Wide Body Traveler Seeks Credit Card for First-Class Seats

Dear Cashing In,

I am what you might call a vertically challenged, horizontally blessed person. When I board a plane in coach and eye a middle seat, men involuntarily flinch and women look away. My new job will call on me to fly more, so I think that I and the rest of the traveling public would appreciate it if I upgraded as often as possible to first class. Please help me find the frequent flier rewards card I'll get the (pun intended) widest use out of, please. Is a generic card like that Alec Baldwin Capital One card good? Do all airlines charge the same for first-class upgrades? Or am I better off sticking with one airline's card, at the airline where it's easiest to get the seat upgrade?   

- Y.D. Artoosh

Dear Y.D.,

Congratulations on your new job -- and nice to see you have a sense of humor about this dilemma. Let's see what we can do to line you up with a credit card -- and possibly an airline -- that will help you charge your way to the roomy seats up front.

Before we examine credit card options, you should know that if you're going to put in serious flight time, you should put some thought into which airline you'll be using first. A generic rewards card, such as the Capital One Venture card that Alec Baldwin's been promoting, is fine if you're going to be changing airlines constantly and just want to accrue some miles to spend.

If you can narrow it to one airline or a network with a shared loyalty program, you're more likely to multiply your miles faster and qualify for elite status, which is key to seat upgrades.

Elite members of Delta, American and US Airways can request upgrades when booking flights, using an automated booking process, but preference is given to elite members, starting with the highest tiers. Delta's website states that all Medallion (elite) members are "entitled to unlimited complimentary upgrades, subject to availability, on most published economy fares" in North America (excluding Hawaii), Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mexico. However, the availability part can get you.

On United, you now have to make it to second-tier elite status (by flying at least 50,000 miles per year) to make that request. Base-level elites (who fly 25,000 miles minimum annually) have to wait until check-in to request upgrades. Good luck with that if you're counting on extra leg (and seat) room on a long flight.

You can get around this, however, if you're willing to pay. Most airlines allow you to buy upgrades with a combination of miles and cash, but that can get expensive and policies vary. A seat upgrade can cost $350 and up to 30,000 miles each way, enough to book a round-trip domestic fare. Delta requires you to buy a more expensive economy fare in order to upgrade, but doesn't charge extra cash to do it, just 25,000 miles each way.

Again, these policies are dictated by airlines, not credit cards, and upgrade policies are not created equal. Since seat upgrades are your primary concern, you should take that into account when you choose the airline you want to build loyalty in. Then, you can focus on credit cards.

Most airline cards deliver the same miles-per-dollar reward for similar annual fees. The Delta Gold SkyMiles card, American AAdvantage Visa and the Mileage Plus Explorer all charge a $95 fee, waived the first year, and offer two miles per dollar spent on the affiliated airline and one mile per dollar spent on anything else. Delta Gold and AAdvantage Visa offer a 30,000 mile sign-up bonus; Explorer offers up to 40,000. Each throws in various perks associated with elite status, such as first bag checked free and a couple airport lounge passes per year, but no seat upgrades.

If your flights are going to be spread out over different airlines or you don't think you'll be flying enough to qualify for elite status, you may prefer a more generic travel rewards card, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards which charges a $59 annual fee (waived the first year) and earns two miles per dollar spent, on top of a 10,000-mile sign-up bonus after the first $1,000 spent.

Good luck with the new job and finding a comfortable way to fly.