17 ways you can score an upgrade on a plane

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Tue 09 Sep 2014

Scoring an upgrade on a plane is a game of thrones.

You win by wielding a status so omnipotent that all other passengers must bow before your highness as you’re carried to the gate upon the backs of the cabin crew.

Dramatic? Nope, not at all, because in recent years the competition to sit in the classiest parts of the cabin has become so fierce that you have no other choice but to get medieval on the process in order to reign supreme.

We’ve sourced a few industry secrets and insider tips to empower your position.

Your ticket to first, business, and in a few cases, the best in coach, right this way.

Loyalty has its rewards

Rule No. 1 above all others is that you need to be part of an airline’s most elite of classes. And there are gold levels upon ruby levels upon incivility stars of platinum nobility to be had on your way to the top. Of course how you get to be part of an airline’s elite depends on your carrier, and all seem to have their own tortuous tracks to doing that.

Karen May, spokeswoman for United Airlines, admits, “It’s complicated! Even we have to review everything.” Take these new procedures from American Airlines, for example — the US Tax Code might be more intuitive. That said, at its most basic, know this: Becoming elite is about accruing miles, though more airlines are considering the bottom line of how much cash you’ve sent through their coffers. So while you’re making your way up the ladder, remember: The more you fly an airline, the more likely they’ll return your business with the favor of an upgrade.

“The Golden Rule wins,” says airline expert Ramsey Qubein, who once went undercover as a gate agent for Delta. And yes, your mileage status is part of your passenger profile, so they know exactly how devoted you’ve been.


Book flights that look close to selling out on airlines that tend to overbook and get to the gate early. “I do this all the time when I fly to Asia,” says travel expert and TV personality Jimmy Im. If you’ve got status, they will have no choice but to move you to first or business in order to accommodate everyone else.

You can also gamble by not picking a seat. Airlines will just slot passengers in and if no one’s chosen the emergency or extra legroom seats, you might get lucky. Though you also might end up suffering in the center seat.

Be the master of your miles

What’s it worth? Spending a huge chunk of miles on a couple hundred dollar plane ticket, or using them to snag a business seat on a long-haul flight? Your call.

Still, every airline and alliance seems to have its own rules about the who, what, when, where and why miles can and can’t be used to make this upgrade happen. So do your research before making a move.

It’s never too late

After you’ve boarded, if that coach seat is just too disagreeable to deal with, there may still be time.

Especially if you’re on Virgin America, which gives fliers the option of paying for an upgrade though their in-flight entertainment system. Besides, it never hurts to ask. Nicely, that is.

Fly first or last

Turns out, airport crew tend to be morning people. “Crack-of-dawn flights aren’t as crowded and airport crew are often more relaxed,” says Melisse Hinkle, travel expert and editor of CheapFlights.com.

She says the lax atmosphere might make them more willing to hand out an upgrade. Conversely, by the late night, crews are usually dealing with overflow flights after a day of delays and cancellations. Which means they just want to make sure everyone flies out and “they will shuffle seats to make sure that happens,” she advises.

Be polite

Gate agents are people, just like you, except they’re dealing with stressed-out fliers all day long.

“They’re doing a million things on really old computers,” Qubein says. And putting on a friendly face can go a long way toward convincing them to go to bat for you. This begins with simple graciousness. And if you fly the same route a lot, develop a relationship with the crew. “Even if you don’t end up in first class, they might take note and change your seat if you’ve accidentally placed yourself next to the noisy gallery or in a non-reclining chair,” says Cheapflight.com editor Melisse Hinkle.

Oh, and don’t hover or demand. Agents hate that.

Dress for success

While experts agree that looking the part of a genuine business person doesn’t help as much as it used to, airlines still would rather not offend those paying full price with people wearing sweatpants.

So keep it classy to help your cause. Dress the part. Airlines want first and business class to feel that way — and they might allow you to be part of it, if you look great.

Look at your email

Some airlines will send out messages alerting their elite members of upgrade availability.

Aer Lingus takes it one step beyond: You can request an email, and enter an amount you’re willing to pay; if the luck of the Irish is on your side, you might just find yourself experiencing an upgraded ride for not a lot of money.

Share your story

If you have been bumped, had a security hassle, or even have a horror story about getting to the airport, share it, and maybe you will get slotted into a better last-minute seat. Likewise, a honeymoon or big anniversary trip is worth a mention in case you have a romantic gate agent who wants to give you a present — just don’t fake it.

And you can’t make this one up: Fly on your birthday. Even if it’s a small token, the right agent might be in the mood to send you off with a little gift.

Avoid business travelers

Business travelers will nearly always best casual vacationers in the battle to win an upgrade simply because they’ve got that quadruple-platinum-tears-of-the-gods elite status you didn’t even know existed.

So, according to Warren Chang, vice president of Fly.com, getting an upgrade is easier when there are fewer business travelers on the plane. This amounts to flying midday, midweek or on weekends.

Sit near a baby

Not that you can help it, but if you end up sitting next to unruly children or bawling babies, the cabin staff has been known to take pity. (But be warned: Asking for a different seat might mean getting bumped.)

At the very least, it could mean a free drink or two.


On overbooked flights, it might behoove you to take the offer to switch flights.

Not only does this usually amount to a credit of some kind, but according to Qubein, gate agents will be more inclined to give you preferred service since you’ve already done them a favor.

Fly international on US holidays

Specifically Thanksgiving, says Karen May, spokesperson for United Airlines. Most of us are heading home for turkey day dinner, so flights to, say, Paris or Buenos Aires aren’t full — and that means there are more slots for an upgrade.

Stay focused

Don’t pick a seat (at first): It’s also important to do your homework and keep checking on the available seats.

“Even if you’ve checked in online, make sure to revisit your seat assignment when you arrive. If someone has gotten an upgrade to a better class, you might be able to jump up a few rows or move out of a middle seat. Or maybe snag a low-cost last-minute upgrade at the check-in kiosk,” says Hinkle.

And oddly enough, not having a seat assignment can sometimes be what gets you into a better seat. Airline staff are just slotting in passengers where they can and will sometimes open up extra legroom and exit row seats to accommodate.

Early bird gets the worm

If there’s a line to check luggage, then there’s almost certainly a line to get any upgrades, so get there as early as possible.

On some airlines, you can also put in a request for an upgrade immediately after purchasing your ticket. First come is often first served.

Leverage the lounge

“There are agents in airport lounges who can pull strings, so make friends there,” says Hinkle, “They know they have experienced customers in front of them who are likely to be loyal if treated well.”

Give a gift

I’ve gotten priority access, lounge access, and been bumped up to roomier seats simply by giving the ticketing agent a good bottle of wine or a box of chocolates that, uh, gosh darn … just didn’t fit in my luggage.

It doesn’t always work, but sometimes is better than never.


This article originally appeared on Yahoo Travel.