Buh-Bye Upgrade Phobia: Rediscovering the Joy of Coach Travel

I believe it was Matthew over at Live and Let’s Fly who first coined the term “upgrade phobia†– a condition of nervously worrying about whether your upgrade will come through, constantly checking your position on the list, etc. And I have admittedly been deeply phobic most of the time, which results serious disappointment when an upgrade doesn’t come through.

I’ve been fortunate to maintain an incredible upgrade percentage the past few years, primarily due to selecting off-peak times and days and/or only booking flights where I could confirm an upgrade at ticketing.

But with changes in my flying patterns and upgrades becoming harder to come by – in some cases simply due to the way airlines offer and process them – I will be flying coach a lot more often in the future.

Here I was yesterday (below) at number 17 on the upgrade list out of 49 with a fully booked and checked-in cabin from Washington Dulles to San Francisco:

a table with numbers and names

Upgrade List IAD-SFO

I resigned myself to knowing I’d never clear and definitely felt a little depressed about it… until about an hour into the flight. I sat there in my perfectly comfortable exit row window seat and gazed at the gorgeous horizon and setting sun and had that feeling of pure joy and relaxation I seem to have lost track of recently. Sure, I have always loved the view and experience of flying, but the game of needing an upgrade has been putting a veil over my experience the past few years.

It’s an addiction, really, and my flight yesterday reminded me how the resulting emotions the phobia brings clouds my true passion for flying in the first place – simply flying.

Flying is awesome and it, in and of itself, is what I love to do. Chasing the high of earning top-tier status and getting upgrades these past few years has really suppressed some of my natural joy.

My goal on United this year is simply to hit million-miler status (I’m 4,100 miles away after counting what I have booked, but not yet flown) and I’ll be dropping from Premier 1K status down to Gold for 2014. Upgrades will definitely be rare after that and I was happy yesterday to have been woken up from the (over-entitled?) behavior I’ve been demonstrating.

I hope to stay in this current mindset and avoid relapsing into old phobic behaviors. If I get an upgrade, great. And if not, simply love the experience of flying.

Related posts:

Looking Back at 2012, What’s In Store for 2013



  1. I can certainly relate. Sometimes when I’m up front across the ocean, I think “how can I ever sit in the back again?!” but when I AM in the back, in an econ+ seat with plenty of room for my long legs, and an on demand video system to keep my entertained, I realize that I’m comfortable and fine, and that as much as we fly TATL (nearly monthly) it’s wonderful to be up front, but it’s never going to be a constant, and I’m just fine in the back. But if I get an unexpected upgrade, boy will I be smiling – love it when that happens!

  2. With fewer upgrades for everyone, especially those of us who are low or mid-tier status, you get used to coach.

    Hey, its not so bad. There are nice people to talk to, great people watching during boarding, and the occasional empty middle seat. E+ (or equivalent) isn’t too bad, and flying still puts a smile on my face! (you know, when it doesn’t make me question my career choices :)…)

  3. You know, I had this same thought as I watched the sun rise (well, the colors of the sunrise anyway) from seat 31F on 767-400ER doing a redeye HNL-EWR this past Sunday morning. I decided to save the RPU and slum it in coach, intending to catch up on sleep Sunday night in my own bed.

    It was a beautiful sunrise, a great experience that, as you said, reminded me of the joy of flying. I then dozed back off for a few hours, woke up over Chicago, and deplaned some time later feeling surprisingly well-rested.

    Moral of the story? Upgrades are wonderful, but there is so much more to traveling that we sometimes miss in our relentless pursuit of the ‘big seat’!

  4. Thanks for this Darren. I’m often pretty phobic myself, and just relaxing and enjoying the flight would be much less stressful. I need to work on that, even on flights where I’m high on the list, so in my upgrade phobic mind, I still have a chance…

    The travel experience can be stressful enough. No need to make it worse by worrying about things out of our control.

    • @James: I’m getting back to the “travel is so much more” idea. 😉
      @Anne: Nicely put!
      @Noah: An empty seat next to you in coach is certainly nice – almost as good as F.
      @Gene: Also nicely put – so much more to traveling than the upgrade.
      @aadvantagegeek: Thanks!
      @Brad: I’ve spent far too much energy on the relative unimportance of upgrades for far too long. Glad you liked the post 🙂

  5. It’s very true – as a Silver I’m rarely even on the first page of the upgrade list these days. It’s back to being a treat when it happens, but I’m certainly never disappointed when it doesn’t. I have a window on the world at 35,000 feet.

    I’m flying higher and moving faster than any human living 100 years ago had ever gone. I get to see the Sun set and the lights of the cities and the roads scream to the Universe that the Earth is inhabited by a species capable of great advances.

    BUT – I’m still pissed that I have to wake up 24 hours before my flight to get a seat in E+…

  6. You can always find me in 21D on mainline narrow-body planes, especially the 757-200 where you have way more legroom than in domestic first class plus no one reclines into you.

  7. Great post–I admit, I still suffer from the phobia. My flying has been mostly transcons this year and my CPU clearance on these routes (usually EWR-LAX, SFO-PHL) has been 0%. Yes, not even one! Now I usually find a way into first by using confirmed upgrades, but eventually those will be depleted and I can only hope to have an attitude like yours.

    But coach isn’t bad–I flew in TK Y last week and flew 18K miles in SV Y in December. Coach is really not that bad.

  8. I’m a window looker. It’s the geography minor in me that always wants to see the topography outside, and try and figure out where we are flying over. I notice that I don’t do that as much when in First, as I’m too distracted with eating or drinking or what not. Since upgrades for me are so rare now, I’m getting back to simply enjoying looking out that window again. And I’m ok with that.

  9. Well said. Upgrades are great when they happen. I have received upgrades on occasion, and I’m in coach most of my flights. I can usually book an exit or extra legroom seat, which is almost as good as first class especially if the middle seat remains empty.

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