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, taken away much of their agents’ control and trying to make as much money as possible, 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. Buy a First/Business class ticket
Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a First or Business class ticket than it is to purchase a coach ticket. Always double check the prices and don’t forget to look at Premium Economy as well. Even if it’s not cheaper, sometimes airlines charge just a little bit more so it might be worth to spend the extra money especially if you factor in the cost to check bags, buy food/drink and assign yourself a decent seat if you have a economy class ticket.
2. Become a frequent flier
The easiest way to get upgraded is to become an 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 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 $500 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.
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.
10. Date a flight attendant or pilot
There used to be an old saying in the flight crew world “Marry me, fly for free”! You will have to fly standby and won’t board to the last minute but dating a flight attendant, pilot or airline employee is a cheap way to fly up front.
So there you have it. These are my 10 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?
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