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Frequent flier miles could be your ticket to first-class flights

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  • If you fly enough to earn elite status you have a better chance of an upgrade
  • You can also earn points in promotions linked to airline mileage programs
  • If you have to fly coach, ask for an exit-row seat
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By Alexis Lipsitz Flippin
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(LifeWire) -- Among the indignities business travelers face when stuck in coach is what travel editor Mark Ashley calls "the laptop squeeze."

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If you fly a lot for work you could rack up enough miles not only to get free tickets, but to also earn elite status.

"I recently sat in coach on US Airways and worked on my laptop, only to have someone lean back hard and fast," Ashley recalled. "My laptop screen was jammed into place, unable to budge, until the person in front moved forward enough to release the screen from the vise-grip of the seat."

What does Ashley, editor of the blog Upgrade: Travel Better, say is the best way to avoid a tray table to the gut? Get out of coach, fast.

If you're smart about using frequent-flier programs to upgrade to business or first class, there's hope for at least some greater comfort -- if not an on time arrival.

Become a frequent flier

If you fly often for business you could rack up enough miles not only to get free tickets, but to also earn elite status. Most airlines allow you to achieve elite status if you fly 25,000 miles or more in one calendar year.

Elite status on its own doesn't guarantee an upgraded seat, but you can work your way up the elite-status ladder by flying more miles. "The higher your status, the faster you can rack up bonus miles and the more chance you have of getting upgraded," said Ashley.

Plus, the more miles you collect, the better your chances are of gaining entrance to airline clubs and lounges, enjoying priority check-in and, with some airlines, getting in a fast lane at the airport security line.

Frequent buyers awarded, too

If you're a less-than-frequent flier, you can still get in on the elite action by earning points in one of thousands of promotions linked to airline mileage programs through a credit card, your grocery store, even your auto mechanic.

"There's never been a time in the history of these programs ... when you can earn miles from as many different kinds of transactions," says Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

Among the ways to accumulate points: bonus promotions, which give miles or points for the products or services you buy; online "mileage malls," the Internet shopping catalogues offered by a number of airlines; airline-co-branded credit cards, which generally give a mile for every dollar spent; and e-Miles, which you can earn by watching a company's online advertisements and answering some questions (you'll get 20 to 30 miles a minute).

Keep in mind that some airlines now have more stringent mileage expiration policies, stipulating that if your account has been inactive for longer than 18 months, your points will expire.

Find discounted fares

Look for discounted business-class fares on Web sites such as Vayama.com. Ashley also recommends the following:

• Try to get a deal through a consolidator (a wholesale ticket broker). Remember, though, that most of these tickets have stiff cancellation policies and other restrictions.

• Fly all-business-class, limited-route international airlines such as Maxjet, Silverjet or L'Avion.

• Buy a domestic "Y-Up fare," which will book you a seat in first class at a walk-up economy fare. Because so many people in first class use upgrades and are not paying full price, airlines rely on "Y-Up" fares to add more paying fliers in first class.

• Buy a discounted upgrade online or at the gate within 24 hours of the flight, if the airline offers the option.

• Use your frequent-flier miles for an upgrade.

Upgrade your layover

For business travelers who face long layovers between flights, access to private airline lounges and clubs can help smooth out a rough trip. Here's how to get in:

• Pay the day fare, usually $25 to $50 per person.

• Buy an annual membership. The higher your elite status, the less expensive it is.

• Join Priority Pass, an independent airport lounge program which gives you access to 500 airline VIP lounges across the world.

• Show your first-class or business-class ticket for an international flight, which gives you automatic entrée to lounges.

Surviving in coach

If you have no choice but to fly coach, you can at least snag the best seat available.

• Ask for an exit-row seat, which offers more leg room. Most airlines do not assign exit-row seats until the day of the flight (when they can see that you're able-bodied).

• Visit Seatguru.com, which provides detailed information on specific seats, including leg room and reclining options, for each type of plane flown by most of the world's airlines.

• Pick an airline that's known to have better-than-usual coach seats. JetBlue offers extra leg room in the first 11 rows -- plus, each seat has individual video screens with 36 channels of live TV. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Alexis Lipsitz Flippin is a travel journalist living in New York City and a former senior editor at Frommer's Travel Guides.

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