Let’s be honest. If money were no object, you’d choose the posh cabin with the big comfy flat-bed seats, free champagne and speedy exit over economy every time, wouldn’t you? But those luxury seats come with a hefty price tag that few “mere mortals” can afford or justify unless we know how to get flight upgrades!
After all, a first-class ticket can be four times the price of an economy ticket, so most of us are stuck with the grim reality of a crappy economy experience.
Ever sat in cattle class, green with envy, watching someone get an upgrade and wondered why it wasn’t you? Me too!
These tips on how to get flight upgrades have worked for me, all without me paying an extra penny.
Boost Your Odds of an Upgrade to Business or First Class
In a MoneySavingExpert.com poll, 14% of the respondents said they had received an upgrade, so it’s well worth a bit of effort to try to snag one. I’ve used these tips for years and enjoyed free flight upgrades, both on short trips and long-haul flights.
It’s fair to say though that it is getting increasingly difficult to bag a free upgrade. Airlines charge for everything today, and seat allocation is mainly computerised. Extra legroom seats and seats at the front of the economy cabin all come with a premium price tag, so your chances of a 100% free upgrade are shrinking almost as fast as legroom space in economy cabins. These tips can improve your chances, though, especially the first two!
How to Get Flight Upgrades: Before You Book
Here’s what you can do to improve your chances of getting an upgrade before you even show up at the airport:
Pay with an Air Miles Credit Card
Credit cards are THE game-changer and the way the travel pros do it. Air Miles credit cards help you rack up air miles quickly. You’ll earn miles every time you fly, plus every time you use your card. Plus – lots of cards have sign-up bonuses. When you’ve got enough miles, you can use them to get free flights, but you’ll still have to pay any taxes and fees.
SEE ALSO: Find the Best Air Miles Credit Card Deals
Join the airline’s loyalty club
Loyalty counts. The second most important tip is to sign up for frequent-flyer club membership with the airline you’ll be flying with, even if you don’t travel often, or you’re new to travel. Then remember to use your membership number whenever you book a flight! You’ll be among the first to be emailed about upgrade opportunities; when check-in or gate agents, or flight attendants are looking to offer upgrades, loyal customers are usually first on their list. It pays to be in the club.
Join a frequent flyer club and start earning miles. When airlines are oversold, they will look to upgrade their most loyal passengers first
Katherine Clark, Regional Business Development Director for TripAdvisor Flights told the Daily Mail
Network Like a Ninja
If you have friends/family who work for the airline, work it, baby! Shamelessly beg them to see if they can help you to get an upgrade. Airlines often give employees vouchers for family/friends, and it costs your contact nothing to share the goodies with you.
Book the dreaded middle seat
Flight attendants sometimes look to move passengers (especially solo travellers) to allow families to sit together, or to make a trip more comfortable for passengers in the less desirable seats. Booking that middle seat is risky, as you may end up stuck with it, but it’s an excellent strategy to try, particularly on shorter flights.
How to Get Flight Upgrades: At Check-In
Smile and be gracious
“Be nice to everybody from the moment you walk on airport property,” former flight attendant Carolyn Paddock, founder of the website Life in Flight, told Bankrate.com. “You’re talking to people who are decision-makers.”
Dress as if you belong in first class
Aim for a classy, smart-casual look, with a few well-chosen accessories that scream “quality”. You could still wear comfortable leggings/pants, but team these up with polished leather ballet flats, a longline top and a structured jacket or cashmere shawl.
A business suit isn’t necessary (not to mention uncomfortable on long flights), but it helps if you look smart. A stylish haircut and a statement necklace go a long way too.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: 8 Long Haul Flight Tips | Hacks for Surviving a Long Flight
Ask for an upgrade
Smile and say to the check-in agent: “If you are upgrading passengers on this flight, I would like to be considered.” Agents deal with lots of grumpy people; they’ll remember you if you’re polite and friendly.
It can make all the difference if you remember your Ps and Qs with a smile on your faceBob Atkinson, Travel Expert at MoneySupermarket.com
Make it easy for the check-in agent to offer you an upgrade. The early bird gets the worm. Instead of trying to get the attention of the agent while he or she is busy with other passengers, show up early and be the first one to ask. Your flight may have only one or two upgrades available.
James Teideman of Skyscanner told the Daily Mail
If passengers need to be moved between cabins for operational reasons, the airline will probably know this several hours before the flight. So, if you’re among the first few passengers to check-in, you have a higher chance of being chosen.
How to Get Flight Upgrades: At the Gate
Every time I got an upgrade, I was flying solo. Getting two (or more) passengers travelling together upgraded is very rare. If you’re travelling with a friend and you seriously want to bag a flight upgrade, book your tickets separately and sit separately in the departure gate. Gate agents often look for solo travellers to upgrade. Flying by yourself can improve your chances of an upgrade but might not improve your relationship!
Travel during peak times for economy passengers
Aim to avoid business/commuter peak time flights, particularly “red-eye” flights. Travel when the economy cabin is full, but business class is not to improve your chance of an upgrade. Think midday and midweek, especially during school holidays. If you travel when the economy cabin is not full, you’re unlikely to get moved forward.
Give up your seat
Airlines always want a full load of passengers, but people with flexible tickets often make last-minute changes/cancellations. To manage this commercially, they regularly overbook flights, knowing there will be “no-shows”. Sometimes this means there are more passengers than seats available.
If a gate agent asks for volunteers to give up their seat, agree if they will upgrade you on the next flight. I’ve done this several times. You get a fully expensed delay plus a much better trip! If no one else wants to volunteer, you’re in a strong bargaining position.
A riskier strategy is to arrive at the boarding gate at the last possible moment. If you’re a frequent flyer, the economy cabin is overbooked, and other passengers have already boarded, the crew might offer you an upgrade. If you’re a member of the airline’s loyalty programme, your chances of getting upgraded this way are higher.
How to Get Flight Upgrades: On the Plane
Check your seat
The minute you sit down, check that everything works properly. Check your seatbelt, armrests, footrests, recliner and tray table. If anything doesn’t work, tell a flight attendant immediately. Passengers in broken seats are reassigned (if seats are available) and that could mean an upgrade.
SEE ALSO: Hong Kong to London in a Broken Seat! Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300 Review
Fly on a special occasion date
Tell the check-in agent and the flight attendant if you’re celebrating your birthday or anniversary, or if you’re on your honeymoon. You’ll probably get a free drink, and you might get an upgrade too.
Don’t be a fussy eater
If you’ve ordered a special meal, you’re less likely to get an upgrade, as your meal choice(s) might not be available in the higher-class cabin. It’s so much easier for flight attendants to upgrade someone uncomplicated.
6 Ways to Kill Your Chances of an Upgrade
There are some passenger behaviours that are guaranteed to drive airline staff nuts. Don’t do any of the following if you’re hoping to get a flight upgrade!
- Share a crappy sob story. Save your time. The crew will have already heard every story under the sun
- Turn up without a reservation. You’ll be fast-tracked to the worst seat possible
- Be the obnoxious/high maintenance passenger. Nobody is going to reward a passenger for behaving badly
- Have a drink or three before pitching for the upgrade. Why not wear a badge saying, “I’m not upgrade material”? Same effect…
- Pretend to be someone you’re not. Use an honorific, if it’s genuine and enjoy the kudos (Doctor, Judge, Lady, Reverend etc.). If you’re faking it, don’t forget that the name on your ticket must match your ID!
- Loudly demand a new seat because you’re next to a screaming baby or a person of size. Your reward might be a seat reassignment next to the toilet! Plus, don’t be surprised if the flight attendant offers an upgrade to the passenger you disrespected!
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