5 tips for getting an upgrade to first class

Everyone that’s taken a long haul flight has at some point wished to be given a free upgrade, or maybe you’ve just taken a fair few short haul flights and wished that just one time the air hostess would beckon you to the front into business class. Either way, if you’ve been passed over for an upgrade you know how frustrating it can be – so what is the best way to get an upgrade? Is it really best to ask outright for one or just wait for it to be offered? Asking can’t really hurt, however it can make you seem overbearing and expectant, there are other ways to make it more likely that the airline will say yes if you request a free upgrade, or even offer you one without you asking. These are outlined below. 1. Check in really early or really last minute It’s risky. Check in early and don’t get offered it and you have to kill time in the airport; check in last minute and miss the flight and you’ll be kicking yourself for being greedy. However; if you check in first and there are upgrades available on the flight they may offer you the upgrades as you’re the first to arrive. If the flight is overbooked and you’re late but there’s room in business class or above then they might let you on there for the same price. However this only works if you haven’t reserved your seat in economy class on the flight already, and the check in desk are feeling generous as they could also just point blank refuse you entry to the plane. Last minute 2. Choose your flights carefully If you’re serious about trying to get a free upgrade then research your flight carefully. if you’re on a busy commuter flight at rush hour times the chances of you being given a space in business class are fairly low as in all likelihood they will be full. During school holidays economy class on flights to standard holiday locations are usually full but business class is fairly empty; if you’re travelling on these flights and you’re looking for an upgrade; there’s more of a chance you might get one. If you’ve paid a knockdown fare for the flight then it’s also unlikely you’ll be considered for an upgrade; flights can track where you’ve bought your ticket from and for how much, so if you’ve taken advantage of the last minute deal and got tickets to New York for 50 quid then it’s unlikely you’ll be a high priority for an upgrade. Travelling alone also means you’re more likely to be considered for an upgrade; they only need to find one seat in business class rather than two seated together. Aircraft windows 3. First class behaviour So you arrive at the airport dressed as if you’ve just rolled out of bed (admittedly it might be 4 in the morning, but still…) If you’re looking for that upgrade then you need to look and act the part. If you look like you’re used to sitting in first class with the rest of them then you’re more likely to be considered for it; if you look like you’re not really bothered then airline staff will assume you’re not and might not even ask. Along the same lines of dressing the part is also acting the part; being polite and remembering your manners without being overbearing is important; no one likes rudeness or pushiness, especially not during boarding. Expressing too much emotion (i.e. being sad or angry) is unlikely to get you very far; it can create an awkward situation for everyone involved and airline staff might mark you out as a difficult customer. However; if the airline has made a mistake (and by mistake we mean an error which has created a big inconvenience) then you could be considered for an upgrade by making a little bit of a fuss and pointing out the error- this does not mean shouting, making a scene and threatening to give bad reviews on social networks/travel websites, but rather politely explaining the issue and how you feel the problem could be rectified or resolved. Demonstrating flexibility can also be rewarded; so  if the flights overbooked and the airline is looking to move people on to the next flight, offering your seat may be rewarded by being given an upgrade. Finally, special meal requirements is a guaranteed way for you not to be bumped up into the next class; flights often don’t have spare meals for people who have specific dietary requirements so the likelihood is that they won’t have your meal equivalent in the other classes and so therefore you won’t get offered the upgrade. Luxury air travel 4. The old fashioned way If you know someone who works for the airline then this is probably the most surefire way to get yourself an upgrade. A lot of airline staff have the opportunity to put family or friends on to flyer lists which means that they can buy tickets for business and first class at a knockdown price. Even if you’re not on their list, if you can persuade them to put a good word in for you then you might find yourself on the upgrade list just by who you know.  Another more likely way to get an upgrade is by using Frequent Flyer Schemes (obviously this only works if you are a frequent flyer and not just travelling once a year on your summer holidays). The schemes are often quite complicated to utilise (specifically so people have to pay more money) but even being a member of these schemes may give you an advantage as it demonstrates loyalty to the airline who may choose to reward their customers. 5. Use your title Whether you’re a doctor, a judge or a diplomat, or maybe just a minor celebrity, using your title might just get you an upgrade. This has become less common in the last few years; however letting the airline know that you hold a title (okay, if you’re a diplomat you’re probably going to be travelling first class anyway) may put you in the running for an upgrade. If it’s on your passport then that’s great but letting the airline know ahead of time that you hold a title will put you in the front running; get your travel agent to give them a call and they might just offer an upgrade. Air travel So there you have it; how to improve your chances of a free upgrade. At the end of the day if none of these work you may as well ask – if you don’t ask, you don’t get! Images: Shutterstock Alexandra Howse is Events and Marketing Manager at Le Grand Joux. If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

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  1. Arguably the most likely way for Joe Public to get an upgrade is by joining the airline’s frequent flyer scheme and amassing points. Loyalty to an airline will probably count for more than anything.

  2. Great article! I was always wondering how they pick out the people for the upper classes… So I’ll put on some lipstick and try my best of the flight next week from KL to Hamburg :).

    Best regards from Bali,

  3. The best way (although extreme) is to die. Where do they put a corpse? Either wedged in the toilet or the front of first class out of the way!

  4. Was this article written in 1994? The only people who get upgrades are members of frequent flyer programs and your place on the list is dictated by which program tier you’re in and how much you spend.

    When those passengers are accommodated, then First Class seats are made available to coach passengers. But when was the last time a flight didn’t have 20 people on an upgrade list for 3 open first class seats?

  5. Do you think a bit of lippy would work for me too?

    What colour do you recommend?

    Rather this than the other (die) option… ;o)

  6. I have been upgraded many times to business and I have realised it is because:

    1. I travel alone 4 out of 5 times
    2. I am a Silver member of the British Airways loyalty scheme
    3. It always happens on really busy times.

    I honestly believe that those are the only three criteria that you would give you an upgrade… And they usually preselect the people that will be upgraded, so I do not think that it matters what time you arrive or how you dressed. Although, of course I might be wrong! :)

  7. I’ve been working in corporate travel for 15 years and am constantly in meetings with airline management and staff. Scott is absolutely spot on! Upgrades are prioritised to high spending frequent flyer members; Diamond,Gold, or what have you. Family or friend of an airline staff member maybe. Jo bloggs with a smily face? forget it. Check in staff and cabin staff have the power but are under strict instuction from management. Oh, and I wouldn’t waste a phone call or my time to the airline to ask to upgrade someone. Sorry to burst everyones bubble but it’s nice to dream.

  8. Hummmmm, I think being a elite airline member makes a much better business case for the airline (and the passenger). And of course, paying for it also works – every time.

  9. Everyone who says airline loyalty cards help are right. Especially now airline technology is now built in a way that identifies and priorities such cards. BUT. Often these decisions are left to staff who, usually at the last minute need to shuffle passengers around the cabin.
    If you are going to rely on loyalty card membership don’t bother unless it is of Gold or possibly Silver status. Frankly the rest count for little and are commonplace.

  10. These seem to have worked once upon a time, but nowadays airlines are even trying to charge for the front of economy cabin upgrades at the counter. Plus, “first class” isn’t what it used to be. We were offered a domestic first class upgrade a few years ago for only $75. Well that’s very reasonable, but somehow it sounded too good to be true, so we sat two rows back in couch and watched first class passengers get orange juice, nuts, and … nothing else. Hmm….

  11. Realistically, if you want to get an upgrade these days, you have to be an elite member of a frequent flyer scheme. That said, I have had a random upgrade on two occasions, and I long for the day it happens again! The first time I was travelling alone on a United Airlines flight from Miami to London – the Economy cabin was almost full, but there happened to be a spare seat next to me, and a couple elsewhere in the cabin had been split up. A member of cabin crew came over to ask me if I would mind moving so that the couple could sit together, and I gladly obliged. When the attendant came back, she said “It’s your lucky day! You’re going to Business!” The second time was only a few months later on a British Airways flight from London to New York – I was on a round-the-world ticket and had the luxury of being able to preselect a preferred seat. I made the decision to take a bulkhead seat for the extra legroom, but as it turned out, when I boarded the plane, the other occupants in my row had two tiny (screaming) babies. I didn’t complain and was ready to just put my earplugs in and deal with it, but I guess they had spare seats left in Premium Economy, so one of the crew offered to make me “more comfortable” (oh that sounds rude, I didn’t mean it to be!) :-)

  12. While I love this blog, this article has to be something that was submitted in the early 1980s and just published.

    1.) Not true. The gate agent will upgrade an elite traveler if there’s room in business or domestic first or whatever is in front of your cabin. Then there will be a coach seat for you.

    2.) No true. If the flight’s empty, there’s no incentive to upgrade anyone except elites who are automatically upgraded.

    3.) While being nice could conceivably result in an agent who is trying to close out a flight putting you in an upgraded seat, it is so unlikely that it’s barely a consideration.

    4.) Not true. Airline employees would lose their jobs. No idea what is even meant about these “schemes” but scheming about something is a bad thing so don’t do it.

    5.) Not true. See my comment in number 1.)

  13. The surefire way is when you get the opportunity to complete a survey (as boring as they may be) to do it.

    You can be as brutally honest as you want to on the survey, apart from the question that asks “would you recommend” which you need to respond to with a “NO”. This will trigger you in the database. Many airlines believe they can convert this response with a surprise and delight upgrade.

    As for Loyalty Programmes being the best place to elicit an upgrade, Im not so sure. Redemption of those points is almost impossible these days and the people the people that enrol in loyalty prorammes are probably treated the worst by the brand whose programme it is.

  14. Pretend to be young newlyweds. Seems to work some of the time. The clue is in the name however, so won’t work if your old and single!
    I agree with Ana, just pay the fare and don’t get embarrassed

  15. Great article. We are flying to Vancouver next month and I will have to try one of these and see what happens. Worse case, I keep the seat I am in, right? :) Thanks again for sharing.

  16. If you are hoping for the frequent flier option – you should remove all special reqrements , such as low fat or veggie meal from your profile. Staff will be reluctant to move anyone with a special meal as this disrupts / confuses cabin staff.

  17. Agree with some of the other comments on here – the best way is earning status and accruing frequent flyer miles! There are some great opportunities to upgrade for free or very little once you’ve reached status on your go-to airline. We use our 500 mile upgrades with AA for domestic upgrades!

  18. great article ! This is a professional and intelligent way of getting things easier.
    Having with you a frequent flyer membership card can make the airline staff judge easily in getting you the upgrade or at least in some other cases a good discount . This is something that happened last May -the airline staff got me an unexpected discount !!!
    Loyalty always helps!

  19. When flying in and out of Vegas I often allow extra time to get there and back. I purposefully book on busy flight. Then volunteer to take a later flight and always ha e been bumped up to first class.

  20. I was offered an upgrade while sitting in coach waiting at the gate. I asked them to give it to the young man sitting next to me. He was a Marine headed back to NC but in civilian clothes (which is SOP when flying). They refused saying they only upgrade military when they are in uniform! Really?!! So, in other words, they only take a serviceman up to 1st class if it makes the airline look good.

  21. These days the carriers are trying to sell upgrades to economy passengers. For as little as $50. The “members ” are pissed because the airline wants to clear some extra cash. Much to the dismay of elite “members”.

  22. I have flown well over a million miles and haven’t ever received an upgrade of any kind. I am a frequent flyer with several programs, have amassed thousands of points, I always turn up well dressed, honeymooned, funeralled, checked-in very early and very late, have asked, I’m pleasant, courteous and professional in my manner and in my planning etc. Not once, nada, zip, nothing. Once, a scruffy young man on his first flight was upgraded and he didn’t want it as he couldn’t afford it and didn’t know what it was. He wore a beer singlet, flip flops and some dirty board shorts. I’m all out of ideas and faith.

  23. Returning from Vegas once along with my wife and daughter we were upgraded to First Class on an overbooked flight which was a very good experience for buddy pass fliers.
    We were advised in our buddy pass journeys to dress up because of Airline policy which was Continental at the time. Interestingly enough my first flight as a teenager which I personally booked over the phone was a First Class flight out of pure ignorance. The airline rep. asked how would I like to fly and I said first class not knowing that Coach was available. I still remember the “looks” and questions like, Do you play basketball? 😎

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