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News & Advice

Would You Leave Your Partner in Economy for a Free Upgrade?

In the latest entry of ‘Travel Debates,’ our editors ponder the karmic dance of abandoning your travel partner in favor of an upgrade out of economy.

Travel Debates is a series in which our editors weigh in on the most contentious issues that arise in-transit, like whether you should ever switch seats on a plane or if you should check your work email while on vacation.

The prospect of receiving an upgrade on an airline—even one that only takes you as far, for example, as economy to economy plus—is so appealing that it’s hard to imagine a reason one might decline. An upgrade is a gift from the fates, bestowed upon those loyal to the airline or karmically sound. Weary travelers can take refuge in the fantasy, even if physically, they may be bound for a narrow seat without legroom at the back.

But what if you receive the upgrade, but your traveling companion does not? Worse still—they get upgraded without you. For this week’s debate, we mine the caveats of such a scenario. Who would you leave in coach versus stay with? Is there a soul—your mother, your grandmother, your lover—upon whom you would bestow your upgrade? Below, editors Megan Spurrell and Betsy Blumenthal, senior visuals editor Pallavi Kumar, global director of audience development Lara Kramer, and editorial assistant Charlie Hobbs discuss.

Charlie Hobbs: Today, we are talking about what happens when you get an upgrade and your travel companion does not. Do you take it? Do you leave it? Does it depend on who the partner is? Do you give it to them?

Lara Kramer: It definitely depends on the travel buddy. For me, if it was my husband, I would not take the upgrade. One, I would expect the same in return. I'm really into fairness, so you better not go and leave me. But two, I would honestly have more fun with him in economy than alone in first class. However, that is not my opinion for other travel companions. I think for work trips and even friends, I would probably bounce to first class. Certainly if there was a group traveling together and they had other company. 

Pallavi Kumar: I wouldn’t take it—I would give it to my sister who I’m often traveling with or I would stay with her. I have a friend whose dad used to take the upgrade and leave the wife and kids in the economy.

Megan Spurrell: Why are they still married?

PK: He would always get upgraded because of traveling for work, and he would get it and sometimes maybe his wife, and then the kids would travel unsupervised. At like ten years old, they’d watch their parents trot up and get that better experience. 

Betsy Blumenthal: Honestly, nine times out of ten, I would give the upgrade to my traveling companion—if I was with someone who truly didn’t give a shit, I would take it, of course, but otherwise with this job I get to enjoy so many perks of traveling and this is something that means a lot to people. If I’m traveling with my sister, for example, she’s far more bougie than I am. My partner, Mike, is enormous—he’s 6’5” without shoes on, and when he sits in economy his knees are in his face. Of course I would give it to him. He’s really uncomfortable! But unless someone really didn’t care, I would give it to them. Of course, I’d also be more shameless with the people I know well.

MS: Gosh, Charlie, are you going to make me be the only one who says “Ditch everyone!”? Unless it’s my honeymoon, or my mom’s birthday trip, and the point is that you’re together for every second of the journey, I just can’t imagine leaving it on the table. I can’t imagine not taking it. That’s coming from someone who’s always in basic economy and feeling like I would do anything for the upgrade. I wouldn’t feel guilty, although I’d also try to get my partner up? Or maybe I’d send something back to them?

PK: They don’t allow that. 

MS: Of course not.

BB: It does really depend, I suppose, whether we’re talking about a continental or transcontinental flight. The latter, I’d be tempted to leave Mike in the back. But that would be really sad. He’s so tall.

PK: What about an upgrade for all of us? How hard is that?

CH: If only it were so simple. I had a question from Lara’s very first answer. What you didn’t mention is that you’re pregnant—would you expect him to hand over the upgrade under the current, special circumstances?

LK: I don't know, it just feels nicer to be together than to be apart—even though first and business are definitely treats to experience. How much joy do you get from free Champagne? I get a lot of joy from it. But at some point, the return falls. Especially if it's a long fight with your partner. And right now, I would have to hand off the champagne anyway. 

MS: That's such a nice perspective because I'm like: “Look, we live together.”

BB: I love sitting next to Mike, but it is so uncomfortable. And he also plays his Nintendo Switch on the plane when I'm trying to read, and I find it so annoying that I actually would love to send him up. Because I have only ever seen like 10-year-old boys playing Switch on an airplane in addition to my husband. Maybe I would act like it was benevolent when really it was also in my own self interest—twist!

PK: I’m thinking of those flights back from the eastern hemisphere where you leave at noon and arrive at 5 p.m. in the evening, where you don’t have to sleep all the way through. Theoretically, I’ve wondered or tried to switch halfway through. Is that legal? The answer is no, you’re not allowed to do half and half. And in those situations, my sister and I have given up and agreed to be together. I think we were coming back from Dubai when we tried that.

MS: There’s this idea of, like, where would it end? Can you imagine, there’s this big group of travelers and one of them gets upgraded and so every hour another one of them gets to sit up front? And because each one’s time is so limited they are all just cashing in on the free food during their slot?

CH: Is there a difference between leaving your companion for first class and leaving your companion to sit, perhaps even, a mere row ahead of them in economy plus? Would that feel so much like leaving the person behind?

LK: I’d do that if it was a sleeping flight, I would take one row up or an emergency exit. But if it's a daytime flight, that's when I feel like the rewards not great enough. I'd rather have someone to talk to and like have a drink with.

MS: An expensive drink, not a free drink.

LK: Yeah, I'd rather spend my lunch money

BB: Again, it really depends on who I'm with. If I'm traveling with Mike, if we were in a situation where he was going to receive an upgrade or one of us was going to receive an upgrade, I would give it to him for that reason. Not because I was trying to get rid of him but because I would like to think of myself as a generous spouse and otherwise he is just so uncomfortable. We have this trip coming up to Israel and we waited until a month out to book the flights. Now there's only economy plus middle seats, so it's going to be real bad.

CH: You’ll be praying for that upgrade.

LK: You’ve been awfully quiet about your own stance, Charlie.

CH: I’m with Megan, although I would give it to either of my parents. There is karma in how you move with regard to these things. In 2011, my grandparents planned this grand tour of Turkey where all of my aunts and uncles and cousins got to go across the country together. On the return flight, somehow my cousin—who I won’t name—is the one who ends up getting an upgrade into first class. On the way back from Turkey, which is an 11-hour flight! He must’ve been 14 at the time. And my granddad and his dad and his mom all took turns taking him aside and imploring him to give the upgrade to Grandma, who aside from being our grandmother also planned the trip. He didn’t give her the seat. But then, and I’ll never forget it, he got severe food poisoning. Everyone in economy was fine. But on the way back from the airport, we literally had to pull over on the side of the highway so that he could get so sick.

BB: Wow. We have another debate from many years ago about whether you should eat the airplane food.

CH: That’ll be next up. Any closing notes?

MS: I just feel like, of many of the little injustices of travel these days, one of them is that there’s never an upgrade. Is there any strategy?

PK: I always ask. You can always go to the counter at check-in, dress a little nicely, and ask after upgrades. If they have them, they’ll give them to you, especially if it’s weird times. A lot of the flights I take are from Asia, through Dubai or London, and they tend to have the upgrades.