How to get an upgrade to first or business class (and how not to)

For some reason, the topic of “how to get upgraded” pops up on almost every travel site. And in most cases, the information provided in them is exactly the same as every other similar article. One thing they all have in common is that the tips are a mix of old information, incorrect information and complete lies.

So, we’ve collected some of those tips to explain what does not work – and most importantly – what does work.
What does NOT work?

Here are five tips that just do not work – I hate calling myself an expert, but I’ve flown enough (and been upgraded enough) to know the best ways to get upgraded.

Dress for the occasion

This is the number one tip posted in every “how to be upgraded” article. And it is the one that makes the least sense. Airlines don’t go looking for upgrade eligible passengers based on their looks – because airlines upgrade the majority of their passengers using a computer behind a desk.

When they decide to upgrade Mr. John Smith, they won’t call him up to the desk to check his attire – they check his fare class and his airline status and apply the upgrade.

Most importantly, airlines know that the best dressed people may not be their most important passengers.

I know many travelers that mean a lot to the airline, and usually fly in jeans – they probably spend 25x more on their favorite airline than half the suits on the plane. One of my best friends flies over 500k miles a year and looks like a slob – but at his home airport, almost every airline employee knows him personally , and would never consider skipping him for an upgrade just because of his looks.

Ask friends that work at the airline

This is another bogus one – your friends at the airline have a hard enough time getting their own free tickets and upgrades.

Unless your friend at the airline is the CEO, nobody that works there is going to get you upgraded. They may be able to supply vouchers for free drinks, or the occasional free pass to the lounge, but upgrades are a closely guarded commodity, and they’d much rather use their resources to get one for themselves than hook you up with something that could potentially cost them their job.

Ask a flight attendant

Nope – this is another that just won’t work. First of all, flight attendants are not allowed to upgrade you, and secondly – if there really are open first class seats after the doors are closed, the crew up front will prefer to keep those open to reduce their workload. The only possible exceptions are for broken seats that pose a safety hazard. A non-working TV screen won’t get you an upgrade to first, but a broken seatbelt may. Still, in those cases, the purser will usually check the manifest for a high-level elite, move him or her to first, then move you to that open coach seat.

If you were late because of a competitor, make the airline aware of it

HA! Do you really think an airline will upgrade you to first class, just because your connecting flight was late? The fact that you had a flight on a competitor means you are not 100% loyal, and no amount of upgrading is going to fix that. The theory is that the airline will treat you better, as a way of winning your business.

Well, this may work if you are a captain of industry, and determine the airline that your entire company uses. But trust me, if you are that important, the airlines have better (and far more efficient) ways of getting your attention.

Book with a travel agent

This tip usually comes from other travel agents, because they still feel that they are immensely important in the world of air travel. The idea behind this is that travel agents can add important information to your profile, letting the airline know that you are some sort of bigshot.

Problem is, that if you really are that important, you’ll usually fly frequently enough to get upgrades based on your status, and that a lot the information provided won’t be read by a human 99.9% of the time. The additional information added to your profile by a travel agent is referred to as “OSI – Other Significant Information”, and it really only worked back in the early good old days when a lot of ticketing was still done by hand. Nowadays, computers do all the work, computers pick your seats and computers know your elite status. Today, OSI information is mainly used when something goes wrong, and your travel agent contacts the airline for refunds or other changes – because that is the only time a human will actually read the information.

If you really are important (or potentially important) to the airline, your corporate travel agent can contact the airline and talk to their sales department asking what they can do for you. Just don’t consider this unless you are planning to move a million dollars or more of travel their way. In other words – that main street travel agent you usually use to book your once-a-year vacation won’t be able to do a damn thing for you.

What does work?

There are things that do work – and every now and then you may find yourself being moved up front.

Use the airport check-in kiosk

Even if you checked in online, always make a stop at the check-in kiosk and see whether it offers an upgrade. This usually only works up to two hours before departure, on some airlines, I’ve been offered upgrades for as little as $50. These upgrades are usually offered to anyone – regardless of airline status, as a way to make some more money before handing out free (operational) upgrades.

Cross your fingers and hope for the best

Operational upgrades are what an airline will use to move people around – if they have 100 coach seats, and 120 passengers, 20 of those passengers may find themselves being moved up front. This is cheaper for the airline than bumping them, and airlines will always try to fill a plane to capacity.

There is no clear set of rules for how you’ll get an operational upgrade, but you’ll understand that an airline will pick their own elite members first, followed by elite members from fellow airlines in the same alliance.

If you have no status and you are on a highly discounted ticket, the only way you’ll be picked is if you are really, really lucky. Yes – asking at the desk could work, but you are going to need the charm skills of James Bond to get their attention.

Some simple rules to remember – always make sure you are in the gate area, because those passengers being upgraded will need to pick up their new boarding card as quickly as possible. The process of moving 50 passengers around is a lot of work for the agents – so go easy on them, and remember that a nice smile is always a good tool.

Buy an upgrade

Most airlines allow their frequent fliers to purchase upgrades – others upgrade all their elite passengers when available. Unfortunately, most of these programs are only open to frequent fliers, so before you can start buying $30 upgrades, you’ll need to check out the next tip…

Fly a lot

I’m sure this will disappoint you, but flying a couple of times a year isn’t going to get you elite status any time soon. If you want to be considered important to the airline, you’ll need to fly a lot. One you reach 50k miles a year, you’ll finally hit mid-tier elite level, and could start seeing the occasional upgrade. Make sure you always enroll in bonus promotions offered by the airline, and start learning the tricks of becoming a frequent flier. If elite status means a lot to you, check out a “mileage run” – a series of flights with no other purpose than increasing the miles in your account.

Learn how to get bumped (and upgraded)

Airlines overbook their flights – they have this down to an art, thanks to their many years of understanding passenger dynamics. Sadly for the airlines, there are days that everyone just shows up on time, forcing them to bump passengers and rebook them on a different flight.

If you see desperation in the eyes of the gate agent, or they keep raising the price they are willing to pay, check with them whether they’d be willing to rebook you and upgrade you. There is something pretty cool about snagging $400 and a free upgrade, all for just arriving home a couple of hours later than scheduled.

Just remember – if you want to volunteer, make sure you don’t have any checked bags or they may try to find someone else.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

If you really want/need/desire to be up front, pay for it. Contrary to popular belief, there are people that actually pay for the luxury of a first class seat. Yes – it’ll cost you, but if you do some research, you’ll learn the tricks of the trade.

Find discounted F tickets, find airlines that have an upgrade policy for full fare coach tickets, or ask frequent flying friends whether they’d be willing to sell you an upgrade. Just don’t expect to find any bargains – most frequent fliers cherish their miles, and will ask fair market value for anything they sell you.

Do not fall for tricks on Ebay or other auction sites – paid upgrade vouchers can be fraudulent, and you wouldn’t be the first person to show up at the airport and have your ticket confiscated for fraud.