How to realistically get free flight upgrades
I hate to be that guy, but you have more chances winning the lottery then getting a flight upgrade.
OK, maybe that's a bit dramatic! Nevertheless, you get the picture: the odds are not good. In fact, the best way to get a business/first-class upgrade is if an airline really screws up. Remember this passenger who was notoriously removed from a flight in an upsetting way? American Airlines upgraded her to first class for the rest of her journey home as a token of apology. Just recently, I sat next to a girl who was flying first class because the airline made a mistake on her ticket, and she had a six-hour layover. My point: upgrades to the front of the plane are extremely rare. The reason? It’s 2017.
While easy upgrades to first class may have been more common decades ago, those cushy seats up front are going straight to passengers with airline loyalty status (i.e.: Delta's SkyMiles, United MileagePlus, American's AAdvantage, etc). In fact, my friend and points guru Eric Rosen points out it’s one of the major influences for someone getting an upgrade. The higher status you are in a frequent-flier program truly determines your chances of being upgraded. To get top-tier frequent-flier status, you have to spend a lot of money with a specific airline, and they reward you with perks that include complimentary upgrades.
Even though I’m Gold (one notch above Silver) with Delta, I’m still relatively low on the list for upgrades because there are millions of passengers with higher rank. If there’s seat availability in first class, the airline goes down the list of passengers based on their airline status. Sure, being low- and even medium-tier has iffy upgrade chances in a more competitive market, but loyalty to one airline is the most realistic way to get upgrades (there are other tricks below).
Before I get to realistic upgrade hacks, let me tell you what won't work. To this day, I’m surprised when “travel experts” and even seasoned bloggers write stories on how you can dress nice or give chocolates to a flight attendant to increase your chances for an upgrade. It’s wildly inaccurate. A dressed-down Executive Platinum member is not going to lose an upgrade to a low-tier, well-dressed business traveler who brings a box of chocolates. Maybe this is how it worked back in the 90s but things have changed. It blows my mind how some sites suggest bringing chocolates at check-in will increase your chances of an upgrade. It may get you free drinks and a new Facebook friend, but not much more unless you're already status. I’m sorry to relay the news (chocolate is a nice gesture, though) but you should know there is misleading information on how to get flight upgrades. It's not any easier for international flights. In fact, there’s a lot of phone calls made to make an upgrade happen.
Because the potential to get upgraded even with airline status is getting tougher, you should consider paying for a first-class ticket if you want to fly up front. You will be surprised at how affordable it can be, and I am living proof (see below). A low fare difference depends on the route and airline but, again, you’ll be surprised so it never hurts looking.
Also, in this story I wrote for Equinox’s lifestyle site, Furthermore, I make a case that you’ll minimize stress by just buying the first-class ticket. If you're status on an airline, how often do you obsessively check the first-class upgrade standby list an hour before your flight?? It’s torture. Obviously, not everyone has the luxury to buy a first-class ticket, but if you look for routes that could produce low upgrade fares, you may be pleasantly surprised with the nominal difference.
To summarize: getting upgraded without airline status (or an airline screwing up) is possible, but keep in mind the odds are rarely in your favor. I think if you dress nice, bring a box of chocolates, charm the hell out of both the ticketing agent and gate agent, have some sort of celebrity status and prove it's your honeymoon, you increase your odds. But you're still not going to jump a high-tier loyalty member.
So, in the end, what are the best ways of getting upgraded in 2017?
1. Volunteer to give up your seat. If your flight is near capacity or oversold, you will have the option to volunteer your seat as soon as you check in (though it’s more common at the boarding gate). Have flexible travel plans and be prepared to take a flight at a much later time. The silver lining? You have a great chance of being rebooked in first class, and you can get travel vouchers on top of that.
2. Pay or use your miles for the upgrade. As I mentioned, you'll be surprised at how little an upgrade can cost. The difference depends on a number of factors, including airline, the route and off-peak schedules. I flew from Los Angeles to Atlanta once in first class, paying only $79 (!) to upgrade from coach. The Delta agent on the phone was genuinely shocked.. She also couldn’t believe that the upgrade to first class was cheaper than Premium Economy. Whether it was a glitch in the system or just a truly great upgrade option, I flew in first class for only $79 more because I took the time to look into it.
3. Join a frequent flier mileage program. This is obvious and your best chance. Every airline has a system that allows you to be placed on the upgrade list, and you can generally monitor status up to 72 hours before your flight depending on tier. The higher tier you are, the better chances you have for upgrades in general, but other factors contribute (requesting the upgrade early, the cost of your ticket, etc). As long as you have a high-tier status, you can rest assured your chances are higher than those who do not.
4. Choose off-peak times and routes. Choose routes you know will not be crazy busy. This is going to be early morning flights (we’re talking 6 am) or a late flight like 9 pm. Upgrades are generally better on brand-new routes as well. Always remember upgrade chances are higher if you avoid routes that business travelers typically fly (they have the motherlode of upgrade potential with their frequent flying, which lowers your chances if you're booked on the same flight).
5. Check the first-class flight load immediately. This is the nerdiest, most obsessive thing I do any time I book a flight. I check to see how many seats in first class are available for every flight option, then I pick the flight with the least first-class seats booked, which increases my odds. It’s an extra step to take and it can be time consuming, but the emptier the first class is, the better chances you are going to have for an upgraded seat.