I think of it as a uniform, or more accurately, as close as you can get to pajamas without the fuzzy slippers.
On longer flights, I choose the coziest outfit possible, which is why I'm perpetually bewildered by passengers who put on an aviation fashion show. They board international flights freshly coiffed and painted; they wear pressed white linen pants, teeter on heels, or revive the three-piece suit.
The other week, taking six mostly international flights in six days, it hit me: These dapper travelers aren't just hoping to meet a romantic stranger at the gate. They're gunning for an upgrade.
As I settled into my seat, purchased on Student Universe and as far as humanly possible from the opulence of first class, I wondered: Is my comfort-first ensemble holding me back from a random promotion to luxury? Or is it utterly impossible for a lowly student to beat the system and get some undeserved perks onboard?
The odds are stacked against us. A tip sheet by CNN's Richard Quest on how to get upgraded puts it elegantly: ''You stand almost no chance of being chosen if you are a backpacking student in a holed T-shirt wearing sandals. Face it, no airline wants the 'great unwashed' cluttering up their precious business class beds, chitchatting with the CEOs."
Probably true. But that doesn't mean we great unwashed are utterly powerless when it comes to getting extra bang for our student buck.
Carl Seppanen of UpgradeBuddy.com, a website focused on helping frequent fliers get to first, recommends that students get on the track right away by joining loyalty programs on as many airlines as possible. Start now; it will add up.
Some airlines have partnered with credit card companies to tie purchases on plastic to miles. Since these have a higher limit, they often have higher eligibility requirements, but for students who have already established credit, or who can get their parents to co-sign, it's worth an application.
Even without the high-mile status corporate travelers enjoy, there's no harm in turning on the charm at check-in and with the gate agent. Maybe somebody will take pity on you -- or fall prey to your irresistibility. Besides dressing the upscale part, specialists recommend arriving as early as possible and putting those Psych 101 skills to work by studying the airline staff and looking for someone susceptible. Make sure there's no one immediately behind you listening to spoil the effect of catching a staffer in a kind moment.
''Be persistent," says Seppanen. ''Ask everyone you can. Ask the person who checks you in. Ask the person at the gate. Everyone has the ability to upgrade you. You have to just keep putting yourself out there."
You can also score a good seat in economy by getting more specific in your request than ''aisle" or ''window." Study the seating chart of a plane before checking in and ask by number for cushier seats, like exit row or bulkhead.
Diminish the competition by flying at unpopular times for business travelers: Saturdays, holidays, midday, and late evenings.
You also could go the opposite way, positioning yourself to get bumped from an overbooked flight. On popular routes, when airlines ask for volunteers to give up their seats, standing up can mean a free flight or future upgrade.
''A lot of times it's the business travelers who don't want to get bumped," says Seppanen. ''But if you're a more flexible young person, you should go for it."
To raise the chances of getting bumped, he recommends checking out online travel forums or the website www.bumptracker.com.
''It tends to work around holidays," says Kelly Monaghan, author of ''Fly Cheap!" and publisher of Intrepid Traveler, which published the book. ''You're looking at flights that are going to appeal to the most people -- flights that leave in the early evening, or after work."
On the ground at your destination, Monaghan recommends haggling for hotel rooms by asking for a student rate or other special promotion. Monaghan says desk clerks often have some leeway when it comes to giving someone a break.
''You could go into a hotel that you might otherwise not be able to afford and say, 'Look, I'm a poor student. Do you have a room here you wouldn't otherwise be able to rent because the TV's broken or there's a water stain on a carpet?' "
He reminds students, however, that this is their time.
''This is the time to go and travel on the cheap," Monaghan says. ''The older you get, the harder it becomes to do that."
At home abroad
Last month, this column featured dispatches from students spending semesters around the world. The numbers are in, and they are good news for fans of international education. The most recent numbers on Americans studying abroad, released last week by the New York-based Institute of International Education, show an 8.5 percent increase in 2003 over 2002. While Western Europe is still the most popular destination (the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and France are the top four), more and more young Americans are choosing less-traditional places like Eastern Europe and Latin America.
The institute's annual Open Doors 2004 report also found a 51 percent drop in Americans studying in the Middle East over the same period.
Irin Carmon, a student at Harvard University, is a researcher-writer for ''Let's Go Travel Guides." Taking Off, her column on student travel, appears monthly. She can be reached through www.irincarmon.com.