Every time I check in for a flight, I secretly hope that a member of the airline will swoop in and dramatically announce I am being upgraded. So far this has happened a grand total of zero times.
While being upgraded is a much harder to accomplish and less frequent occurrence nowadays, there are still some tips and tricks of the trade that can help you secure that coveted premium seat.
Frequent flyers frequently have a better shot at an upgrade. (Photo: Robert S. Donovan/Flickr)
Many airlines state that their upgrade policy is set in stone, that it’s less a matter of choice on the part of ground staff and more about a computer-generated selection based on set rules and metrics. That being said, showing your consistent loyalty to one airline (or group of airlines) makes your chances of being one of the lucky few all the more likely.
By becoming a member of a specific airline loyalty scheme, and then repeatedly flying with that carrier, you build an invisible electronic reputation with them that puts you in a better position when there are available upgrades to be had. This is especially good for people who travel frequently and can build and maintain such a relationship.
“Airlines will reward their most loyal customers with seat upgrades,” says Ed Hewitt of IndependentTraveler.com. “They know these customers by how many frequent flyer miles they have racked up. You can also cash in your points or miles for a seat upgrade.”
Just ask (politely)
Smiling and asking nicely can get you far. (Photo: iStock)
Taking the direct approach in this situation seems like the last thing that would work. But that isn’t always the case. Being polite and direct with a smile on your face may get you further than you think. If there are seats available and you have asked nicely, you are in with a shot. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Fly during quieter times
You’ll be less likely to land an upgrade if you fly during peak travel times. (Photo: iStock)
Not only is the flight less likely to be full during noncommuter times, but there will be fewer of those pesky business travelers and their frequent flyer programs that get preferential treatment when it comes to upgrades. To avoid these peak times, consider booking your trip for the middle of the day, midweek, or on weekends rather than early mornings or late afternoons.
Dress for the seat you want, not the seat you have. (Photo: Getty Images)
While being dressed in your best suit isn’t guaranteed to put you at the top of the upgrade list, being dressed like a slob is a sure-fire way to destroy your chances. Shorts, flip-flops, and tank tops are all big no-no’s and will certainly catch the attention of flight staff — in a negative way.
“Always try to look presentable,” explains Claire O’Mahoney, an assistant manager at the online flight booking site Flight Centre. “You definitely don’t want to look out of place up in the front of the plane; that could annoy full-paying customers and make you feel uncomfortable.”
Smart jeans, a pressed T-shirt, and a blazer works for both men and women and will make you appear like you belong in first or business class.
“Presentation is always important if you’re hoping for an upgrade,” says Joe Brancatelli, who founded the website JoeSentMe.com. “It does not happen often, but dressing better does work on flights where the coach is full or oversold and the airline needs to bump people up after all the elites have been accommodated. I know a woman who got an upgrade to business class on British Airways after she agreed to put on the heels she had in her carry-on bag.”
What’s a birthday without champagne? (Photo: Getty Images)
Pulling the “honeymoon” card almost never works now, but if you are traveling on your birthday, and are flying alone, be sure to inform every member of staff you come across. You may well end up with the gift of more legroom and free drinks.
Exploit your injury
“I’m so sad and injured. I’d be so much more comfortable in first class.” (Photo: Thinkstock)
In a survey conducted by Skyscanner last year, almost two-thirds of airline staff admitted that they are more likely to bump you up to the front of the plane if you have a broken limb. This doesn’t mean go and throw yourself down a flight of stairs the day before your trip, but if you are suffering with some form of medical ailment that might impede your comfort during the flight, speak up!
You might just win the sympathy of the crew.
Use your title
If your name sounds important on paper, that might just be enough to get you an upgrade. (Photo: iStock)
You are more likely to get upgraded if you have an important title, such as judge, lady, doctor, or reverend. So when you make your reservation, be sure to use it. “My brother flies all over the world on business,” says Craig Moore, founder of MooreTravelTips.com.
“He is hard to buy presents for, so one Christmas his wife purchased a one-square-meter plot of land in Scotland, which came with the title lord of the manor and salmon fishing rights. He changed the name on his credit card and uses this title when booking his business flights. He has been upgraded five times to seats with full-length beds on trips to Taiwan from London.”
You can try to pay for an upgrade at check-in, at the gate, or even onboard the flight. (Photo: Corbis)
If all your tactics to snag a free upgrade failed, you might have the chance to pay for one.
If you booked early and managed to get a good price for your economy-class flight, one option may be to pay a reduced price, on the day, for an upgrade to premium economy or business class.
“Money always works,” explains Brancatelli. “Especially on overseas flights these days, airlines are getting aggressive about selling upgrades. Sometimes you’ll see signs at the check-in counter offering upgrades there.”
“Several airlines (Alitalia, LOT Polish, British Airways) often sell upgrades in flight now,” he says. Bottom line: Ask at each stage of the process — check-in, at the gate, even onboard at the beginning of the flight. You might be surprised at the opportunities that now exist.”
So if you are willing to pay a bit more money, you may be able to get the upgrade at a much cheaper price than the cost of the original ticket for that class.
Solo flyers are more likely to get upgraded. (Photo: Stalman & Boniecka/Stocksy)
Available upgrades are almost always seats situated on their own, next to an already occupied seat. This means that solo travelers are far more likely to be upgraded than couples or small groups.
“Traveling by yourself generally increases your upgrade chances,” says O’Mahoney. “Even if you are traveling with friends or colleagues, make sure you have your own booking reference.”
Now if that isn’t a good excuse to leave the kids at home, I don’t know what is.
If there’s a problem with your seat, politely mention it and you might get moved to the front of the plane. (Photo: Getty Images)
There are many reasons why a flight attendant would agree to move you from your allocated seat. These include a broken seat belt, a dodgy in-flight entertainment system, even a crying baby next to you. So it is always worth politely inquiring if you can be moved.
Admittedly, you run the risk of ending up in a seat right at the back, next to the lavatory, but in some cases the only available seat could possibly be the crown jewel 1A right up front. You never know.
“If there is a problem with your seat or seat belt, let the air steward know about it,” says Moore. “This also goes for the person you are sitting next to. If they have bad body odor problems or are a person of great size, they may move you up if the problem warrants it and there is no more space in your current area.”
Dealing with flight delays is also a bargaining chip that can be used to sway ground staff into making your life a bit better during your trip. If you have been inconvenienced by a delay, try explaining your stress to the airline staff. But always be patient and polite. Being demanding and bossy will never get you what you want.
Offer to take a later flight
You might be able to trade a few extra hours hanging out at the airport for an upgraded seat on a later flight. (Photo: Mosuno/Stocksy)
Making life convenient for other people is a really good way to put you in the good graces of airline staff. If a flight is overbooked and people are being bumped, offer to take a later flight. Staff may be so impressed with your generosity that they’ll do whatever they can to accommodate you more comfortably on your later departure.
“I once saw an old couple at the gate who were about to be separated because one of them got a seat on the flight and the other didn’t,” explains frequent business traveler Colin Johnson. “I offered gate staff my seat for the couple, and they bumped me to first class for my next flight as a thank-you.”