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.


Owner books entire business class cabin for scared pooch

Buying more than one seat for yourself on your flight is nothing special – some people are even forced to do it. But to book an entire cabin just for yourself and your pooch – that is one I’d never heard of before.

That is exactly how a lady dealt with her scared dog last week.

Apparently her boxer is scared of flying, and fellow passengers freak the little four legged friend out a bit – so his owner purchased all 16 business class seats on her Tel Aviv – Paris flight (and back). At $2000 per round trip, that equals a “mere” $32,000, or about the same as a decent size family car.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against a little extra love for pets, and I can understand that some people will go to extreme lengths to keep their poodles happy, but to fork over an additional $30,000 just to keep the poor thing from freaking out, is just too much.

Me? I’d be more interested in knowing whether I can get the frequent flier points for all 32 seats.

OpenSkies Announces Post Election Fare Deals

British Airways-backed upscale carrier currently flies two trans-Atlantic routes, JFK to Amsterdam and JFK to Paris Orly. A one-way BIZ class ticket on the Amsterdam route will cost $1050 if it is booked by November 21st. Fares to Orly will start at $1100 if booked by the same date. PREM+ (premium economy class) tickets start at $550 one-way.

Is this a good deal? It depends on how much you value your comfort. The PREM+ class seats are akin to business class seats on other carriers. They recline 140 degrees and offer 52 inches of leg room. Seats in the BIZ class recline a full 180 degrees. OpenSkies also offers full service including a concierge, food and drink, and in-flight entertainment.

Fliers who put more of a premium on price than comfort should be happy with the recent announcement that low-cost carrier Ryanair will be charging as little as 8£ once its trans-Atlantic service gets off the ground. Still, for what you get, you have to admit the the OpenSkies deal is a good value.

Ten annoying First Class passenger habits

I’ve been lucky enough to sit up front on the plane more than I deserve, and in those flights I have come across some pretty bad behavior from my fellow passengers.

Don’t think the worst offenders are the ones in the back of the plane, because it’s the ones up front that really can’t behave themselves!

“Do you know who I am”

Surprisingly, there are still quite a lot of passengers that equate first class tickets with royalty. They’ll make outrageous demands from the ground or cabin crew, and fully expect their needs to be met. The “do you know who I am” line is the best in the book, as I’m convinced it is an instant directive to the crew to ignore this passenger for the rest of the flight.

And just so you know; yes, the cabin crew does know who you are, and they also know your status and whether you are on a mileage ticket or an upgrade. So behave yourself!

The mobile phone screamer

Yeah, I’m on the plane now, yeah, I’m getting in my seat, yeah, lemme put my bag away, yeah, I’ll be there around noon, yeah yeah yeah…

The part the follows this usually involves me grabbing their phone and beating them with it. At least that is what is going through my mind. For some reason, passengers traveling in premium cabins tend to have louder and less interesting conversations than those in the back. I have absolutely nothing against someone making a last minute phone call saying goodbye to the folks at home, but the people who feel the need to document every single move they make, or walk on board pretending they are closing an important deal really push my buttons.The “my luggage is more expensive than yours” passenger

I have actually run into this kind of creep several times. They are the ones that stroll aboard the plane with $2500 luggage, and will remove any bags that get in their way. On a British Airways flight, I actually sat in my seat watching a lady remove all the other bags from the luggage closet, just so she could store her bag without any of the “cheap” luggage touching it.

When she was done, I got up and placed my rolling bag right back where it was. Needless to say that did not go down too well.

Step aside please – I am an elite member of this airline

Ugh. Nothing annoys me more during check in, than when someone tries to cut in front of me waving their elite status card from a lanyard.

My best experience with this was at LAX when someone actually pushed me aside claiming “she was a top level elite”. Of course, it turned out that she was not a top level elite, and the check in agent made it very clear that she was to head down to the regular check in desk. Chuckles all down the queue.

The bathroom is mine mine mine

Travel up front is usually quite peaceful, and with just 12 passengers on average, most of the cabin tends to sleep during the flight.

Sadly, as soon as the cabin lights are turned on towards the end of the flight, there are always some passengers who feel they are entitled to use the bathroom for the next 45 minutes. I’ve witnessed passengers carrying their beauty case into the bathroom and stay there for an hour.

The flight attendant hassling passenger

Let it be clear – I love flight attendants. And no, not in the way that begins with “Dear Penthouse”.

I’ve been on enough flights to know that they have a tough job, and I’ve seen them harassed by enough passengers to forgive them if they spill something or forget a drink order. But it’s the harassing passengers that really grind my gears. Spending $4000 on a plane ticket does not entitle you to annoy the flight attendant, nor does it give you the right to make unreasonable demands for 14 hours.

Some of the silliest things I’ve heard these passengers demand are “french fries” and yelling at a poor flight attendant to clean up the vomit mess they just made in the bathroom (really!).

I do not need to see you in your underwear

One of the perks of flying an international first class flight, is a set of fluffy PJ’s. Sadly, most US based airlines don’t believe in this amenity, but any top class foreign airline still provides them in almost any size requested.

Common courtesy would expect you to be discreet and pop into the bathroom for a quick wash and change. However, every now and then I still run into someone standing in the middle of the aisle, stripping down to their underwear and changing into their PJ’s. Of course, it’s also never a supermodel performing this strip tease…

Smelly feet on the bulkhead

You have to wonder what is going through someones mind when they get on board, take off their shoes, and rest their smelly sweaty feet on the bulkhead. Perhaps they think nobody in the cabin cares, or perhaps they are convinced their expensive ticket entitles them to being obnoxious.

I’ll never know, but it is one of the most disgusting things I see when I fly.

Bring the kids, but stick them in the back (and keep them there)

There is nothing wrong with bringing your kids on a trip with you. I’ll even forgive you if you got yourself into the first class cabin, but stuck the kids in the back of the plane. But please do not let that give you the idea that it’s fine to let your kids join you up front for dinner and a movie.

If the larger seat of first class means so much to you that you are willing to dump the kids in steerage, then you’d better be prepared to be separated from them for the rest of the flight. The first class cabin is not a social club.

I’ve had several flights where I was trying to sleep, only to be disturbed by a family having their usual Sunday dinner right next to me when they dragged their kids (and their meals) from the back of the plane.

I’ll sit here thank you very much!

I’m by no means an elitist, but sometimes I’ve arrived in the cabin and come across someone who I just know does not belong there. They are often pretty nervous, and are constantly looking around every time another passenger boards.

These are the seat stealing passengers. There are 2 kinds of seat stealers; those that know exactly how the system works, and those that are just plain stupid. The stupid ones don’t realize how the seat assignment system works, and figure the plane is like a bus; grab the first and best seat you can.

The other kind knows exactly how things work; they’ll grab any seat in the cabin, and when the real occupant of the seat arrives, they’ll simply grab another one. They’ll rinse and repeat until all the seats are taken (and they go to their real seat), or till the doors close and they relax in their new first class seat.

Thankfully, most airlines have a flight attendant directing people to their correct cabin, or doing a seat count, but the smart seat stealers will always try. After all, with a little effort they could be sitting in comfort instead of in the back.