15 Tips or Myths on Upgrading to First Class for Free?

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The Daily Mail came out with “15 insider tips on how to get upgraded to First Class without paying” today (h/t Scott R). And of the 15, probably only 2 or 3 are actually useful, the others aren’t out of the realm of possibility, but you shouldn’t base your strategy on them.

Mostly because they assume there will be an available First Class seat on your flight to begin with. On all my flight experiences this year, there’s been one domestic flight that has gone out with First Class seats open (a 5AM Saturday flight), all the others have had an upgrade list at least a dozen people long, sometimes 75 people long.

So what are their useful tips?

In my opinion, the most useful is 3). Fly outside of commuter times. Flying out on a Sunday night, Monday, Thursday afternoon or Friday is when you see the highest volume of business travelers. These are folks who are paying for First or have elite status. There will not be any first class seats for you to try to earn, impress, beg, or sweet talk your way into.Empty Plane

1). Loyalty and 9). Use air miles are also relevant. Many, though not all airlines, offer complimentary upgrades to elites. And if there’s availability, very often you can use airline miles in advance to upgrade.

United first ice cream sundae Jeanne

Some of their other tips — 2) checking your seat for breakage,  6) flying solo, and 14). Volunteer to switch — are decent, but still depend on their being an open first class seat and no queue of elites waiting for an upgrade.

Suggestions like 7). Dress for success and 8). Just ask frustrate me because they raise false hopes among casual travelers. The gate agents do have some discretion, but are limited by availability and airline policies. Don’t think if you wear a suit and ask nicely, you’re going to score a First Class seat on the 5PM Thursday flight from a major hub.

Probably the best chance an infrequent traveler has of scoring a First Class seat is if their flight gets cancelled. RUN to the nearest customer service desk (and get on the phone) and when they find a flight for you that works, ask if there’s First Class availability. In an effort to get folks out, they’ll put you in any available seat.


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  1. James

    September 12, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Dressing nice and “just ask” absolutely do not work on any airline I fly frequently. I find that to be very irritating advice and I see a lot of people embarrassing themselves trying to use it. That’s just not how these things work. The gate agent couldn’t care less whether you’re wearing a suit or not. “Just ask” is only applicable if, like you said, you’ve somehow been badly inconvenienced and their only option is to put you in the front of a plane. It is worth speaking up for yourself. But if there are not mitigating circumstances there is virtually no chance that they will bump you up just for asking.

  2. Suzanne (philatravelgirl)

    September 12, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    In the US, I’ve never been upgraded unless I pay at check-in. Internationally, British Airways upgraded me twice (years ago) from WT+ to Club World and from Club World to First due to oversold flight and I was flying solo but that was before my special meal order. I now understand that if you request a special meal that they won’t upgrade you – sounds silly –

  3. Jeanne Marie Hoffman

    September 12, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    I got a stealth upgrade on Northwest (now Delta) once because I looked like I was crying all night. I’m not sure 100% if that’s why, but I had swollen eyes from massive allergies, wasn’t feeling great, and the gate agent slipped me a 1st boarding pass.

  4. Tracy S

    September 12, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    @James – Your experience and mine are at odds with each other. It’s not often, at all, but I *have* received upgrades twice this year: once by asking politely and genially, once for no apparent reason at all. I don’t know where you fly out of or how frequently, but that can absolutely affect your luck.

  5. Veejay

    September 12, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    There’s a disconnect here. The article is from a UK publication, likely referring to International flights on carriers that don’t hand out upgrades to elites like candy. As such, there’s generally several open first and business class seats on those flights.

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