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More Legroom for Less Buck

Here are four strategies for scoring an upgrade on your next business trip.
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As the climate for air travel -- and likelihood for delays -- has gotten progressively worse, smart business travelers are always looking for upgrades.

The standards of service in coach or economy class, which many business owners and employees frequently travel on, "have reached what consumer reports would call an unacceptable level," says Ed Perkins, contributing editor to

SmarterTravel.com. "There's no legroom, the seats are two inches too narrow to accommodate

the average male American and there are rarely any meals served on a lot of the airlines. It's a miserable experience."

"Comfort aside, from a practical standpoint, any chance business travelers have to upgrade their seats during a work trip, the more opportunity they have to be more productive," adds Matthew Bennett, publisher of upgrade-strategy blog

FlightBliss.com. In business and first class, passengers have more room to spread out, open up laptops and be able to engage in uninterrupted business discussions over the phone, he says.

Keeping the business traveler in mind, here are four upgrade strategies you can try out for your next journey:

1

. Know which aircraft offer the best seats, says Bennett.

For example, say a business traveler is flying from New York to London out of Newark Airport on

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Report

. In this case, the traveler should be aware that Continental flies two types of aircraft between Newark and London: the narrow-bodied 757, and the wider 777.

"Right off the bat, people want to fly off the wide-bodied aircraft because it's more spacious, it's bigger and endures turbulence better," Bennett explains. "But what isn't obvious, and what the airline and sites like

Expedia

(EXPE) - Get Report

will not highlight, is that there are two different types of BusinessFirst seats on the aircrafts."

While the 777 aircraft has a business class seat that is 22 inches wide and reclines to 170 degrees, the 757's seat is 2 inches narrower and it reclines 14 degrees less.

"You have one airline ... and seats which

it calls the same and prices the same, and yet depending on which aircraft you ... choose, you're going to have a totally different flight experience," Bennett says. "It may not seem like a lot, but when you're talking about flying eight hours, 14 degrees is a lot of recline."

2

. Use little-known loyalty programs to net upgrades, especially internationally.

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One of Bennett's favorite programs is Cathay Pacific Airways'

Asia Miles.

Through Asia Miles, business travelers can use and earn frequent-flier miles on any one of Cathay's 16 partner airlines, including

American

(AMR)

and British Airways, Bennett says. In addition, in some instances, Asia Miles requires less frequent-flier-mile redemption than other programs.

"Using partner loyalty programs with lower mileage redemption levels is one strategy that can be very effective and very rewarding," Bennett points out. Moreover, if people combine that with a credit card that gives them 25% bonus miles, they've "got a marriage made in heaven," he adds. This way, travelers get more miles, and they need less to earn upgrades.

3

. When flying internationally, look out for premium economy class, which is more or less similar to U.S. domestic first class but is sometimes available for a far lower price, Perkins says.

In premium economy, passengers can enjoy "wider seats, much more legroom and usually better cabin service," he says. "It's not the same as a regular upgrade, but it's a fare that's a lot less expensive than business class, and sometimes not much more than economy."

4

. For businesses whose employees travel frequently, the primary long-term strategy should be to fly as much as they can on one carrier to gain elite status.

When an airline distributes upgrades to its passengers, it bases its decision on two factors: their frequent-flier status and how much they paid for their ticket, Perkins says. Those who are higher on the frequent-flier status and those who paid for a full-fare ticket stand a better chance of getting upgraded.

"Get to know the partners of the airlines, because sometimes flying on a partner airline counts toward status in your home airline's program," Perkins suggests. "Become familiar with that and decide which program will most easily generate the miles you need for elite status."

While the elite upgrades are a well-known path, Bennett believes more-infrequent travelers should be aware of what they're up against. Some airlines like

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

, he says, give upgrades for free. In this situation, "the lower-tier elites never have a chance because there are enough mid-and top tiers to give them out to," Bennett says.

If you do travel less, Bennett recommends trying for elite status with

United

(UAUA)

or American Airlines, where upgrades cost about $25 to $50 per 500 miles. "Because you're not automatically in line for these, it significantly cuts down people looking for them," he says, thus increasing the odds you'll be able to sit back, relax and enjoy your flight.