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.


Galley Gossip: Switching seats, exit row safety & asking for upgrades

Recently on a flight a passenger took the empty seat beside me. He had an assigned seat that he left behind. If by luck of the draw I had an empty seat (true not paid for), then it seems to me that as a beneficiary of said luck that I have inherited certain rights. If the other guy had stayed in his OWN seat, I would have had the enjoyment of more space. His moving AFFECTED me. The only reason I point this out is because while my situation was benign, I know that sometimes these little irritations or frictions on flights escalate into real on board conflicts (fights), and while I am describing out a pretty subtle point here, I think that it is better for the flight crew to mediate between passengers using preventive practices (etiquette, courtesies, “rules” etc.) rather than letting passengers resolve them themselves, in those cases where we are dealing with seat assignments at least. – Trevor

I’m going to tell you what 90% of the flight attendants I know would say. You paid for a seat. One seat. Not two seats. Not an entire row. Just a single seat. So if a passenger wants to switch seats, that’s okay. The passenger is allowed to sit in “your” row. While at my airline passengers are free to move to any open seat available in their ticketed cabin, other airlines (regional carriers dealing with weight and balance issues and airlines who charge extra for certain seats in the same cabin), require passengers to ask a flight attendant before swapping seats. If the flight attendant says it’s okay, it’s okay, the passenger can move.

Just because you were lucky enough to to score an entire row to yourself does not mean you have “inherited certain rights.” Oh sure it’s annoying when someone who already has a seat invades your space, but imagine you are the one stuck in an undesirable seat and there are two open seats in the row behind you, wouldn’t you move? Should a passenger have to suffer just because someone else is the “beneficiary of said luck” when there is plenty of room for both passengers to stretch out and relax?

In the future, if you’d rather not sit next to anyone, try making your row a little less appealing. The most popular seat on the airplane is the aisle seat. Take it! Otherwise someone will plop down beside you. Then, after takeoff, spread out. Pull the tray table down and place something on top of it. Put a bag, coat, or book in the seat beside you. Pretend to sleep. Not many people are ballsy enough to wake a sleeping passenger. Try traveling with a packet of Kleenex. No one wants to sit next to the sick guy. Or better yet, travel with a child. Works for me. Passengers avoid kids like the plague. That said, if someone still wants to sit in your row, they can. So be prepared to move your things out of the way.Airlines are charging for exit row seats and I have been on two flights where they have remained empty and flight attendants required payment from passengers who requested to switch to them. My question is what happens in case of an emergency landing? Do you think it is safer to have an able bodied person willing to open the door sitting there? I can visualize pandemonium as people rush to the door. I think gate agents or flight attendants should be able to offer these seats to qualified passengers! – Laura

While it makes sense to have willing and able bodied passengers who meet the exit row criteria seated in an exit row in case of an emergency evacuation opposed to leaving those seats vacant, FAA does not deem it necessary. I could tell you why I think this is, but it doesn’t matter what I think, or what you think for that matter. It is what it is. My question to you is, if flight attendants and agents working for an airline charging an extra fee for the exit row could move passengers to the vacant seats for free, how would they determine which lucky passengers to choose without creating the same type of pandemonium? With all that leg room, the exit row is the most sought after row on the airplane! That said, I understand why some airlines, mostly discount carriers, are charging the extra fee. They have to stay in business somehow!

At my airline we do not charge a fee for the exit row, but our ticket prices are higher than most discount carriers and the exit row is often blocked just for frequent fliers. Nine times out of ten the most elite frequent fliers occupy the exit row and bulkhead seats. So while my airline isn’t charging a fee for the row, they are asking for something even more – passenger loyalty. It comes in the form of miles. So what’s worse, an airline charging a small price to anyone willing to pay for the extra space, or an airline who only rewards a select few? Wouldn’t you rather be able to purchase the seat than not even have a shot at it?

This summer my husband and I will be traveling internationally. (New York to Warsaw) We have never asked for an upgrade to first class. If the agent says there are seats available, is there a charge? Or just willingness to fill a few seats? Additionally, what is the “polite” way to request an upgrade? – Lecia

While it never hurts to ask, it’s highly unlikely you will get an upgrade to first class free of charge. Not with airlines losing money the way they are these days. Because so many people travel often, it’s unfair to upgrade one group of passengers over another without going through the proper procedures. Trust me, passengers are keeping tabs. If an agent were to upgrade a passenger for free, rest assured that agent would hear about it in the form of a complaint letter from another passenger who also wanted an upgrade. For an airline employee, upgrading passengers for free is not worth losing a job over. Remember passengers are miserable, flights are full, and agents are under a lot of pressure to get airplanes out on time, so if you decide to give it a shot, be polite, friendly, and honest about what you want. Agents have heard it all, every story in the book, from pregnancy to bad backs. An honest approach will only work to your advantage. Whatever you do, do not hover over an agent. That will only work against you. Simply wait until the agent has a free moment to ask your question, and then, after your request has been made, step away from the desk. The last thing an agent needs is added stress.

Photos courtesy of Matt Sidesinger and Rnair

Galley Gossip: 3 reasons flight attendants won’t allow passengers to switch seats in flight

Dear Heather,

What is the proper etiquette for switching to an open seat? Should I ask the flight attendant first? Is it okay to switch to another row if only one person is occupying the row?



Dear Rich,

Go for it! Switch seats. You don’t have to ask. But you might want to wait until everyone is on board before making your move. Worst case scenario a flight attendant might ask you to return to your original seat. Big deal, so what if you have to move back? Most of the time the open seat is yours for the taking – as long as it’s in the same cabin as your ticketed seat. Which brings me to the first class stowaway…

“Whenever I travel I always wear a nice suit and board last,” said the passenger seated beside me on a flight years ago. I don’t remember where we were going, but I wasn’t working so he had no idea what I did for a living. “As I’m passing through the first class cabin I’ll slide into an open seat. If the flight attendants say anything I’ll quietly offer fifty bucks.””And that works?” I asked, not sure what to make of the guy.

“Sometimes,” he laughed.

I told him what I did for a living. Then I added, “the money wouldn’t make a difference to me. I’d still send you back to coach.”

He looked perplexed. “Seriously? What if I gave you two-hundred dollars?”

I just smiled.

“Three hundred?”

Hey, I don’t blame the guy for trying. Just remember that if you do try to pull a fast one, we will find you, and we will send you back to where you belong.

Oh I know those first and business class seats are calling you. And yes, it is a shame when they go out unoccupied. But since flight attendants do not upgrade passengers once they’re on board a flight, don’t even bother asking. We’ll just tell you to speak to an agent. It’s the gate agent who has the upgrading power. This is because the agent is the one who has access to a computer in order to input frequent flier miles or credit card numbers that are needed to purchase a seat.

Every so often a passenger will actually score their own row. What that passenger may not realize is that they do not own the row. So if you would like to sit in an open seat beside one of these lucky passengers, be my guest. If the passenger complains or does not allow you to sit down, let the flight attendants know and we will inform the problem passenger that unless they purchased all three seats, the open seats are not theirs to keep.

Here are three reasons a flight attendant may ask you to return to your seat:

A PASSENGER PURCHASED TWO SEATS: While it doesn’t happen often, it does happen. I’ve seen it. Once. A single passenger boarded my flight carrying two boarding passes. Both of them were in his name. I didn’t even ask to see them, but he showed them to me anyway, in case any issues came up in flight. And he was a regular sized passenger.

A DISPLACED FAMILY IS ON BOARD: Flight attendants may need to use an open seat in order to move passengers around so that they can accommodate families who are not seated together. It’s not fair for singles, I know, but do you really want a kid screaming for his mother the entire flight?

BLOCKED SEATS: A seat can be blocked for all kinds of reasons. Missing seat belts and oxygen masks are two of the most common reasons. It doesn’t matter if the seat belt sign is off or how fast you think can run back to your seat in case of a decompression, the seat is blocked. Case closed. Go back to your seat!

Hope that helps, Rich. And here’s wishing you lots of open seats on your next flight!


UPDATE: Is has been brought to my attention by several flight attendants that not all airlines are created equal. Regional carriers dealing weight and balance issues do not allow customers to switch seats so freely. Also, flight attendants working for airlines with economy plus sections offering more room in coach, do recommend checking with a flight attendant first before moving to another seat, since certain sections are off limits to passengers in coach who did not purchase the extra space. And now with airlines charging for exit rows, bulkheads and aisle seats, switching to just any seat in your ticketed cabin may not be possible.

(Got a question? Email )

Photo courtesy of Kathy Stewart and Waketheman

Be sure to check out Episode 5 of Travel Talk TV, which features a Santa Cruz beach adventure; explains why Scottish money is no good; shows how to cook brats the German way; and offers international dating tips!

Business travelers will take upgrades over free food and web

If you were traveling on business, which would you prefer: free in-room internet access, frequent room upgrades or complimentary breakfast? According to a poll of Hilton’s HHonors program, the room upgrade hit #1, followed by the free grub and finally comp’ed web access. Barbara De Lollis, of USA Today‘s Hotel Check-In column, speculates that this is because business travelers want comfort and can convince their companies and clients to pick up the tab.

Reading this article made me think back to my years on the road as a management consultant, and to my surprise, my behavior aligned with the survey results. Room upgrades mattered most. I’d get a bit more elbow room. It wasn’t about status, importance or even being able to run laps around my temporary living room. Larger guestrooms – and suites, especially – allowed me to put more physical space between where I lived and where I worked while on the road. When workdays stretch past 16 hours, it’s important to have any coping mechanism you can grasp, and being able to segment off the work space sure helped.

While I personally detest the hotel practice of charging for web access, it’s never an issue when I’m traveling on business. The companies and clients for which I’ve worked have picked up the tab without a second thought. When on vacation, I regularly had my companies pick up my internet tab, as well, a small price for them to pay to have access to me while I was away. Likewise, clients and employers pay for food. And personally, I’m rarely thrilled with the food offered at free hotel breakfasts and when I travel on my own, I usually pay for a good meal than suffer through a free one. Also, I never really ate breakfast during my road warrior days, and I know I wasn’talone. So, a free breakfast is really … well … worthless.

What’s missing from the survey, unfortunately, is club-level access. When I was on the road all the time, this was my favorite amenity. It gave me a place to go other than my room, where I could get a drink, grab a snack and unwind. Hiltons definitely delivered best on club lounges, with the two most memorable for me being the Hilton Embassy Row in Washington, DC and the Hilton in London, Ontario. The former was comfortable and great for networking, and the latter had the best club-level service I’ve ever experienced.

Are you planning a mileage run? Four reasons to rush to the airport

There are only a few weeks left in 2009, and frequent travelers across the country are staring more intently at their mileage statements than Santa does at the naughty/nice list. The stakes are high: miss the elite cutoff, and a year of upgrades, accelerated check-in and other perks disappear. For passengers who see gold or platinum status levels within reach, year-end “mileage runs” can make a great investment. Pay for a cheap flight, even if it is just for a night or a same-day return, and use this benefit for the next twelve months on upgrades and services that would cost a fortune otherwise.

With the low prices airlines are offering these days to bring passengers back into the cabin, the return on your investment in a “mileage run” is higher than ever. But, it’s not all to the flyer’s benefit … there’s an upside for the airlines, too. They get loyalty.

Randy Petersen, founder of, a website for frequent travelers, told USA Today, “Whenever someone doesn’t requalify for elite status, they become free agents. And in tough times, airlines don’t want to gamble that some of their best customers will leave.” He puts the number of elite-level passengers at 7.3 million of the 210 million passengers who belong to at least one loyalty program.

So, the airlines are rolling out the red carpet for mileage runners. Here are four mileage run deals to kick around with the end of the year approaching.

1. Through December 15, 2009, American, Continental and United are doubling the elite-qualifying miles they give their passengers. So, a shorter mileage run goes a little further.

2. In the middle of next year, Continental and Untied are going to give each other’s elite passengers unlimited upgrades (based on availability) on domestic flights — and premium coach seats, too. So, if you hit the right status on either airline this year, you’ll gain even more for your efforts.

3. Starting in the spring, Delta will let you roll over extra elite-qualifying miles and credits you don’t need to reach a status level to the next year. So, you don’t have to worry about starting from zero when January 1, 2011 rolls around.

4. Delta is also adding a new top level — diamond — that will include even better perks, including free Sky Club membership.

For the frequent business traveler, especially, reaching a high elite level involves so much more than bragging rights. It defines your lifestyle for the next year — from how early you need to get up on Monday morning to your mood when you get home Thursday or Friday night. But, there are better measures to watch than up-ticks in frequent flyer accounts. My friend and former coworker from the road warrior days put it best: “The only thing better [than accumulating airline and hotel status levels] is watching them expire.” Yeah, nothing tops getting off the road for a while when you live that life.