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First class for free: How to get an airline upgrade

There's little wriggle room for upgrades these days, thanks to airlines' love of fees and surcharges, computerized seat assignments, jammed flights and more people wanting out of cramped coach.
Image: First-class flying
Flying first class brings out the smiles. But getting the upgrade without breaking out the credit card is becoming a trick that Houdini would have trouble with.Qantas A380
/ Source: Independent Traveler

Not such a long time ago — and a very good time it was, some say — a "surprise" upgrade wasn't the rare thing it is today. In fact, if you traveled enough, it was almost just a matter of time before a check-in or gate agent, or even a flight attendant, slipped you a boarding pass with a very low row number — a golden ticket of sorts for many travelers.

Certainly it wasn't all chance that brought first-class upgrades floating one's way, and a heavy battery of hard and soft tactics arose to increase your chances. Dress neatly, speak politely, fly the same airline regularly, inquire when offering your frequent flier number to the telephone booking person, stand a little tall at check-in if you can (for the tall-person sympathy upgrade), volunteer to give up your economy seat so a family might sit together, volunteer to be bumped on an overbooked flight.

But these days, when everything flight-related has a price tag, you'll pay $99 for an "upgrade" to the front section of coach, just for the right to get off the plane more quickly (although in some cases it does admittedly buy you an inch or so of extra legroom — check out our article on "Airline perks worth paying for").

Many factors have created the present "zero upgrade" environment — like the airlines' love of fees and surcharges, computerized seat assignments (which make it much easier to know where everyone is well before flight time), very full flights and increased competition for upgrades due to the degraded state of flying coach.

Just because your chances of getting an upgrade have gone down, you don't necessarily have to give up. But first, let's realize that, for many domestic flights...

First class ain't what it used to be
Don't get me wrong — when I am filing past the first few rows of seats on my way to the back of the plane, those big leather seats with folks already drinking wine in them have a strong allure. But those seats come with a cost, whether in cash or in miles, and you don't get all that much more than the folks in coach — it's usually the same meals, albeit for "free," the same headphones with the same movies or DirecTV, and the same limited seat incline.

(On the plus side, one big difference these days that must be mentioned is that first-class passengers often avoid some parts of the slog through security and check-in; the way airports are run these days, shorter lines could well be worth more than bigger seats.)

For international flights, you are talking about an entirely different situation. Much more critically than better food and drinks, first- and business-class seats in most international aircraft convert into beds that are actually pretty darn comfortable. On a flight back from Tokyo in first class a few years ago, I was actually disappointed when we began our final descent; when is the last time that happened in coach?

Okay, that's out of the way; let's move on to maximizing your (still slim) chances of an upgrade these days.

It ain't easy getting upgraded
David Rowell, who writes The Travel Insider, notes that "it is enormously harder to get upgrades these days than it used to be. Well, correction, it is harder to get undeserved upgrades these days. The procedure for getting upgrades that one is entitled to has become almost 100 percent automatic and hands-off, and with all flights being full in both cabins, there isn't much 'wiggle room' for people to exploit."

And it is not just a combination of luck and automation that will shut you out of upgrades — at some airlines, it may be a matter of policy. "Most airlines state, in no uncertain terms, that their policies prohibit arbitrary upgrading, both at check-in and onboard," says Randy Petersen of InsideFlyer. "It's a firm rule, with no room for negotiation or interpretation." Petersen agrees about the root cause: "This becomes understandable when you consider that upgrading is now often done electronically, rather than by queuing up at the check-in counter."

These electronically issued upgrades are doled out by a number of metrics, whether to the highest-ranking elite flier, or the person who purchased an upgrade-eligible coach fare, or the person who cashed in her miles.

That said, since stories and rumors of free upgrades persist, here are some tactics to get you into that privileged group that seems to snag upgrades — or at least says they do.

Dress well
Some ground rules to follow if you are serious about getting an upgrade: Dress neatly. Dressing well is not the ticket to ride some hope it is, but even so you are not getting an escort to the front of the plane if you are wearing cargo shorts, a tank top and flip-flops. Most people don't even want to sit next to you in this case, let alone upgrade you. (See "Five things you should never wear on a plane.")

Ask politely and directly. Petersen recommends something as simple as "If you are upgrading passengers on this flight, I would like to be considered." Inserting the word "please" won't hurt you either.

Be on time; have good timing. Showing up late to request an upgrade when an agent is just trying to get everyone checked in and in the air isn't going to work. Do agents the courtesy of making your request with plenty of time to spare before the flight, and when no one else is competing for their attention.

Be reasonable. Being overly demanding or demeaning just inspires agents to pick someone else to upgrade if the opportunity arises. And don't waste everyone's time and good will if you know that you are a poor candidate; if you are traveling with your whole family, have a pet lobster in a cage as your carry-on or purchased a ticket for an extremely low fare, you probably don't want to spend your energy demanding upgrades.

A few tactics
Petersen offers the following tactics for getting a free upgrade: If the flight is relatively empty, your chances are slim. Even though seats in business class may also be empty, the airlines don't usually upgrade people for no reason. If the flight is full, your chances are better. Airlines carefully plan how much they oversell flights, and their inventory departments are not upset if people need to be upgraded to accommodate everybody on the flight. Therefore, on a full flight the airlines sometimes are forced to upgrade people. In this scenario, if you have a good story, you may be lucky. Remember of course that business or first class may already be full from prebooked elite-level upgrades.

Volunteer to give up your seat if the flight is oversold. Tell the agent that if they don't need your seat but they do need somebody to upgrade, you'll be happy to volunteer for that. Small chance, but worth a try. If they end up needing your seat for someone else, ask whether you can be upgraded on the next flight.

If you have been inconvenienced by the airline, don't hesitate to ask for an upgrade. Again, airlines don't generally upgrade people for no reason, but if they have caused you a problem, that may be reason enough.

Also, ask about availability at check-in, particularly on international flights, where the check-in agents sometimes have more control over the seating chart. Then, if seats appear to be available, check in again at the gate. The final, "miracle" upgrades always happen at the last minute, when all passengers are checked in and any remaining availability becomes clear. Make sure you are within earshot of the gate desk, although hovering over agents is not recommended.

Ask your travel agent
My own travel agent has a relationship with certain airlines that let her book her customers into preferred seats that are not released to everyone (usually toward the front of the plane, in exit rows and the like). She can also see upgrade availability fairly quickly, and many agents can add comments to your reservation that increase your chances of being chosen for an upgrade. Ask about these the next time you talk to your travel agent.

Search on first- and business-class fares
Most regular folk do all their airfare searches for economy fares, but a recent search on some cross-country fares showed a batch of business-class fares that cost only about $200 more than economy fares on the same flights (first class was almost double this). It is worth the few seconds of your time to filter for business- and first-class fares when you search.

Watch for business-class sales
Most leisure travelers also ignore advertised business-class fare sales entirely. I have recently seen transatlantic business-class sale fares for around $1,000 at a time when it costs that much to fly coach. This will take some persistence and sleuthing, but you can sometimes fly in the front of the plane for less than the folks crammed into the back of the plane.

Look for two-for-one sales ...
If you are traveling with family or a companion, a two-for-one sale on first- or business-class fares could cut the cost of upgrading, well, in two. At current coach prices, these could result in a wash with respect to price, if certainly not with respect to pleasure.

... or two-for-two sales
One interesting tactic to find yourself some breathing room offered by Petersen might appeal to folks traveling on very cheap sale fares: buy two coach tickets. Say you find one of these $35 roundtrip fares to Florida or the like; the airlines that offer these usually make up the difference in fees for checked bags, movies, food and other extras. However, if you don't need headphones or to check a second bag, you can skip all those charges, and get yourself a heap of legroom for $35 — a lot less than the cost of most premium seats.

If you use this tactic, it will be important for you to check in your second seat, as well as present the boarding pass at the gate — otherwise your seat could be given to a standby passenger.

If you have a title, use it
David Rowell notes that judges, ministers and sometimes doctors are more likely to get upgrades. By all means, if you have a title, put it on your reservation.

In all honesty, your chance of falling into one of these free upgrades is slimmer all the time — even Rowell has stopped trying entirely. That doesn't mean you have to.

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