How to Get an Upgrade

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How to Get an Upgrade

There are generally four types of upgrades:

  1. Complimentary upgrades - these you receive as a member of an airline's elite-level program
  2. Upgrade awards - paid for in miles at the time of booking
  3. Purchased upgrades - paid for in cash at the time of booking
  4. Grovel upgrades - exceptionally rare

Complimentary Upgrades

Many major airlines will offer a complimentary upgrade to members when they fly on a full-fare ticket. This has been a hot topic because it's something airlines can leverage against most of the low-cost carriers, but at the expense of elite members who no longer can upgrade as often as in years past.

One of the major secrets of complimentary upgrades awarded to elite members is knowing when you can secure an upgrade. For most members, it's either 24, 48 or 72 hours in advance for a confirmed upgrade.

Simple enough? Not quite. Airlines differ in when they begin the actual countdown. For some, you count backwards from the "day" of departure, which starts at 12:00 a.m. (often EST). For others, you tick off the hours from the time of your flight's scheduled departure.

Know and work the time differential to your advantage. If you really want to get a jump on the competition, you can time your call to capitalize on any time-zone differential. Find out the service center's location and place your call to coincide with the earliest possible time to call in.

Free (Grovel) Upgrades

Is a free upgrade still possible? Rarely. Because of the way the airline industry has changed the type of aircraft they fly, you're more likely to find yourself on an RJ (regional jet) without any first-class cabin. And about that groveling? Most airlines state, in no uncertain terms, that their policies prohibit arbitrary upgrading, both at check-in and on board. It's a firm rule, with no room for negotiation or interpretation. This becomes understandable when you consider that upgrading is now often done electronically, rather than by queuing up at the check-in counter.

Nonetheless, here are some things to keep in mind to improve your upgrade chances:

  • 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 any 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. On a full flight therefore, sometimes the airlines must upgrade some people. In this scenario, if you have a good story, you may be lucky. Remember of course that business class may already be full from pre-booked elite-level frequent flyer upgrades.
  • Volunteer to give up your seat if the flight is oversold. If the agent tells you your seat won't be needed, tell them that if they do need somebody to upgrade, you'll also 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 later flight.
  • If you have been inconvenienced by the airline, don't hesitate to ask for an upgrade. Again, the airlines don't generally upgrade people for no reason, but if they have caused you a problem, that may be reason enough to upgrade you.

Don't wait until you're on board. The flight attendants usually do not have the authority to upgrade people, because they don't know the details of your ticket. It is highly unlikely that you'll be upgraded if you're traveling on a free frequent flyer reward ticket in coach. The airlines don't like it when people try to redeem only enough points for a coach ticket, and then try to sweet talk their way to an upgrade. If you try this approach, you will often be the last person considered for upgrade.

Some other considerations

Show Some Class

Sincerity and a reasonable attitude are the best routes to snaring a better seat. Leave the groveling, grandstanding and theatrics to those who enjoy publicly embarrassing themselves. It's a small world after all, and the employee you bullied, badgered, or battered into handing over today's upgrade may yet have the last laugh.

When it comes to asking for an upgrade, the key is to request politely and not demand. Gate agents say they are more likely to respond to a polite and direct request along the lines of, "If you are upgrading passengers on this flight, I would like to be considered."

Dress well and be polite. If you show up well dressed, you are far more likely to be upgraded than if you show up in ripped jeans (unless you are famous).


Know when to hang in (for example, if there is still a first-class seat available for purchase) and when to (graciously) walk away. Sometimes the way you handle an initial rejection can actually up your chances later.

Although carriers maintain a list of upgrade wannabes based on time of check-in, other factors come into play when the upgrades are actually allocated. Technically, the early bird may have first dibs on the worm, but a more senior member of a program can move up the list if he or she has professionally brought this factor to the attention of the list holder. Remember: When all else is equal, most folks opt to help the person who has made it easier -- not harder - for them to do so.

Other Sources

Don't have the miles necessary for an upgrade? Look no further than your favorite hotel guest program. Several of them offer airline upgrades in exchange for your hotel points.

Just Pay for the Darn Thing

Many times, tricks and tips simply aren't worth the effort. If you absolutely, positively need more room, consider these options.

  1. Buy a business or first class ticket. Because of the way the airline industry is currently repricing everything, you might find that first class upgrades are within your reach. Whether booking through a travel agent, online or directly with the airline itself, it is strongly advised to ask what the current fare for first class is. This not only will ensure all the comforts of your new home, but you might be surprised to hear what it costs. Domestically, first-class fares can be only $30 above that of discounted coach for certain flights. Spend the money. And don't think that the major airlines are the only ones with first-class seating. Low cost carriers such as AirTran, America West, ATA and Sun Country offer alternatives to coach class with some of the very same services and space that the large airlines offer. On international routes, you must watch for business-class sales. Both British Airways and Continental are famous for springing for two-day sales on business-class tickets to Europe at near $1,000 prices.
  2. Buy a premium economy ticket. A number of international airlines offer what are called "premium" economy seats. While not as good as business class and the seats don't lower into beds, it's good enough to qualify as "comfortable" even on a full flight. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are among those that offer these seats from the U.S. to Europe; China Southern, EVA and Singapore Airlines all offer similar seating on flights to Asia. Pricing of these "upgrade" options vary from a few hundred dollars more than discounted coach to nearly a $1,000 more. There are a few other airlines that also claim a premium economy seat, but ask around first because unless the seat is wider, it's not going to be comfortable anyway.
  3. Buy a ticket for a good coach seat. One small domestic line, Midwest, offers good coach class seats on flights designated "Signature Service." Seating on DC9s and 717s is four-abreast, and legroom, while still a bit tight, is better than you'll find in most other coach cabins. Fares are competitive with relatively unrestricted coach fares on legacy lines, but you aren't likely to find any really low "sale" prices. As with low-fare premium service, the biggest problem is that Midwest is a very small line, serving about two dozen major U.S. cities from a primary hub in Milwaukee and a mini-hub in Kansas City.
  4. Buy a coach ticket with an automatic upgrade. Some legacy lines offer no-cost, confirmed upgrades on higher-priced domestic coach tickets. In most cases, those upgrades are confined to connecting routes through the lines' major hubs. If you have to buy an expensive coach ticket anyhow, they're a no-brainer. But if you'd otherwise qualify for a much lower coach fare, the price premium can be substantial.
  5. Buy two coach tickets. Often, the cheapest way to assure lots of room is to buy two coach tickets. If your itinerary qualifies for a very low "sale" fare, two tickets at that price may well cost far less than any other upgrade approach. The numbers work out even better for two travelers on the same itinerary who can share one empty seat between them. Obviously, however, you don't get extra legroom and you don't get any sort of premium cabin service. Most airlines allow you to buy two seats in a row, or three seats for two people, but you have to do it by phone to ensure seat assignments together.
  6. Buy "twofer" business or first-class tickets. You can often get a "free" second (companion) ticket when you buy one business- or first-class ticket at full price. Various airlines often offer such twofers as short term promotions. For year-round use, the Platinum American Express card provides twofers for intercontinental trips in business, first class, or both on 20 airlines -- Continental plus 19 foreign lines. Carte Blanche (the premium option from Diners Club) provides twofers in premium economy, business, and first class on British Airways. And United's Avanti membership program provides them for business and first class flights from the U.S. to overseas destinations. Twofers are great for two colleagues traveling together, provided they have identical itineraries. They're obviously useless for individual travelers. If you're normally a coach traveler, however, keep in mind that even at half price, international business and first classes are far more expensive.