Getting ready for a flight? We’ve written on how to navigate the airport with ease and increase your comfort during a long flight. But there’s one sure-fire way to make certain that those hours spent on an airplane don’t leave you feeling worse for wear: upgrading to business or first class.
Heck, short of teleporting, there’s nothing better than an upgrade! That lengthy legroom, those posh seats, and, best of all, the absolute serenity of an infant-free section all combine to create an ambiance that makes air travel almost bearable.
The only problem is the price—flying business or first class is appealing until you consider paying for it. “After all,” you think to yourself, “what else could those hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars extra could go towards once I land?”
Enter the near-mythical free upgrade. You’ve heard tales that they can happen, but these stories usually sound more like one-off strokes of luck, from someone who claims that they sweet talked the gate agent or, worse, snuck into the front section.
Unfortunately, those methods working are pretty unlikely.
For the most part, there’s no way to sweet talk or dress yourself up into an upgrade. The official word on the matter from almost any airline is that if aiport staff is looking to upgrade passengers on the day of departure, there is a process that they follow—which sees passengers that are frequent fliers of the airline benefiting from any empty seats.
In my own experience working for a domestic airline, upgrading anyone to first class for free was pretty much verboten. Not just frowned upon, but you could get in actual trouble for bumping someone up for free.
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That being said, I absolutely upgraded someone to first on one occasion. And several times to our business class. Which is pretty much the thing about free upgrades—they don’t happen until they do.
So, while there’s no for sure method of sitting in first class short of paying your way, there are a few methods that can increase your chances of receiving a free flight upgrade. We asked frequent fliers, flight crew, and travel industry experts for their best strategies for scoring a free upgrade:
1. Remember That Loyalty Counts
Sharon Trevelyan, founder of MyPootle, has made a business of finding the best boutique hotels —and gotten plenty of free upgrades throughout her travels. Her top tip? Remember that loyalty points can make a big impact.
In fact, even if you don’t travel regularly, Sharon advises that you join an airline’s frequent flyer program. That’s because airlines are far more likely to upgrade a loyal traveler—even one who holds a lowly bronze membership card.
However, be aware that the landscape of loyalty programs is changing. Instead of rewarding how many miles someone flies in a given year, more airlines are moving to reward how many dollars you’ve spent.
2. Pick Your Travel Time & Route Wisely
“Regular business travelers will nearly always score an upgrade before a holiday traveler; they travel more frequently and have more airline loyalty points,” says Sharon.
Not a regular traveler or big spender? Sharon shares that your next best bet to scoring a free upgrade is strategy—basically, avoid routes that are more likely to be packed with business travelers, since they’re steeper competition.
“Avoid early morning intercity flights and pick a time when they are unlikely to be filling up the business seats, such as weekends. And don't forget peak school holiday destinations when the economy classes are more likely to be full, and the upper classes may not.”
3. Check In Very Early or Ask at The Last Minute
Turning up super early, such as five or six hours before the flight, means that ticket agents aren’t yet busy, and have the time to manage the logistics of swapping seats and offering upgrades. Even if they can’t offer you a free upgrade on the spot, the price of upgrades drops significantly just hours before the flight. You can decide to purchase one for significant savings or ask for your name to go on a potential wait list.
Similarly, if you are very late, your seat may have been overbooked, which could mean a smooth move up, up and away out of cattle class. Just remember that you also run the risk of staying grounded, which is quite a gamble.
4. Be a Proactive Problem Solver
We’re not suggesting that you purposefully break your headphone jack or seatback screen in hopes of getting upgraded to first class—these problems are small potatoes and will generally just get you switched to another seat in the same class.
However, if something is legitimately wrong, such as the airline’s late arrival made you miss your connection or their computer system crashes, leaving you and another passenger double-booked in the same seat, airline personnel goes into damage control mode.
Just remember, this is the time to be cordial and kindly state your request, lest you wind up suffering through a broken seat or, worse, being moved to one in the miserable back row that doesn’t even recline.
5. Be a Good Samaritan
If you’re a medical professional who helps to stabilize a passenger, there’s a good chance that your flight crew will move you to any empty upgraded seats once the situation is under control. That being said, saving a life isn’t the only way to be a hero.
Flight attendants are put into all kinds of unimaginably difficult situations mid-air. Problems that need solving can be as small as trying to group a family that was accidentally seated apart from each other to calming an individual who has a fear of flying. Less often (but more visible) is when they’re attempting to deal with the occasional unhappy, intoxicated, or outright obnoxious passenger.
While your flight crew does their best to handle these situations fairly and quietly, things can go south quickly if someone decides to make a scene.
If you see an attendant attempting to accommodate the seemingly impossible, consider if you could help by offering up your seat or lending a hand. Especially in the era of instant sharing on social media, nothing makes a flight attendant happier than the chance to avoid a potentially awful situation—just make sure that you volunteer with the best of intentions.
6. Every So Often, Asking Nicely Might Work
Thinking about asking for a first class upgrade? You're not the only one—flight attendants hear that question at least every few minutes during boarding, though how it’s asked ranges from sheepish to demanding.
The problem with potentially upgrading a passenger is that, if the entire plane sees one person invited up to business or first class, every single other person then wants the same treatment.
How can you help them help you? It goes without saying to ask politely and discretely. However, also give us a reason that you’re in for some special treatment. Is it your honeymoon, birthday, or anniversary? Let your flight crew know! Even if you aren’t bumped to better seats, you might still be in for a special treat any way they can swing it.
7. Why Sob Stories Don’t Get You First Class Seats
It’s important to remember that airlines have rules. More so, that employees loathe to break them. When you ask a flight attendant to upgrade your seat on the sly, he or she isn’t just thinking about your comfort for the next several hours, but how they might justify the decision to a manager if needed.
That’s why your sob story, real or not, doesn’t work as currency—no employee wants to risk a reprimanding just because you’ve had a bad day.
8. What Can Help Your Chances of Getting a Free Upgrade?
Airlines are image conscious, particularly in regards to their highly visible first class section. While a gate agent or flight attendant isn’t going to upgrade you just because you’re dressed nicely, wearing sweatpants and flip-flops can certainly hurt your chances should they be considering it due to one of the above reasons.
Another tip is to fly solo since it’s much easier to upgrade an individual than a family with kids or group of four.
9. Sometimes It’s Just Easier to Buy an Upgraded Ticket
Not so long ago, a surprise upgrade wasn't the rare thing it is today. In fact, if you traveled enough, it was almost just a matter of time before a check-in or gate agent, or even a flight attendant, slipped you a boarding pass with a very low row number just because.
Times have obviously changed. There are many different factors responsible for the present "zero upgrade" environment, including the airlines' love of fees and surcharges, computerized seat assignments (which make it much easier to know where everyone is well before flight time), very full flights, and increased competition for upgrades due to the degraded state of flying coach.
How frequently free upgrades are doled out isn’t the only difference, either. Particularly on domestic flights, first and business class isn’t what it used to be.
Sure, those big leather seats look alluring—as is the sound of free-flowing wine. But, take it from me, it’s not top shelf. And once you’re up in the air, those folks in first class are stuck watching the same movies or DirecTV (albeit with free headphones).
On the plus side, one big difference these days that must be mentioned is that first-class passengers often avoid some parts of the slog through security and check-in; the way airports are run these days, shorter lines could well be worth more than bigger seats.
However, those first-class perks of smoother security and shorter check-in are long gone once you’re on the plane, which is why it’s worth considering just forking over the extra cost.
Bottom line: The easiest way to move up to business or first class is to instant book a business or first-class seat in the first place. Sure, if you pay for first class, that's technically not an upgrade—but if you keep your eye out for good deals, sometimes you can snap a first class ticket that costs roughly the same as coach.
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