The top 5 myths about getting upgraded

Business class. The promised land in the front of the aircraft with wider seats, free drinks, meals and checked bags. Who wouldn’t want to take the opportunity for a free upgrade once in a while?

Yes, it is possible to purchase a coach ticket, work the system and get upgraded to the front of the airplane. Is it easy? No. Is there an inexpensive shortcut? Not really. Contrary to many empowering articles out there, upgrades are a tightly controlled, regimented benefit that are doled out to only a few deserving passengers.

Many of the oft repeated tricks to sneaking up front have expired with new technology, prolific resources on the web and plain old common sense. So we’ve compiled the top five myths about getting upgraded to save you time and embarrassment at the airport. Read on for the details.1. Dress to impress: We’re well past the days when passengers dressed up for the pleasure of flying on an airplane. Any ticket agent, gate agent or flight attendant knows that people from all walks of life fly in business class. There are days when the Fortune 500 CEO wears a hooded sweatshirt and buys a first class ticket and days when the neighborhood plumber has enough miles to upgrade. Either way, if you dress nice thinking that you’ll be selected for an upgrade, you’re probably just going to be uncomfortable in coach.

2. See an empty seat? Grab it. Flight attendants have manifests that show which passenger is sitting in which seat and whether or not they got upgraded (haven’t you ever seen Executive Decision?). So if you happen to find a seat up front that hasn’t been taken and are able to slip in, they’re going to notice during the preflight checks and you’re going to get the boot.

3. Ask the flight attendant for an upgrade. Flight attendants have no control over who gets upgraded when – there always might be one last business class passenger coming down the jet bridge right before departure, so they can’t give away a seat. After the boarding door is closed? Maybe if you’re discreet, but with everyone watching, the flight attendant will most definitely say no.

4. Ask the ticket agent to put a special code on your e-ticket. This just doesn’t happen. Any request for upgrades are managed by a different system that’s independent of your reservation. If they add anything to your ticket or boarding pass it’s going to be SSSS.

5. Be charming and polite. While airline employees will surely appreciate your kind behavior, any deviation from the set upgrade process shows favoritism and is something that the agent could get nailed for. Shouldn’t you always be charming and polite anyway?

It’s important to remember that behind paid upgrades, the entire engine behind getting moved up front is fueled by elite status, the preferential treatment that one earns after flying a certain high volume of miles — usually over 25k. If you’re close or you think that you’ll get close to that limit this year, you should check out Gadling’s Guide to Mileage Running.

So the fact of the matter is, 90% of upgrades are managed by a computer system that automatically upgrades those who pay for an upgrade and elite passengers that worked hard to earn them. The other 9.5% of upgrades are handled by gate agents at the airport who sweep up any elites or paid upgrades that fell through the cracks. That remaining 0.5%? That’s your window of opportunity. Better think of a creative approach.