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Is it just me, or have the airlines somehow managed to make economy class travel even more uncomfortable than before? Have they squeezed in extra rows? I just flew from New York to San Francisco on American, and got stuck at the back, where the plane narrows, so it's even more crowded. I silently vowed to myself, "Never again!"

How can you avoid economy class hell next time you fly? Here's my best thinking on this topic.

Use Miles to Upgrade

With economy cabins so crowded and uncomfortable, and with coast to coast flights still available for $200 round-trip when there's a sale, I think the best way to use frequent flyer miles these days is to upgrade to first or business class, rather than to buy economy fares. Depending on route, the fare you paid, and airline, mileage upgrades "cost" as little as 10,000 miles each way.

Airline specials

From time to time, airlines have very good deals on business and first class. Just look under the specials section of your favorite airline, or at the Airfarewatchdog.com blog. For example, right now Continental has a sale on its very comfortable BusinessFirst cabin to Europe for holiday travel between Thanksgiving and January 11. Fares are less than half what you'd normally pay.

This sale is valid for travel over the holidays, specifically because that's when business travelers tend to stay home. Usually these discounted business class fares have more restrictions, such as 30 or 60 day advance purchase requirements and minimum stays.

Virgin Atlantic has a sale going on right now as well. For example, from San Francisco to London the fare is just $2,800 round-trip in their first-class Upper Class cabin over the holidays. That's less than half what you might expect to pay normally.

Use a Consolidator

Another strategy to is to buy first or business class fares from consolidators. 1stair.net specializes in low cost business and first class fares at savings of 50% or more.

Fly Midwest Airlines "Signature Service"

This airline has all first-class seating -- every row of the plane -- on some routes, all at economy class prices. And the food is great too. Yes, excellent airplane food.

Fly Airtran

If you're flying somewhere on their route network, Airtran offers very inexpensive confirmed upgrades to their roomier business class. Pay between $40 and $140 and you can upgrade from any full price coach fare at time of purchase. And as a special promotion, Airtran is offering first come, first served upgrades from any fare, not just full fare coach. Spirit Airlines also has a low-cost upgrade program called Spirit Plus.

YUP and QUP fares

On many domestic routes, most airlines offer what they call Y UP and Q UP fares. UP as in upgrade. These are full fare economy fares that can be upgraded at the time of purchase to confirmed business or first class.

Attain Upper Levels of Frequent Flyer Programs

Frequent flyers already know this route to a comfortable seat. Many airlines will award free or low-cost space-available upgrades to their very best customers, so it really does pay to fly often and to give all your business to just one airline.

Dress Nicely, Be Nice

A friend of mine was flying on Air Canada from San Francisco to Vancouver recently, and the gate agent handed him a first class boarding pass even though he had bought an economy ticket. He asked why he was being upgraded, and she told him, "Well, you're very nicely dressed and the station manager put you in first class." Simple as that. No, it doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen. Especially when flights are oversold or cancelled, airlines tend to re-assign their best customers to first class if there are no seats left in economy. These are called "operational upgrades" in airline speak, and you might find this FlyerTalk discussion of how they work informative. And if you're an upper level frequent flyer and there's only one seat left in first class but a lot of people with the same frequent flyer status are waiting at the gate for upgrades, it seriously doesn't hurt to stand out as the nicest, friendliest, and best dressed customer. All else being equal, why wouldn't they choose you over the others?

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and blogger whose website, www.airfarewatchdog.com, tracks unadvertised airfare wars and other fare sales.

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