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How to Get a First Class or Business Class Upgrade

One of the things every traveler wants to know at some point in their traveling career is this: “How do I get upgraded to First Class or Business Class?” There are more articles about this – both online and in print – than I can count, and many of them are full of useless tips that don’t really work anymore. There may have been a time when wearing fancier clothes and charming the person working at the gate was a sure-fire way to get upgraded, but if there was it was quite awhile ago.

These days, the majority of the “tricks” to getting a First Class or Business Class upgrade aren’t really tricks at all – they may be particular booking or check-in methods, or just being smarter about when you fly. Here are some of the ways to get an upgrade to First Class or Business Class that actually work – and, best of all, that are actually things real people can do pretty easily.

How to Get a First Class/Business Class Upgrade

  • Be a Frequent Flyer – When a gate agent is looking for people to upgrade on an overbooked flight (or just because they’re in a good mood), what they’re looking for on their computer screens is a passenger who has either paid full price for their coach ticket or has a record of flying that same airline frequently. Since I can’t in good conscience recommend that you pay full price for coach tickets in the hope of getting upgraded, I’m going to focus on the second part of that equation. Staying loyal as much as possible to one airline does pay off when you’re looking for an upgrade, because loyalty is definitely rewarded in this case. Flying often also means you’ll reach an elite status in a frequent flyer program more quickly, and being an elite member also helps in the quest to get an upgrade.
  • Buy Upgrades (or Miles) – Check the website of the airline you’re flying to see what their policy is about selling upgrades. Most airlines have it set up so people who are members of their frequent flyer program can buy upgrades. You can’t start buying cheap upgrades right when you sign up for the program, however, as it’s usually only those who have achieved elite status who have this option, but it never hurts to look (especially if you’re shopping around for a frequent flyer program to begin with). Another thing to look into is whether the airline you’ve accumulated miles with offers the option of buying additional miles, which you can then use to supplement the miles you have and more quickly get to a free Business Class or First Class ticket.
  • Join Frequent Flyer Programs – Joining the frequent flyer progrmas of any airline you fly should be a no-brainer in general, especially for frequent travelers who earn even more miles by staying in partner hotels, etc. But the perks that come with being a member of a frequent flyer program aren’t limited to the ones you get when you rack up enough miles for a free flight – members often have access to things non-members don’t. As mentioned above, elite members of frequent flyer programs sometimes have access to cheap upgrades they can purchase. Not only that, most airlines have regular special promotions and offers that are only available to frequent flyer program members.
  • Use Airline Mileage Credit Cards – Assuming you’ve done all the reading about using airline mileage credit cards wisely, having a credit card with the same airline with whom you’re already accumulating miles in their frequent flyer program gives you two ways to get First Class or Business Class upgrades. Some cards offer free annual upgrade coupons, which is something to consider before you sign up for the card. Look for cards that offer similar perks to card-holders that aren’t offered to even frequent flyer members. But in general, regularly using the card for purchases helps you accumulate miles more quickly, which you can cash in for not just free flights but (with enough miles) free tickets in an upper class.
  • Check Self-Service Check-In at the Airport – Smart travelers check in online before they even leave home whenever possible, because it’s your best chance of choosing a good seat, can earn you extra frequent flyer miles, and the bag check fee is cheaper when you check in online. But even if you’ve done online check-in and have no bags to check, swing by the airline’s self-service check-in computer on your way to your gate. As take-off nears, an airline may be more interested in offering cheap upgrades for sale – whether you’re a frequent flyer member or not – in an effort to preempt the need to ask for volunteers to be bumped because of overbooking in coach.
  • Fly When You’re Likely to Get Bumped – Most people, when planning (for instance) holiday travel, will research “worst days to fly at Thanksgiving” and make their travel plans to avoid those especially busy travel days. If you’re on the hunt for free upgrades to First Class or Business Class, however (and you don’t have a schedule to keep), those busy days are the ones you want to target for your own flights. When gate agents start asking for volunteers to be bumped from overbooked flights, that’s when you want to get up to the desk as quickly as possible. And don’t just volunteer to be bumped – ask if they’ll give you a free upgrade when they rebook you. It’s not a sure thing, to be sure, but if they’re particularly busy that day and putting you in First Class frees up another seat in coach on another overbooked flight, then that might be a really appealing option for them. Remember that if you’re going to the airport hoping to get bumped, don’t check a bag. It makes you more flexible and more appealing as a potential bump candidate.
  • Travel Solo – Being a solo traveler isn’t enough on its own to get you a free upgrade, but it helps make you an appealing candidate for an upgrade. This is especially true if you’re trying to get bumped, but it can be helpful anytime. If a gate agent knows that you’re traveling with another person (or a few people), they’re not going to even look your way when they’ve got one seat in an upper class. Traveling solo makes you a more flexible traveler, and someone who’s easier to move from coach to an upper class or bump you to a later flight (with or without a free upgrade). Whether you’d like to abandon your travel companions voluntarily or not, the airline will choose a solo traveler first.

Now that you know some of the tips to get an upgrade to First Class or Business Class, I recommend you also check out this Gadling article about some things that don’t work when it comes to angling for an upgrade. It’s a good idea to know what won’t work, too, so you don’t make a fool of yourself and hurt your chances of getting an upgrade using the methods listed above.

>> Learn about which are the best frequent flyer programs before you sign up

>> Read all about which mileage credit cards will give you the best perks