to check in at the priority kiosk there were approximately 4 people in the line I would be in, and about 20 in the economy check-in line. With around six kiosks open and 3 staff running the whole process, I had a bad feeling I was going to get screwed into having to wait longer at the priority access line than in the normal economy lane. I kept a watchful eye on the traveler who got in line the same time as me but in the economy aisle and waited, and waited, and waited some more. Not surprisingly, we both made it to the check-in kiosk at the same time due to the slow response of three employees serving six kiosks. But since I am a champ at getting in and out of the check-in desk in record time, I made it out first. But barely.
Where I knew check-in was going to be a hassle no matter what lane I was boarding in, security was the one perk of getting an upgrade that I knew would be to my benefit. Normal traffic at the security line in Pittsburgh at 6 in the morning is, to put it simply, chaos. There are always lines as far as you can see and travelers who expected the airport to be empty and are late for their flight begging to cut in front. But for those with status on an airline or an upgraded ticket, your reward is a line all to yourself. Like the check-in counter, the priority security line had about 4 to 5 people in front of me and we breezed right through. No body scan. No pat down. No snark from security (although most of the security folks are nice in Pittsburgh, as represented in our post "How Air Travel Makes Us All Stupid").
Lounge in Chicago
Although a business class ticket does give you lounge access on United in some cases (a few exceptions exist depending on the operator of the lounge), I did not have time to make it there on this particular trip. My layover in Chicago was long enough to warrant it, but it was 7am on a Saturday and I had no desire to be near an open bar so early in the day. This summation is based on an earlier visit to the Chicago lounge on an earlier trip with lounge passes I receive from other sources each year.
The Chicago lounge is quite a remarkable place to be seen. Located on the second floor of the main terminals, the location that I visited (there are several) looked like a sea of couches and chairs. Not surprising, this lounge does serve customers in one of the world's biggest airports. With a chaotic snack bar and an impressive bar, for what its worth, the lounge has everything you would need. Where the main Chicago terminal has no power outlets to be seen, the lounge has four for every two seats. Plug in and relax, but don't get too drunk and fall asleep!
Business Class on a CRJ-700
As the flight was short, the plane was a smaller CRJ-700 rather than one of the large Boeing planes. This meant a plush reclining seat rather than a full lay back sleeper like is customary on most international flights. In fact, the CRJ-700 was pretty much the most basic business class that you could find. While the plush seats had extra width, leg room, and seat pitch for the recliner, there was nothing else notable to mention for business amenities. A tasty snack box and frequent top offs of beverages are the most that can be said, but little in the form of extra entertainment, a meal, or free flowing alcohol (although I did not ask to confirm).
For what its worth, a four hour business class flight can only offer so much. An in board entertainment console is only good for one movie. A meal is only as good as hungry as you are, which at 9am means not so much. The same goes for alcohol. If anything, the biggest perk of a basic 4 hour premium ticket is, in my opinion, the added pitch in the recline of the seat. You would think that you wouldn't be able to notice a small angle gain unless you are in a full lay back seat but this could not be further from the truth. It is rather surprising how just a few extra degrees of angle can make such a difference, but it does. Economy class, get to it. (Photo "Singapore Airlines Business Class" by Andrew Currie)
How to Get Upgrades
With the update of many airline's booking systems, there is only one way to get an upgrade. It is not looking nice at the gate or telling the check-in agent that you are going on your honeymoon. It is status, plain and simple. Why is status the only way to get an upgrade? United, for example, has a standard upgrade protocol that gives preferential upgrades to those of highest status first and descending down. The highest status may get upgraded at ticket purchase, the next level may get upgraded two days in advance, the next level may get upgraded one day in advance, and the lowest level may get upgraded on the day of the flight. As this is all automatic for members of the frequent flier program (silver status is as little as 25,000 miles), it is unlikely that any preferred seats will be available for non-status members on any flight. In fact, a seat on our flight in business class went unfilled as no status members were on the flight and it was not given out complimentary to a guest without a fee of approximately $170.
But for all travel hackers with credit cards looking for scoring a free upgrade, be warned; although airline credit cards are a great way to rack up hundreds of thousands of miles for free travel, you will not get status based on these. The only way way you can get this is to fly. For everyone else, try and seek out travel coupons or sales to get your business class ticket at a discounted rate!
Disclaimer: This upgrade was a perk from United due to my status as a Silver Alliance member (25,000+ miles, the lowest tier). It certainly made my 5th trip to Edmonton for the year worthwhile.