How to Get Upgraded to First Class

How to Get Upgraded to First Class

How to Get Upgraded to First Class

Everyone always asks me how they can get upgraded into business or first class. If I had the fool-proof answer, I would be rich—really rich. Unfortunately, since the airlines have cut capacity and taken away much of their agents’ control, times have changed. No longer can you just flash a business card or sweet-talk your way into comfort. And with so many people holding elite frequent flier status (and so priority over you), it’s very difficult to get upgraded these days. But it’s not impossible. Here are nine ways to help you get upgraded so you can make that highly sought-after left turn when boarding:

1. Become a frequent flier
The easiest way to get upgraded is to become a low-level elite frequent flier with a particular airline. Many airlines give their elite fliers free upgrades or access to affordable ones. If you don’t fly 25,000 miles in a calendar year, then look into getting an airline credit card that offers perks. Some, like Delta’s SkyMiles Platinum Amex (offer is expired), offer 15,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQM) towards elite status. That means you would be just 10,000 miles (two roundtrip transcontinental flights) from elite status which would put you in the pool for free upgrades (when seats are available). You can also pay a fee to do an airline challenge (here’s a good post about that) offering, for example, elite status for earning 5,000 points within three months to elite members of other airlines.

2. Use miles
Hopefully, you have a lot of miles. If you don’t fly a lot, you can still earn tons of miles by applying to certain credit cards and using them for shopping, buying flowers, clothes, etc. Some offer up to 50,000 bonus miles for signing up, which is good enough for a domestic first class ticket (as an example here’s United’s award chart). Whenever I see big bonuses being offered with credit cards, I sign up. Then after I meet the required spending, and before I get charged the annual fee the following year (as many offers eliminate it the first year), I cancel it. It requires discipline, but I still have perfect credit; the key is to make sure you pay off your bills each month. If you can’t do that, then don’t get an airline affiliated credit card.

3. Get bumped
If you know the flight is going to be full and you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination, then ask the gate agent if they are looking for volunteers to be bumped. Airlines sometimes oversell seats betting that there will be no-shows, and so when everyone shows up and there aren’t enough seats, they offer compensation to those who are flexible and willing to get a different flight. Be sure to only take cash vouchers and not free tickets since the latter are heavily restricted and you won’t earn miles for using them. I usually will give up my seat for $400 but I always make sure I have a guaranteed seat on the next flight, which is hopefully within a couple of hours. If they don’t have a lot of volunteers then it’s a good time to ask them to sweeten the deal—like also throw in first class on the next flight. Delta did it the last time I got bumped (here’s that story).

4. Travel during off-peak times
The key to getting upgraded is to fly when the frequent flier business travelers aren’t. You can forget about getting upgraded during peak business hours during the week since they usually have those seats reserved. But I always have good luck flying on Saturdays, when most business travelers are home with their families.

5. Travel alone
With first class being so full these days your best chances for getting upgraded come with traveling alone or just trying to get one seat up front. Good luck getting your whole family or even your travel companion a seat with you.

6. Buy an upgrade
Sometimes airlines will sell heavily discounted upgrades at the last minute. Normally a seat in first class for a transcontinental flight will be a few thousand dollars, but if you are flying at an off-peak business time there might be some empty seats so the airlines will sell upgrades for just a few hundred dollars.

7. Book with a travel agent
Good travel agents (especially in the Virtuoso consortium) are routinely allotted a certain number of upgrades. This will not come free but if you book frequently via an agent they should be able get you up front.

8. Be nice and dress well
My number one travel tip is that passengers should always be genuinely nice to everyone they come across—from the reservation agents to the flight attendants and everyone in between. You will be surprised how far a big smile and just being genuinely friendly will go. Oh and it doesn’t hurt to dress well. No matter how nice you are, they aren’t going to upgrade you if you’re dressed like a slob or have swear words written across your shirt.

9. Bring a box of chocolates
I almost always bring two boxes of chocolates when I fly—one for the gate agents and the other for the flight attendants. And I never ask for an upgrade when I give them. I do it because I know how difficult passengers can be and most passengers treat them like crap. Even if you don’t get upgraded, I bet they will give you first class service.

So there you have it. These are my nine tricks on how to get upgraded to first or business class. And if you have no shot at getting upgraded on your flight, then here are my tips on how to get the best coach seat on an airplane and how to make your coach seat feel like first class.

Did I miss anything? What’s your best tip/trick on how to get upgraded?

Related: Do you have Econophobia?

Comments

  1. I’ll be trying some of these techniques on my trip to Italy at Christmas time (especially the box of chocolates). I’d dress well but I’d prefer to sit comfortably than look nice. I’ll usually wear loose clothing which is a lot more comfortable than a pair of jeans or dress slacks. Any tips on comfortable but nice looking apparel?

  2. Nancy Reid says:

    Happy to say that me and the hubs have cashed in on a couple of these techniques! We volunteer to get bumped and ask for first class seating arrangement on subsequent flight! We have been picked out of the crowd because we were dressed nice! I’m going to start bringing that box of chocolates you always talk about and see what it does for us! LOL

  3. Bring a box of chocolates! That is brilliant, mate. I really don’t envy the job of a flight attendant and, since I also work in hospitality, I know what sort of an impact small gestures like that can have. I’m jumping on board with that piece of advice next time I fly! Good one!

  4. Dress smart and usually Air France will upgrade you as will BA if there is room.
    Emirates bus superb. Soon to be like old Pan Am all they need for rtw is syd-lax-jfk

  5. #8 and #9 really? Going to unsubscribe from your newsletter just for writing those. That’s upgrade folklore and you should know better.

    • Johnny Jet Johnny Jet says:

      You’re missing out with that attitude.

      • I appreciate your advice. The guy with the ‘attitude’ sounds like an angry jealous person. Let him gladly unsubscribe, as you don’t need negative comments when you’re just trying to be helpful… and a response isn’t even warranted towards that person.
        Keep

  6. He’s a loser? He may not agree but that doesn’t make him a loser. Do only non losers fly in first class and that’s why he should fly in coach? Very inappropriate reply.

  7. Hi J.J.,

    Back in the old days I was a Gate Agent at Delta, but then again, the rules were different wau bacl then. But what you said about dressing well applys, the Chocolate thing I have to try…. (although nobody gave me anything as a Gate Agent to tell the truth). Anyway, Credit Card Churning for travel in C or F is the way to go!

    Bryant (the Airline T-Shirt Guy)

  8. Sorry, the good old times are over! Practically nobody upgrades you these days anymore, let’s face it , it’;s a Business, just buy a Business Class Ticket or an upgrade Period

  9. We were bumped up on Aer Lingus this summer. We had paid the 50.00 for the extra legroom. Perhaps there was a connection? We were dressed well.

  10. This is the kind of article I want to read to the final. Thxs! I travel easily 4-8 times a year, most of the time to between Costa Rica and Canada…so I’ll try to put that in action! ;)

  11. Excellent tips! I have successfully been bumped up to first class twice but am always trying to figure out how to make it happen. Sometimes its just luck of the draw but I will definitely be giving your tips a try.

  12. 10. Use ExpertFlyer.com Flight Alerts to notify you when upgrade inventory becomes available on your flight.

  13. Tip 8 worked for me! I was flying out of Heathrow to LA in the middle of a walkout by the counter workers for BA. I waited in a line patiently for 45 minutes and a very harrassed lady at the counter cringed and said: “please don’t hit me!” I asked her why in the world she thought that I would do that and she told me that I was already checked in & could have avoided the line. I told her that if I was going to hit someone, it would have been me. She replied that she wished all the other customers had that attitude. When I got to the gate I was paged immediately and offered an upgrade to Business Class from my Coach seat if I “wouldn’t mind climbing the circular stairs into the upstairs lounge”. This began my love of BA’s Business Class. It pays to be nice!

    • Well said, Been there, done that both sides of the counter…

      exgateagt

      There are three people in the world you don’t want to make mad: Judges, Police Officers, and Airline Gate Agents.

  14. My husband ( a pilot for SWA) and I always carry bags of M&Ms for the flight attendants and Starbucks gift cards. We often offer a coffee or other refreshment run for the gate agents especially if they are dealing with customer issues like an oversold situation or weather delays. If they decline we give them a gift card to Starbucks for after the storm. May not get us a seat but makes the wait more pleasant for everyone. Getting into business or first class is such a treat, but even if we only get coach we are still getting there and it makes us happy to brighten someones day.

  15. Ps: dressing like you are going to fly first class does help.. just saying….

  16. David Light says:

    Maybe I am just no lucky…I have tried almost all(not the chocolate one) and have never received an upgrade(even have flown in military uniform). I am getting ready to fly a whirlwind of 45K miles begining this weekend for the next 4 weeks on United. Time will tell.

    For Johnny Jet, how does one get access to the Airport Lounges?

  17. No. 8 is important in case of overbooking. When that upgrade is the ground staff’s decision, being dressed well is what matters most. The other first class passengers aren’t supposed to notice anything strange.

  18. I booked my flight to Toronto from dublin via LHR in premium economy with British Airways, I had chosen to pay for my seat; Upon arrival in LHR i was pleasantly surprised to find i was bumped up to business class. Never been upgraded in 13 years of regular travel and could never afford business class. Boy did that free champagne and 3 course meal taste good! Was like a little kid and my phobia of flying went out the window for sure! The only thing i could think of was that i was a blue Executive club member and the fact that i paid for my seat could have helped me get this unexpected treat!

  19. My entire family of three got a first class upgrade when our flight was canceled because of snow from Boston to West Coast at Christmastime. When I called to rebook I asked the phone agent online if we would “share the pain”. He said unfortunately it was weather and therefore they wouldn’t share the pain. But I’ll bet most people who called him weren’t that nice. when we showed up at the airport two days laterhe had upgraded us to first class. without us asking

  20. I remember the first time I got “bumped” and they gave me first class tickets. All I could think was “Why wouldn’t a flier want this??” From then on I gave myself an extra day to get home after every vacation. Flights are always packed and you never know.

  21. No longer the warrior of the skies I once was, but back then I found that ‘nice’ and well dressed got me much, much more than I paid for.

  22. Really # 8 and #9 perhaps you are stretching for content for your blog

  23. annie cooper says:

    Ummmm. #8
    and #9. Definitely can work under the right circumstances. I know this for sure because I have been a flight attendant for a very long time. When given the chance to involuntarily upgrade, I pick military first and then the folks I remember who were nice and looked nice during boarding. Someone bringing us a box of chocolates, would certainly go to the top of the list. Granted, the opportunity is not always there to upgrade, but it definitely is there some of the time. Fly safe.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I was booked standby on a flight (mind you, I had paid full price for the ticket- don’t know what happened) and I off-handedly mentioned that perhaps I could be placed in first class at the check-in counter. I got to the gate agent first to ask a question and then asked about my seat on the flight and I had been put in first class! I was dressed quite nicely, so that may have had something to do with it. I will definitely remember these tips next time I fly.

    • I was a Gate Agent for Delta (back in the dark ages) when FC didn’t fill up with Frequent Flyers. My advise is to throw out the M&M’s Packets to the agent(s) and thank them for their service and walk away. And yes, dressing very professional helps too. Also, if the flight is full, and you volunteer to be bumped, sometimes even if you don’t get bumped they will put you in FC if the Y cabin is full and F is not……

  25. We spend around 10k a month on our card (Amex plat ) I’m really just looking for a card that will make it easy to upgrade to first class from coach on long trips internationally , what would you suggest, ?amex is terrible in that department, making it almost more feesable to buy the first class ticket with cash.
    Thanks

  26. I’m going to sound like a snob but trust me-I’m just average. Nothing irks me more than sloppy dressed, loud passengers who pay for the last minute upgrade to first class. No one wants to hear your belches or fart or see you pick your nose and scratch your butt. Even economy doesn’t deserve that!!! To make up for it, my 14 year old son and I always dress well and bring treats for the attendants (usually Canadian chocolate or maple candies). I work hard to pay for my seats and like being treated extra well.

    • That will not work in my humble opinion!

      My point here is that Delta actually have a policy to put their staff and direct family’s free trip ahead of their loyal customers, both my wife and are platinum medallion for a couple of years and expect to increase our odd to upgrade in B-class in international flights, but I found the fact and confirmed by friends who worked for Delta that their direct family members have unlimited privilege to upgrade B-class seats, usually with their insider information and connections, they will have much much better changes to upgrade by us even with K and higher class tickets (which we paid hundreds dollars).
      So my conclusion is to use other airlines especially in international flights, in Asia use Singapore Airline or Eva airline and Middle East to use Emerates.
      You all still remember Delta’s old logo “We love to fly and it shows” …no more and Yuk!
      WC

      • For Delta and most US FF carrier programs, ‘unlimited’ upgrades are limited to domestic routes only (with a few exceptions such as JFKLAX where they are expressly excluded). There is no formal upgrade program for FFs on international itineraries which is why airline staff/families are put ahead of you. Carriers will also fly with empty seats in first/business. This is the perfect example of where Johnny’s tips would come in handy.

  27. I’m traveling with my one year old daughter from ORD to ECP. I am not a Skymiles member with Delta but I so wish they would upgrade me since I’ll have to nurse her if she gets fussy and I know they’re won’t be any room! She’s generally pretty happy but I feel bad for anyone who has to sit next to us if she’s hyper. Wonder if that would work in my favor? Probably not :(

    • No airline will go out of their way to put someone with a lap child in a first class seat, so that’s going to work against you. The best you can do is be really, really nice and ask the gate agent if he/she can put you in a seat with no one next to you, in order to give you a little more room. Don’t play the “I’m nursing” card because they may be on high alert, legally, to tell you exactly what their policy is on that and nothing more. Just be nice and don’t ask for more than you know they can give you. Same other rules apply. Dress nicely, use your best manners.

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