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First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade


Not such a long time ago–and a very good time it was, some say–a “surprise” upgrade wasn’t the rare thing it is today. In fact, if you traveled enough, it was almost only a matter of time before a check-in or gate agent slipped you a boarding pass with a very low row number–a golden ticket of kinds for many travelers.

But these days, when everything flight-related has a price tag, you’ll pay $99 for an “upgrade” to the front section of coach-and-four, just for the right to get off the plane more quickly( although in some cases it does also buy you an inch or two of extra legroom ). Many factors have created the present “zero upgrade” environment–like the airlines’ love of fees and surcharges, computerized seat assignments( which make it much easier to know where everyone is well before flight day ), very full flights, and increased competition for upgrades due to the degraded state of flying coach.

Just because your chances of getting an upgrade have gone down, you don’t inevitably have to give up. To learn how to get upgraded to first class for free, check out the tactics below. But first, let’s realize that, for many domestic flights…

First Class Ain’t What It Used to Be

Don’t get me wrong–when I am filing past the first few rows of seats on my route to the back of the plane, those big leather seats with folks already drinking wine in them have a strong allure. But those seats come with a cost, whether in cash or in miles, and on shorter domestic flights you don’t get all that much more than the folks in coach–wider seats, a little more legroom, free beverages, and the chance to committee a little earlier.

That said, some airlines have upped the ante in their first-class cabins on longer domestic routes. American Airline offers lie-flat seats in first class on some transcontinental routes, while Hawaiian Airlines has lie-flat alternatives on its first-class service to Hawaii. On these types of domestic flights, an upgrade is definitely worth trying for.

Related: 10 Ways to Get the Best Airplane Seat

The same goes for longer international flights. Much more critically than better food and drinks, first- and business-class seats in most international aircraft convert into beds that are actually pretty darn comfy. On a flight back from Tokyo in first class a few years ago, I was actually disillusioned when we began our final descent; when is the last time that happened in coach?

Okay, that’s out of the way; let’s move on to maximizing your( still slim) chances of an upgrade these days.

It’s Not Easy to Get a Free Upgrade

David Rowell, who writes The Travel Insider , notes that “it is enormously harder to get upgrades these days than it used to be. Well, correction, it is harder to get undeserved upgrades these days. The procedure for getting upgrades that one is entitled to has become almost 100 percentage automatic and hands-off, and with all flights being full in both cabins, there isn’t much’ wiggle room’ for people to exploit.”

And it is not just a combination of luck and automation that will shut you out of upgrades–at some airlines, it may be a matter of policy. “Most airlines state, in no uncertain terms, that their policies prohibit arbitrary upgrading, both at check-in and onboard, ” says Randy Petersen of InsideFlyer. “It’s a firm regulation, with no room for negotiation or interpretation.” Petersen concurs about the root cause: “This becomes understandable when you believed that upgrading is now often done electronically, rather than by queuing up at the check-in counter.”

These electronically issued upgrades are doled out by a number of metrics, whether to the highest-ranking elite flyer, or the person who purchased an upgrade-eligible coach fare, or the person who cashed in her miles. For more information on this, see 10 Ways to Get an Upgrade on Your Next Flight.

That said, since tales and rumors of free upgrades persist, here are some tactics to get you into that privileged group that seems to snag upgrades–or at the least says they do.

How to Get Upgraded to First Class: Tactics to Try

Some ground rules to follow if you are serious about getting an upgrade 😛 TAGEND Dress neatly.

Dressing well is not the ticket to ride some hope it is, but even so, you are not getting an bodyguard to the front of the plane if you are wearing cargo shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops. Most people don’t even want to sit next to you in this case, let alone upgrade you.

Related: What to Wear When Flying First Class

Ask politely and directly.

Randy Petersen recommends something as simple as “If you are upgrading passengers on this flight, I would like to be considered.” Inserting the word “please” won’t hurt you either.

Be on time, and have good timing.

Showing up late to request an upgrade when an agent is just trying to get everyone checked in and in the air isn’t going to work. Do agents the courtesy of attaining your request with plenty of time to spare before the flight, and when no one else is competing for their attention.

Be reasonable.

Being overly demanding or demeaning just inspires agents to pick someone else to upgrade if the opportunity arises. And don’t waste everyone’s time and good will if you know that you are a poor candidate. If you are traveling with your whole family, have a pet lobster in a enclosure as your carry-on, or bought a ticket for an extremely low fare, you probably don’t want to spend your energy demanding upgrades.

Related: 5 Things You Shouldn’t Wear on a Plane

Next, building it happen. Petersen offers the following tactics for getting a free upgrade 😛 TAGEND If the flight is relatively empty, your chances are slim.

Even though seats in business class may also be empty, the airlines don’t usually upgrade people for no reason. If the flight is full, your chances are better. Airlines carefully plan how much they oversell flights, and their inventory departments are not upset if people need to be upgraded to accommodate everybody on the flight. Therefore, on a full flight the airlines sometimes are forced to upgrade people. In this scenario, if you have a good story, you may be lucky. Remember, of course, that business or first class may already be full from prebooked elite-level upgrades.

Tracy Stewart, content editor at Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site , notes, “The odds are best for those traveling solo who are sometimes reseated up front in business to accommodate households sitting together in economy.”

Volunteer to give up your seat if the flight is oversold.

Tell the agent that if they don’t need your seat but they do need somebody to upgrade, you’ll be happy to volunteer for that. Small chance, but worth a try. If they end up needing your seat for someone else, ask whether you can be upgraded on the next flight.

If you have been inconvenienced by the airline, don’t hesitate to ask for an upgrade.

Again, airlines don’t generally upgrade people for no reason, but if they have caused you a problem, that may be reason enough.

Also, ask about availability at check-in, including information on international flights, where the check-in agents sometimes have more control over the seating chart. Then, if seats appear to be available, check in again at the gate. The final, “miracle” upgrades always happen at the last minute, when all passengers are checked in and any remaining availability becomes clear. Make sure you are within earshot of the gate desk, although hover over agents is not recommended.

Related: 10 In-Flight Essentials You Should Never Travel Without

How to Get Upgraded on a Flight: More Tricks of the Trade Ask your travelling agent.

My own travel agent has a relationship with certain airlines that let her book her clients into favor seats that are not released to everyone( usually toward the front of the plane, in exit rows and the like ). She can also insure upgrade accessibility fairly quickly, and many agents can add comments to your reservation that increase your chances of being chosen for an upgrade. Ask about these the next time you talk to your traveling agent.

Watch for business-class sales.

Most leisure travelers dismiss advertised business-class fare sales entirely. I is sometimes considered transatlantic business-class sale fares for around $1,100 at a time when it costs that much to fly coach. This will take some persistence and sleuthing, but you can sometimes fly in the front of the plane for less than the folks crammed into the back of the plane.

Looking for two-for-one sales.

If you are traveling with family or a companion, a two-for-one sale on first- or business-class fares could cut the cost of upgrading, well, in two. At current coach-and-four prices, these could result in a clean with respect to price, if certainly not with respect to pleasure.

Buy an extra seat.

One interesting tactic to find yourself some breathing room offered by Petersen might appeal to folks traveling on very inexpensive sale fares: buy two coach-and-four tickets. Say you find one of these $ 100 roundtrip fares to Florida or the like; the airlines that offer these usually make up the difference in fees for checked purses, movies, food, and other extras. However, if you don’t need headphones or to check a second bag, you can skip all those charges, and get yourself a heap of legroom for $50 — less than the cost of most premium seats.

If you use this tactic, it will be important for you to check in your second seat, as well as present the boarding pass at the gate–otherwise your seat could be given to a standby passenger.

In all integrity, your opportunity of falling into one of these free upgrades is slimmer all the time–even Rowell has stopped trying entirely. That doesn’t mean you have to; if you have had recent experience with astound or unpaid upgrades, let us know in the comments below.

What to Bring for a Relaxing Flight

Women’s Loungewear for a Flight

Shop the appear


Barefoot Dreams





Tote Bag

H& M


Ex BF Long Sleeve Tee



Nike Roshe One



Accessory for a Flight

Shop the appear

Carry-On Cocktail Kit



Medium Carry-On Bag



Cotton Sheet Mask



Run Away by Harlan Coben



Silk Sleep Mask



Men’s Loungewear for a Flight

Shop the seem

Crewneck Sweatshirt




Polo Ralph Lauren


Noise Canceling Headphones



Adidas Hat



Black Sneakers



More from SmarterTravel:

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight The 10 Best Flight Search Sites for Booking Cheap Airfare 11 Things Not to Do on a Plane

Editor’s note: This narrative was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

The post First Class for Free: How to Get an Airline Upgrade appeared first on SmarterTravel.

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