Take the 2-minute tour ×
Travel Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for road warriors and seasoned travelers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I've travelled a lot. Living in New Zealand or the UK means anywhere is likely a flight, but I've always flown economy. Twice between LA and Auckland I managed to get the exit row after talking nicely to the check-in girl, but apart from that, nothing. I've spoken to ticket agents, tried 'check in chicken' (where you wait until the last minute before checking in, hoping there's an overbooking of economy) but have never managed to get an upgrade, while others I know seemingly get them quite often. What strategy have you used or do you suggest to achieve this?

My next flight is from Melbourne to Tokyo, and I plan on trying all of these ;)

(Related questions on car hire and hotel upgrades)

share|improve this question
5  
The only time I got upgraded was to first class on the domestic leg of an international flight, and it was just for being late. I was not well dressed and was glared at by the other first class passengers (= –  hippietrail Jul 11 '11 at 11:59
2  
This thread is old, but read by many even today. One of my friends who travels from an Asian country to US, always bribes at the flight gate. A $100 bill and he is travelling first class for the next 16 or 20 hours. I have always traveled on my expense through a Middle Eastern airlines and I have NEVER been able to get a free/paid upgrade. –  happybuddha Feb 21 '13 at 20:10

13 Answers 13

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Probably not the answer you were hoping for, but I think the best way to get upgraded is to fly a lot with the airline. Generally when the flight's overbooked in one class, and they're trying to pick which person to upgrade, frequent flyer status is the first metric they use. The higher your status, the higher up the list you go!

Having a high status with a partner airline can work too, high tiers with a partner airline usually comes below the airline's own frequent flyers, but above everyone else.

Otherwise, if you're flying on your own that'll help in the event that there aren't enough frequent flyer to upgrade to free the required number of seats! Being polite and smartly dressed can help.

Offering to pay may be an option too - if they're pretty full they may offer you a low price to upgrade, on the grounds that some money from you is better than none from a free upgrade to frequent traveller. Ask at checkin about that, and see what they say.

If you have a title, make sure that's on your booking. Friends of mine who are doctors seem to get upgraded more than ones who aren't, and the airline needn't know that you happen to be a Doctor of 14th century poetry or astrophysics, rather than a medical one!

In general though,the busier the flight, the more likely an upgrade. There are a few airlines that'll upgrade people to fill a higher cabin, but most these days will only do it when a cabin is full.

A different option is to volunteer to be bumped off a very full flight, but upgraded on the next one they put you onto. I know Delta to that for an example, but I think it's a fairly general possibility. Does require a very busy original flight though, and the airline really wanting people to opt not to fly!

share|improve this answer
19  
Though if you're a doctor of 14th century philosophy, you should probably carry some leeches with you just in case you're called upon to provide medical assistance to a fellow passenger. –  Ankur Banerjee Jul 11 '11 at 7:57
16  
@Ankur: Are live leeches allowed through TSA checkpoints? Sounds like a great Travel.SE question! –  ESultanik Jul 11 '11 at 14:02
2  
@ESultanik: I am tempted to actually post this question to see what answers I get. :D –  Ankur Banerjee Jul 11 '11 at 14:19
3  
@AndrewGrimm Leave them on the plane! They've done their job: any medical emergency after you've landed will be dealt with doctors with more, er, up-to-date techniques. –  David Richerby May 26 at 12:04
2  
@DavidRicherby I like to "borrow" any leeches I can get my hands on. Don't you know that the word "leech" comes from the practice of taking leeches that don't belong to you? –  Andrew Grimm May 26 at 12:44

The #1 rule of upgrades is to not believe most of what is said and written about them. There may have been a time (decades ago) when upgrades were at the discretion of the gate or flight crew, and being pleasant and well-dressed might work. These days, some airlines don't even have a premium cabin, and those that do have strict rules about upgrades.

There are three main types of upgrade: advance (confirmed), pre-departure paid, and operational. Advance upgrades are confirmed (you have the upgrade for sure) in advance of the flight check-in time. Pre-departure paid are offered by the airline on-line or at the airport, generally within 24 hours of the flight. Operational upgrades are done by the airline when needed for operational reasons, usually because the cabin is oversold.

For most flights, upgrades can be confirmed before the flight using cash (pay the higher fare), miles, or an upgrade instrument. You earn the miles or upgrade instrument by flying a lot with the airline, using an affiliated credit card, transfer or reciprocity with a hotel or other airline program, etc. For domestic flights, most U.S. airlines offer complimentary (completely free) space-available advance upgrades to their high-status flyers (those who fly a lot), although the rules vary from airline to airline. Few airlines offer any sort of complimentary upgrade for international flights.

Pre-departure paid upgrades are offered by some airlines either when the premium cabin has a lot of empty seats, or when the cabin you booked is oversold. Some airlines offer these upgrades on-line, often at 24 hours before the flight. Some offer them at the airport, either at a kiosk or at the check-in or gate agent. Some airlines post signs or make announcements informing passengers that these upgrades are available and indicating the cost, while others will offer them if asked but won't announce them. The cost is usually fixed based on several flight distance bands (e.g., up to 500 miles, 500-2999 miles, 3000 miles and over).

Operational upgrades are done by airlines when they need to for operational reasons, which is usually because the cabin is oversold but a higher cabin has empty seats. Most airlines have detailed and specific rules for how passengers are selected for operational upgrades, which usually are based on frequent-flyer status, if they are connecting or not, if they were previously subject to a delayed, cancelled, or other problem flight, etc. In some cases, a multi-cabin airplane may need a multi-cabin "roll," where passengers might be moved from business to first, from premium economy to business, and from coach to premium economy, to accommodate all passengers needing to be on the plane.

share|improve this answer
1  
+1. This is pretty much the only answer here that's factual, not anecdotal. –  jpatokal May 29 at 2:18

I noticed that when you are the last passenger boarding a Ryanair plane in the front, then they sometimes let you sit on reserved seats, which normally cost extra. That means more space due to no or less neighbors, and if you are really lucky, even for your legs (front row). Why Ryanair is doing that? I have two assumptions:

  1. They want to speed up the boarding process.

  2. They want to have someone young (well, that's relative ;-) to help in case of an emergency. In fact, when I was recently seated in the front row, the stewardess explicitly asked my neighbors and me if we are willing to help in such a case.

share|improve this answer
1  
The emergency thing is common when you sit in other such seats, onboard staff sometimes asks the passengers sitting there if they understand that they have some additional responsibilities "in the unlikely case of emergency". –  mindcorrosive Feb 22 '13 at 10:51

As Gagravarr says, having elite status with an airline can sometimes lead to upgrades due to overbooking.

However, as well as offering to pay cash, some airlines will allow elite status members to upgrade in other ways. For example, I have Executive Platinum status with American Airlines. They give me 8 free 'Systemwide' upgrades a year to spend on whichever flights I wish, including longhaul international ones (as long as the space is free in Business/First, which normally means you are in a waitlist until about 24 hours beforehand). Alternatively, you can pay for upgrades with airmiles, cash, or a combination of both, depending on the class of ticket.

This, combined with occasional "complimentary" (involuntary in airline terminology) upgrades due to overbooking can mean upgrades are very frequent once you reach the higher levels of status.

share|improve this answer

Courtesy! In my experience, simply being courteous to those behind the check-in counter (and the baggage handling staff, too) helps a great deal. Most airline staff is perennially overworked, and dealing with grouchy passengers doesn't help their cause. I have gotten upgraded (not only in traveling class, but also with excess baggage) a few times, by just being courteous. My wife says it may be my smile - LOL!

Also, upgrades are RARELY granted within the US - most airlines have a strict policy of charging - and with many takers, it is highly unlikely that they will upgrade for free... or may be the famed smile doesn't work too well in the country ;)

Bottom line - pleasantness makes lives much easier, on both sides of the check-in counter. Try it on your next flight, and you may be rewarded :)

share|improve this answer
1  
I couldn't agree more - even wrote about some of those benefits :) –  warren Apr 23 '12 at 19:42
2  
I disagree. Free upgrades are almost always given on US flights, especially domestic. All of the major airlines give free upgrades to their high-level frequent flyers, to the point that it's extremely rare for a domestic flight to depart with any free First class seats. Internationally it's somewhat different, however again if anyone is going to get a (free) upgrade it's almost certainly going to be the high-level frequently flyers. –  Doc Sep 17 '12 at 3:28

Ask for it. Don't be shifty. Don't be sneaky. Don't be shady. Ask them if they have the extra seats to upgrade you.

If you don't complicate things, you don't run a chance of making the situation awkward, if you are not awkward you are confident, and if you are confident you can run your charm on the person behind the desk for something that isn't even morally incorrect (and shouldn't therefore require 'gifts' like chocolates or whatever.)

share|improve this answer

Being 6'4" on a Japanese airline.

I was checking in on a partially empty daytime JAL flight from Sydney to Tokyo and they upgraded me to the exit row for free, even though I initially expressed my concern about understanding Japanese in an emergency. No techniques or tricks, just "otherwise"!

It's possible that checking in early helped, though. JAL only allows you to book ordinary seats, and you can only upgrade on the day.

share|improve this answer
2  
Exit row seats are comfortable, but on most airlines it is not an upgrade (in a sense that you don't have to, and most often, cannot pay more to get it). Just ask, and they'll assign it to you there if nobody else got it first. –  dbkk Apr 25 '12 at 10:20

Check in early!

I've been upgraded only once, LAX to Cincinnati. It was a night flight and overbooked, so it was quite nice to get a nicer seat to sleep in.

I did not have a frequent flyer deal with the airline nor did I pay or give anybody anything. I also don't fly that much either. The reason I think I was chosen for the upgrade is because I checked in very early and to me it seemed like they were using the ordered list of check ins to determine who to upgrade.

In this case I had a connecting flight from San Francisco with a several hours stop over in LAX, so rather than wait until 30 minutes before take off, check in right away.

share|improve this answer

Bonus tip - on a flight two weeks ago from Los Angeles to Auckland, I was stuck in the 2nd to last row, in the middle between two big military folk. I was not looking forward to this. I'd tried at check-in and at the gate for an aisle seat, but no luck.

However, on board I kept my eyes open and noticed the guy next to me had a buddy a row ahead. This was plan A - ask if they wanted to swap to sit next to another - either way I'd end up with an aisle.

However, as it happened, I had even better luck - the steward asked 'ok who here is together?' and I very quickly said 'I'm alone'. Lo and behold, he moved me to the exit row, with leg-room galore and just oodles more comfort.

Result: a much happier Mark. Not a class upgrade, but compared to the original seat, it almost counts as one!

share|improve this answer

I never managed to get upgraded myself, but my supervisor's technique is as follows:

He always tries to fly with one airline, collects miles and has the highest possible frequent flyer status. He arrives quite early for check-in and goes to the Business Class/frequent flyer desk, and there he just asks if it's possible to get upgraded. It seems to work quite well for him. Once he was traveling with another student (who didn't have any frequent flyer status) and both of them got upgraded.

share|improve this answer
5  
It's quite likely your supervisor is using coupons or vouchers issued to frequent flyers for upgrades. If he isn't, it's also typical for the highest-status flyers to get the op-ups first. –  Kate Gregory Sep 16 '12 at 15:43

One way that worked for me was when the airline was overbooked, and needed volunteers to take a later flight. It turned out that there was one no show in business class, so they gave my seat to a standby, and gave me the business class seat.

share|improve this answer

Some airlines sell "last minute upgrades". For example Air Canada does this on almost every flight. At first it seemed to be about $100/hr - $500 for a 5 hour flight, for example - but I think it is somewhat less than that now. Depending on whether you think that's a good deal, you could choose either an airline that offers LMU (so you can have a chance to buy one) or an airline that doesn't (to increase your chances of being given one).

I used to get upgraded (by using certificates issued to me, or just because they chose to) a lot, and it really didn't matter whether I asked or not (except for a cert you need to ask once to get on the list), was pleasant to the gate agent or not, how I was dressed, whether I checked in early or late, etc. I do checkin online at the earliest moment, and I do ask about my upgrade in the lounge, and those things I believe do help for certificate upgrades. But op-ups are pretty random.

In fact my most memorable upgrade started out like one of those "horrible gate experience" stories. I was flying to either a funeral or a deathbed visit (and if you think it's impossible not to remember which, then you have been luckier than me - had a year long stretch which was rich in both and most of it is a blur) and was alone and upset. As I handed over my boarding card for like 12A or 14A or some other good window seat in economy, carefully achieved through online checkin or some other conscientious "skilled flyer" technique, plus my status, the GA frowned and said "no wait, I moved you." I breathed in to either scream at her or burst into tears. It really could have gone either way. I have to get on another plane to go say goodbye to somebody else I've lost, this whole thing sucks beyond belief and now I don't even get the seat I booked? How dare you! In that pause while my brain tried to decide which way to go she continued "I had to put a family together" which just made me even angrier since I didn't have my family with me and how dare those selfish people not pay for seat selection or earn status or check in online or the various things you can do to get your seats together and now I'm in a damn middle seat in row like 700 and what the hell else is going to go wrong and again I was too upset to figure out just which thing to say to her first and it's just not fair and she hands me a boarding pass for 4A and - oh ok, thanks! There's no way anything I said or did got me that upgrade. Perhaps an angel on my shoulder.

Upgrades in general seem to be less frequent these days, perhaps with the recovery people are buying business, or buying those LMUs, so I just assume I will never get one again and then at least I'm not disappointed. :-)

share|improve this answer
4  
Nice story, though I'm sorry it comes with lots of grief. :/ :) –  Jérémie Jul 11 '11 at 23:01
    
The last minute upgrades (usually offered on checkin) are often the best deals if you want to guarantee an upgrade before heading to the airport. Be sure to check in as early as the upgrade window opens (this may vary by status and not necessarily the 24-hour general check-in window). The in-air upgrades are ripoffs, however ($4,000 on Emirates to biz?). –  Art Taylor Sep 16 '12 at 15:30

You can always try and give the flight crew something as a token of appreciation. This is usually something with chocolates (as this is easy to divide among the personnel), but that is definitely not necessary. You should never automatically expect something in return though, but it sure might help!

Here's an article with some tips:

10 tips for thanking flight crews with chocolate

share|improve this answer
    
Interesting idea. Has this worked for you often in getting upgrades? –  Ankur Banerjee Jul 11 '11 at 7:54
2  
Me personally, I never tried this, I heard it from a friend of mine. She has done this a couple of times already, and it got her an upgrade in some of those occasions. It used to be easier a couple of years back though. Nowadays... not so much. –  fretje Jul 11 '11 at 7:58
    
I know that many Star Alliance carriers (and perhaps others) now send frequent travelers "commendation" cards that one can give to flight attendants as a token of appreciation. Presumably, these cards count towards employees' promotions/raises. –  ESultanik Jul 11 '11 at 14:10
3  
You should be giving this to the people at the check-in counter, not the flight crew, if you want it to help you get an upgrade. –  Michael Pryor Jul 11 '11 at 16:13
    
@Michael: No no, this is really the flight crew we're talking about. They can definitely give you another seat if they like (as long as there are unoccupied seats of course). –  fretje Jul 11 '11 at 16:17

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.