How to get upgraded to First Class – The Top 10 Ways

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I have a secret I’ve told few people, but it’s this:

I’ve flown first class several times, but have never paid for it.  The first time I mentioned that I’d love to try first class, the girl I was dating at the time mentioned to me that flying first class for free wasy “easy”, and that she always “sneaks into” first class.

Of course there’s always certain ways to get into first class that aren’t worth trying, but if you aren’t willing to die for the chance, there are others.

I asked my girlfriend, “how do you get into first class?”, and she said that she does the following:

1.  Dresses up nice, typically in a business suit/skirtset;

2.  Waits until the very last minute to board;

3.  Walks on board like she owns first class, hangs up her jacket, and takes the first available seat, which, since she was the last to board, is usually not taken.

Hmm.  My next flight I was too chicken to try it, but I found myself in coach, flying to Guatemala, and the airline had overbooked the seats on the plane.  A woman with two kids produced a ticket with the same seat number as my ticket for one of the same seats.

“Are you flying by yourself?”, asked the flight attendant?  I was then asked to follow him to the front of the plane, where I was given a first class seat and an apology for the mix-up.  Fresh fruit, linens, a super comfortable seat, free drinks.  This was living.

So, on the way back, I dressed up in a grey suit, was the last to board, and shaking on the inside, hung my coat in first class, and took a seat.

Immediately, a flight attendant came over.  “Can I get your name sir?”.  Trembling, I said “Robert… Robert Miller.”  She said “okay, Mr. Miller… welcome to our flight”, and proceeded to serve me the rest of the flight.  Wow, I thought… this worked!

The next flight I had to Europe, I tried it again, and was seated and served until someone else arrived even later than me, and off to coach I went.  I tried on another flight to London to simply ask for an upgrade, but the attendant wouldn’t stop laughing for about 5 minutes.  I figured as someone travelling by myself, it wouldn’t hurt.  Well my pride was hurt by all the laughing.

I read an account of someone else that had great success being upgraded by simply buying a red ink pad, and a custom designed stamp that said “V.I.P. – UPGRADE WHENEVER POSSIBLE”.  He stamped his tickets before leaving, and it worked like a charm wherever he went.

But in doing some research, there are other ways to get an upgrade, that are less risky. (In no particular order).

1.  Be a member of the airline’s frequent flier program.  Being elite status with that airline, they say, gives you extra negotiating power.

2.  Always dress up (MSNBC agrees with this logic, according to experts they have consulted with), if for no other reason than to show attendants that you “fit in” with other passengers in first class;

3.  Travel alone (another reason why I know I got into first class my first time – it’s easier for the airline to move one traveler than a family of three);

4.  Always move if asked.  I heard of a man who refused to move because he was seated on the aisle. What he didn’t realize was that the seat they were offering him was in first class.

5.  When you book the ticket ask about upgrades and prices. There is a fare called Y-UP fares that cost a little more but increases your upgrade chances immensely. Many times there are ongoing promotions to spur first class revenue. I  heard of passengers that paid full fare on an airline and an extra $20 got them sitting in 1A.  You can easily justify that cost in red wine.

6.  Of course, there have to be seats available to give you, so the ideal situation is when the flight is oversold in economy, but there are empty seats in business and or first class.  (That was my situation in my first upgrade).

7.  Likewise, even though I was told that it’s best to get on the plane at the very last moment, you should be early. Your chances of sitting up front diminish quickly when you inquire at the last minute, as they might have filled first class with upgrades already by the time you ask.

8.  Ask. Ask a flight attendant for an upgrade if you see a seat available.  As I showed by the laughing attendant above (so embarassing!), tTypically flight attendants never upgrade passengers and simply asking for an upgrade is not going to work. However, there are legitimate reasons why a flight attendant will upgrade you. Here are a few:

  • An oversold flight – Typically airlines overbook flights and hope that some passengers will simply not show. If, however, there are more passengers than seats in coach, your best chance to be upgraded is to get assigned a seat towards the front of the aircraft. If there are no seats left and the flight is oversold, you may also be asked to volunteer to take a later fight. This would also mean (usually generous) compensation, but not necessarily a first class upgrade.
  • A problem with your seat – In some cases where your seat has malfunctioned and you cannot comfortably sit there, i.e. a seat-belt problem or the seat will not stay in the up position, the flight attendant will make an attempt to find you another seat. If no other seats are available in coach yet space is available in first, you will be moved to first class. However, this is a very rare occurrence, and you should never try to purposely break your seat.
  • A problem with a fellow passenger – If by chance you are sitting next to a passenger and you have a legitimate complaint, the flight attendant can, at his/her discretion, move you to first.

9.  Use your connections.  If you happen to be a travel agent, show your ID.   If you know someone that works anywhere in the airline, mention it.  If you were delayed by this or another airline, mention it, but NICELY.  Again, if and only if seats are available will an airline offer a free upgrade and even though a travel agent might have some pull, you always have to assume that frequent flyer status will help more than just travel agent status. If you have both, you will only improve your chances of an upgrade. It certainly does not hurt to try.

10.  Courtesy and kindness does go a long way in the industry — I have seen at least one person upgraded on a trans-continental flight just because the kindness they showed.

Have any other suggestions?  Let me know in the comments – I always enjoy hearing from readers of my blog!

–Robert Miller

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2 Comments on “How to get upgraded to First Class – The Top 10 Ways”

  1. Randi Whitehead Says:

    Courtesy and kindness truly work. I was upgraded to first class about a year ago, just by nicely teasing and chatting with the cute gate attendant. He proceeded to ask me for my boarding pass, punched something into his computer, printed out something else and wished me a nice flight. As I walked down the jet way I looked at what he had given me, I was in seat 1A. The amusing part was after boarding the plane and sitting in my newly given seat, the female flight attendant came over and in an impolite manner asked to see my boarding pass. Once I handed it to her, she didn’t say anything but still wasn’t the most pleasant on the flight, guess she didn’t like women in her territory (maybe she was husband hunting) but I still enjoyed the flight. Even first or business class is often filled these days so I feel very lucky when this happens anymore (I used to get “up front” a lot by volunteering to take the next flight as you suggest when flights were oversold and then, in addition to the compensation -usually a free ticket – I would sweetly ask if they could also put me up front if they had the availability. It worked more than half the time.) Happy traveling!

  2. MZ Says:

    As crazy as it sounds, years ago, we purchased an online report for something like ten dollars. The report claimed to have ‘pointers’ of how to get into first class. As most will say, and I agree, kindness is the best way to get into first. However, when approaching the gate agents, it is always nice to give them something such as a small box of chocolates, even if they can’t upgrade you. We tried this and it actually worked on a flight from Florida to NYC. Not sure if it was a fluke but it worked for 2 members of my group that didn’t pay for the upgrade whereas we had done so.

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