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’Til death — or a first-class upgrade — do us part: Testing wedding vows at 35,000 feet

Aug. 08, 2022
19 min read
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Let’s just get this out of the way real fast: I’m not going to look like the best person in this story.

One summer several years ago, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I were flying back from Frankfurt, Germany. He had been on a work trip and had a business-class ticket while I, very much on a just-starting-out freelance writer’s budget and not exactly the world’s most experienced traveler, was in the most basic of basic economy. It was fine enough until, after a few hours in the back of a very packed, very old Boeing 747, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

We had discussed trying to get me an upgrade while at the gate, but I decided against it. It was only a seven-hour flight. How bad could it be? Just bring a drink back to me in steerage at some point, I joked.

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Four hours into a flight with barely functioning air conditioning, and with a broken entertainment system at my seat, I was no longer laughing.

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That shoulder tapping was from my doting boyfriend, who had come back to the bowels of this Boeing to let me know the flight attendant said he couldn’t bring a drink to me, but did I want some cute little Lufthansa chocolates instead?

Let’s just say I can’t describe what I was feeling at that point in a story for a family-friendly travel website. But I did make a promise to myself: If the shoe was ever on the other foot and I was offered an upgrade, I would never leave my man in the back of the plane by himself.

How quickly I changed my tune, though, when Delta recently decided to throw a tempting golden apple my way in the form of a first-class upgrade aboard a Boeing 737-900 from Boston to Detroit. All that was required for me to sell out my husband was 37 inches of pitch and four more inches of elbow room. "See you in Detroit," I blithely bid him adieu when I went to join my fellow first-class passengers as he waited with the hoi polloi at the gate.

But was I wrong to abandon my partner at the first instance of my elite status paying off? What did it say about our relationship? And what would my colleagues at The Points Guy say?

Plenty, it turned, with folks falling on either side of the upgrade-or-not-to-upgrade debate. So, for some more clarity, I turned to both relationship experts and my coworkers to help me parse out the do's and don'ts of upgrades with(out) spouses. Here's what went down and what folks had to say.

The couple in happier times when airline upgrades weren't a consideration. (Photo by Cameron Sperance/The Points Guy)

I sold out my husband for an upgrade

It was the morning before my connecting flight down to Memphis to review the new Hyatt Caption. I was traveling for work and on my own reservation while my husband, who decided to join me for the trip to my hometown, was flying on his own ticket. I (barely) have Silver Medallion status on Delta, and he doesn’t have any status with the airline.

But my fledgling elite status turned out to be enough to boost me from my assigned seat next to my husband in Comfort+ up to first class on a 5:45 a.m. departure out of Boston. In my mind, I remember clearing this with him, and hearing that he was perfectly fine with it.

But when I interviewed him for this story, my husband says — alleges, if you ask me — that I phrased it as, “Are you OK with me taking this upgrade? You have done this to me before, and this is me getting even.” That does sound like something I'd say.

Either way it happened, I took the upgrade. After we enjoyed an early breakfast in the Delta Sky Club (thanks to being cardholders of The Platinum Card® from American Express), we made our way to the gate.

My husband told me it was OK to board with the rest of the first-class passengers. Surprisingly, he wasn't even using the same tone my mom reserved for my dad when she'd tell him it was fine if he didn’t want to accompany her to Costco for Saturday afternoon shopping — when, in fact, it absolutely was not OK. Things were on the up and up with this upgrade!

My glee was short-lived, however, as I was quickly informed via text message from the back of the plane that I hadn't even looked up and waved hello to my husband when he boarded with the rest of the main cabin and passed by me. I would jokingly use the Mariah Carey "I don't know her" gif here, but I'd like to continue being able to sleep in my own home after my husband reads this.

I assure you this was me merely looking through my laptop case for a charger. I wanted to keep my computer powered up and myself productive in seat 1A while we whizzed across the Midwest as the sun rose over the horizon. It was not some signal that I can’t make eye contact with anyone sitting behind row 5.

My husband's look as I explained that to him (and I might have been giggling nervously) in front of a Chili’s at the Detroit airport was skeptical, to say the least.

Back to the flight itself, though. Soon after boarding, I had a pre-departure coffee in hand and we were pushing back on our way to Michigan. And don’t feel too bad for my better half sitting by himself several rows back: Because I moved up, he had an entire row to himself. Furthermore, it wasn’t exactly like I was guzzling Dom Perignon from crystal stemware in the Etihad Residence. It was a two-hour flight to Detroit before sunrise! All I got was a bag of graham crackers and a mimosa served in a plastic cup (I mean, it was first class after all — what’s the point in taking the upgrade if you don’t get a little fizz?).

All of which might have you asking: "If the experience wasn't even remarkable, why abandon your husband in the first place?"

There were no hot meals on my pre-sunrise upgrade. (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

I got this question a lot over the past few weeks as I related the experience to our friends, who feigned shock and pretended to have upgrade morality — though I suspect each of them would have behaved just as I did.

After all, I had spent years chiding my husband for his glamorous return from Frankfurt as I sat in the back of a Lufthansa jet more tightly wound than a Bavarian pretzel. How quickly I had become a turncoat, and for what? Pre-packaged snacks and a modicum of legroom? What a cad my Silver Medallion elite status had made me.

Did I briefly pore over my wedding vows like a constitutional law scholar to see if I had somehow broken our marriage contract? Of course I did. I mean, in the context of flight upgrades, doesn’t “stand by him through whatever may come” seem like a line that could go both ways? Sure, that can mean I shouldn't move to a better class of service on a flight. But shouldn't that also mean the spouse back in economy should stand by their other half with "whatever" automatic upgrade via the Delta app "may come"?

Leave it to a minister to keep things mysterious and vague at the altar.

Given my lack of clarity, I decided to bring in a few experts on marriage and etiquette to determine just how much of a scalawag I had actually been.

Relationship experts weigh in on upgrades

I could easily make this story into a 3,000-word game of “He said, He said” or, more accurately: “He said one thing … and then did the opposite.” But in the name of fairness and journalistic integrity, I wanted to poll those who spend a lot more time studying relationships and human behavior to get a read on what is the right thing to do in a situation like the Case of the Hypocritical Husband in Seat 1A.

Frustratingly, even the experts don’t seem to agree on what is right and wrong when it comes to air travel. Sadly, there isn’t an Emily Post guide to airline upgrades in 2022.

“As an etiquette expert, the polite thing to do is not to take the upgrade,” Elise McVeigh, an etiquette expert who previously wrote the manners column for the Dallas Morning News, told me one afternoon over the phone. “But my personal opinion is if your significant other says that they don't care and you really think that they don't care, then I would say do it. But if it bothers them, I would say don’t do it.”

Yes, there are a few things I could have done better, but it also doesn’t sound like what I did is grounds for a divorce. That said, I heard some horror stories over the course of researching this story.

I’m not going to name names, but let’s just say there is a now-divorced man somewhere in the world who waited until getting on the jetway to let his wife and three young children know he’d been upgraded on a flight from Honolulu to Tokyo and he wouldn’t be joining them in economy. I am told this specific incident isn’t what summoned divorce attorneys … but it didn’t help matters, either.

Another take is that, just as in life beyond the confines of a metal tube whizzing through the air, spouses should be happy for their other half to succeed — even if it means only one person gets a boost to the front of the plane.

“People don’t get divorced over seat upgrades,” said Nina Bravman, a New Jersey-based marriage and family therapist. “My thought on this is that if you love the other person, then you will be happy that they have a nicer seat than you do.”

My husband was doing just fine back in Comfort+, so again: The monster in our relationship is apparently me from several years ago when I began to fume somewhere over Iceland while he lived it up in Lufthansa business class.

Comfort+ seats on an Airbus 330-300 (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to upgrades, either. Be considerate of your traveling partner, but don’t waste too much time feeling guilty if they’re OK with the upgrade. Enjoy the perks. However, don’t brag about it, either.

“When you land, don't make a big deal about the fact that you were upgraded and they weren't,” said Jeremy Gilliam, co-host of The Millionaire Marriage Podcast. “Keep the smugness to a minimum, or you'll sleep on the couch when you get home.”

Others say welcome the “me time” that comes from an upgrade that results in one half of a couple being in first class while the other is in economy. Pretend like one of you is Rose in first class aboard the Titanic while the other is Jack in steerage — it’s practically romantic when you think about it that way, minus the freezing cold waters of the North Atlantic.

"Relationship etiquette would say to ask the desk attendant if there is another seat available in first class for your significant other to join you. However, if there is only one seat available, and it is offered to you, I say there is no harm in taking it for yourself,” said Ashley Hodges, a Chicago-based Wellington Counseling Group therapist who specializes in families. “You can always ask your partner if they would be offended if you took it and gauge their reaction if you should move forward with the transaction. It’s possible you and your partner may enjoy the alone time before a fun-filled vacation. Especially if children are tagging along with you.”

Hodges noted that on a recent trip to Vienna, Austria, she got an upgrade while her partner did not and that it “made landing in Austria and spending eight days together more enjoyable being able to have a little 'me time’ [prior to the vacation] up in the air."

As with just about any major factor in a relationship, communication is vital in making travel with a significant other go off without a hitch, the experts unanimously told me — including surprise upgrades. Terry Real, the New York Times best-selling author of "Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship," is one of those experts.

“You must communicate. When in doubt, ask,” Real said. “It's absolutely case by case. If you really want to get relationship points, give up your first-class seat and give it to your partner.”

Along with communication, it’s a good thing to pause and evaluate your relationship, Real added. This doesn’t mean taking out the abacus and calculating each time your partner has done something good or bad to you. But it does mean using common sense.

Maybe don’t leave your spouse with three kids in the back of the plane to fend for themselves while you’re helping yourself to Krug and caviar up front on a 12-hour flight to Doha. But don’t feel so guilty about your newly obtained better seat if your partner doesn’t care anyway.

"My message to your readers is: Just relax. Acknowledge that [travel is] stressful, communicate with each other and be forgiving," Real said. "Be forgiving of yourself, and be forgiving of your partner."

My airline journalist focus group

One can never be too sure about the do’s and don’ts of air travel, so I also turned to a highly scientific focus group (a.k.a. I contacted my airline reporter colleagues via Slack and text message) to get their take. The brightest minds in aviation journalism surely would back me up here, I thought.

To my surprise, some of them weren’t as in my camp as the marriage counselors or etiquette experts I'd spoken to.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Zach Griff, a senior reporter at TPG told me: "If my upgrade clears before my wife’s does, it’s simple: She gets the better seat. Since I travel so much for work, I don’t necessarily value the first-class seat as much as she does. Also, complimentary upgrades are mostly limited to short domestic and international flights, so I certainly don’t mind sitting in coach if it’s just a few hours. For longer flights, I’ll avoid this issue entirely — either we’re both confirmed and booked in business or in economy, but there’s no splitting up."

David Slotnick, senior aviation business reporter at TPG said: "If only one of us is going to get an upgrade, neither of us take it. Who wants to sit separately for a flight? If we didn’t know for sure that our upgrades had cleared, we’ve probably had breakfast or lunch already, so it’s not like the meal matters. Plus, if it’s a workday, we’ll both be working, so it’s not like either of us needs the bigger seat for that."

Speak for yourself, David. You’re a better husband than I am. Think of all the elbow room you get to edit a story in first class compared to a small tray table in the back.

Slotnick later noted there are a few exceptions to his upgrade rules: "My wife can sleep anywhere, including the middle seat of the back row next to the galley. I can’t. If there’s an opportunity on a short red-eye for only one of us to upgrade to a lie-flat, I might take it so that both of us can sleep and we can both be happier at our destination the next day. The other is an anecdote from my wife’s childhood when she, her sister and their parents were flying (back then, she wasn’t as easy of a plane sleeper as she is now). Typically, her dad would get an upgrade with one companion, while the other two would sit in coach. She and her dad would take it, since her mom and sister would always fall asleep on planes, even in coach, meaning the meal and such would be lost on them."

Ethan Klapper, senior aviation reporter at TPG told me: "When I’m flying with my girlfriend, I offer her the upgrade first with one exception: if I need to do work. It’s much easier for me to focus on working with my laptop when I’m in a first-class seat than it is when I’m in economy class, and she understands and respects that. That said, in the four years of our relationship (during most of which I’ve held top-tier United Premier 1K status) there has never been a situation in which she’s sat in the front and I’ve sat in the back. Either we both get upgraded together (the best-case scenario) or she declines my offer (she’s a big fan of that empty seat that gets freed up when I get upgraded). However, we came close last year on a flight from Liberia, Costa Rica to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). She took me up on the offer, but I then got upgraded right before the boarding door was closed. A win-win."

I decided to round out my focus group with Brian Sumers, an airline industry expert and former colleague of mine. I initially reached out to him to get his take on whether or not I was some sort of marital goblin, and he assured me I was no monster, but told me to give him a call to discuss it further.

Sumers, who is an editor-at-large at Skift, agreed it is hard to pass up an upgrade. If you have airline status, no matter if it’s as low as mine is with Delta or as high as his is with United, you want to see the efforts of your loyalty pay off.

On a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with his now-wife early in their courtship, Brian got an upgrade. His new girlfriend did not. He offered the upgrade to her, and she didn’t take him up on it. He eventually passed his first-class seat along to the woman sitting next to his girlfriend, so the couple could fly together.

Eleven years later, Sumers is now married to the woman he forwent the upgrade for, and they have two children. Whenever the family travels together and there is an upgrade, one parent and a child will go up front and the other two will stick to their original seats.

Above all, Sumers says to remember that no upgrade is worth marital discord.

“The more you fly and the more you do this, you kind of realize that what's happening in business class or first class — unless it's like a flatbed seat and you're flying internationally — nothing that amazing happens on the other side of the curtain,” he said.

My husband weighs in

Delta's A220 first class seating (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

I’m going to close here by giving the potentially aggrieved party in my tale, my husband, his say. After receiving various forms of “I raised you better than this” and “How could you do this to my precious Parker?” from my mother over the phone over the last few weeks, I figured I should actually ask “Precious Parker” for his take.

“I thought it was OK you took the upgrade,” Parker told me the other day over coffee before narrowing his eyes and adding, "but I didn’t expect you to not acknowledge me when I got on the plane. I would have liked you to at least offer up a little wave as I walked by.”

Again:

I!

Was!

Looking!

For!

A!

Laptop!

Charger!

Of course, I just smiled and apologized. Like my friend Brian told me, no upgrade is worth marital discord.

I don’t think Parker is losing much sleep over this, which makes things significantly less awkward in the lead-up to our third wedding anniversary next month.

“In all reality, I didn’t have an issue with it. It would have been one thing if you hadn’t talked to me before and just plopped down in first class,” he said. “But we chatted before, so I was fine with it. But, I mean, I’ll still hold this over your head because it doesn’t take much to rile you up.” How well he knows me.

As demonic marital luck would have it, I got upgraded again on our flight back from Memphis while my husband was marooned in economy. Come on, Delta, why are you interfering with my marriage like this? There are some flights between Boston and New York where I’m lucky to get a bottle of water, and now you’re handing out first class upgrades like Biscoff cookies?

Perhaps sensing “Precious Parker’s” easygoing attitude — and my stress level — would only go so far, a lovely customer service rep at Delta took pity on my plight (I might have begged a little by saying, "You’ve gotta help me somehow get my economy seat back on this oversold flight!”) and upgraded us both to first class on the way home, which was much more enjoyable for both Parker and for me.

What would you have done in this situation? Or, what have you already done when you cleared the upgrade list, but a loved one didn't? I'd love to hear from you for a follow-up. Reach out to me with your tales at cameron.sperance@thepointsguy.com.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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