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17 Clever Tips for Getting Airline Upgrades

If first-class, fresh-squeezed orange juice daydreams hit you while you shuffle to the back of the economy section, we might be able to fulfill your dreams.

Airline passengers get free seat upgrades all the time, moving them from economy or basic seats to the premium cabin, where there’s ample leg room, delicious food, working outlets, and plush cushioning. With the right strategy, you can be one of these lucky passengers.

Use these tips and tricks to increase your chances of being upgraded and feeling like part of the 1% for a few hours.

Volunteer for a Flight

Travelers waiting in line to check-in.
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This one can only work for people without a strict travel schedule. If your airline asks you to volunteer to take a different flight, which could be at a different time or on a completely different day, they might thank you with an upgrade.

They typically offer some sort of voucher, which can range from $25 to $2,000, depending on the flight. So, if you play your cards right, you could get a generous flight voucher and a business class upgrade.

Book an Unpopular Flight

A woman waits for her flight in an airport terminal.
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Most people don’t want to do this, even if it means getting a fancy upgrade. That means your odds of getting an upgrade this way are even higher. Unpopular flights are typically on national or bank holidays, super early or late flight times, or inconvenient layovers.

Opting for a midnight flight or flying on July 4th instead of July 5th could land you in one of those comfy cocoons. Unusual flight paths or annoying layovers can also make upgrades more accessible, so maybe that layover in Newark isn’t so bad, especially if you can keep the upgrade for all legs of the flight.

Mention a Special Occasion

A woman chats with an airline attendant at the check-in counter.
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Do you know how you sometimes get a free dessert at a restaurant when it’s your birthday? This is the same idea. If you have a special occasion while traveling, don’t be afraid to tell the check-in agents, gate agents, flight attendants, and anyone else with upgrade power.

Special occasions include birthdays, anniversaries, honeymoons, new parents, work promotions, and more. You could even use sad occasions to get sympathy, such as funerals or divorces. We won’t tell you to lie, but some people certainly do. You can decide if getting an upgrade is worth a fib.

Be a Lonely Traveler

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This one sounds sad, but we promise it’s not. Solo travelers are exponentially more likely to get upgraded to first class, as it’s much easier to give one person an upgrade than multiple passengers.

You can play up the lonely traveler vibe to the gate agents and flight attendants, but that could be hit or miss. If you want an upgrade, even traveling with someone else, booking tickets individually is best. When agents see that tickets were booked together, they’re less likely to offer an upgrade.

Be a Frequent Flyer

A Frequent Traveler card from Miles & More by Lufthansa.
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Airlines reward loyalty, so religiously join frequent flyer programs and create mileage accounts. These are almost always free. You don’t have to pay for a membership or open a new credit card; you just need to create an account and log all your flights.

When agents and attendants have the opportunity to give a passenger an upgrade, they often choose from the frequent flyer list first.

They want to keep these frequent flyers coming back, so they give them this nice little perk to build rapport. Anything and everything you can do to look like a loyal flyer will improve your chances of scoring an upgrade.

Befriend an Elite Flyer

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Syda_Productions and Depositphotos

If you travel enough you could become an elite flyer, making you more likely to get upgrades. However, even befriending an elite flyer can get you an upgrade. If you have a friend who is an elite flyer, you can try using their account number to curry favor with the airline.

However, you can be even more calculating and try to rub elbows with an elite flyer at the airport. Elite flyers often get bumped up and might be able to bring a friend with them!

Use the Right Credit Card

A woman books a flight online using her credit card.
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People who fly often should consider signing up for a credit card with their favorite or most-used airline. Agents and attendants look to the frequent flyer list for upgrades, but they’ll also consider people who paid with an airline credit card.

An airline credit card can put you on the list above other frequent flyers but below elite flyers. If you don’t fly often or already have seven credit cards, maybe this isn’t the right strategy. But if you wanted a new card anyway, why not get one that could upgrade you to a cozy seat and warm cookie?

Use Your Miles

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This one might not be as clever, but many people don’t realize that airline miles can get you upgrades. Even if your miles don’t cover the whole plane ticket, they might cover the cost of upgrading to first class.

We recommend saving your miles for a special occasion and treating yourself to a first-class experience.

If airline fares already strain your budget, we know using your miles toward economy tickets is more frugal. But an upgrade with miles is typically more cost-effective than buying a premium seat outright, so try buying a basic ticket first and then selecting an upgrade.

Fly on Status-Matching Airlines

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Many of these tips involve being loyal to an airline, but that’s not always possible when airlines offer different prices, destinations, and times. Luckily, some airlines status-match with one another. For instance, if you’re an elite flyer with United, Delta might honor that status for you.

Few people know about status-matching programs, so frequent flyers rarely utilize them. This means you can be a frequent or elite flyer with one airline but get the perks of your flyer status with other airlines. And that includes being high on the upgrade list.

Check-in Strategically

 An airline agent hands a man his boarding pass at the check-in counter.
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Okay, this tip is tricky and requires some finesse, but it can be successful. Checking in early or late can boost your chances of getting a seat upgrade due to over or underbooking.

Checking in late to an overbooked flight might get you bumped into an empty first-class seat. On the other hand, checking in before anyone else can put you higher on the upgrade list. The key here is to consider your flight.

Is it a busy travel time? Is it a popular flight? Can you see if everyone has already picked their seats? Does the first-class cabin already look full? Basically, checking in to a busy flight late or checking in early to a quiet flight can get you an upgrade. But it’s a dangerous game, so play it wisely.

Arrive at the Airport Early

Minimalism made me a better traveler, and it might help you get more enjoyment out of your travels as well! Check out this article for the four benefits of traveling as a minimalist
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Since you can check in on your phone nowadays, arriving at the airport and checking in are different.

Being the first passenger at the gate can increase your chances of being upgraded. This trick usually requires that your flight isn’t crazy busy; otherwise, there might not be any seats to upgrade you to anyway.

This upgrade strategy works best in tandem with others listed here. For example, being early for your flight and a frequent flyer is a great recipe to put you at the top of the upgrade list.

Charm the Gate Agents

Female service agent checking in man at service counter.
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Our best tip is just to be friendly and pleasant toward the gate agents. Being polite and kind to check-in agents and flight attendants might get you bumped up, but the gate agents have the real upgrade power.

With many airlines, check-in agents and flight attendants have zero influence on upgrades. However, almost all gate agents are in charge of these changes.

We suggest greeting the gate agents when you arrive at your gate and making small talk (this is your chance to mention special occasions or your loneliness).

If you need an excuse to talk to them, ask for a hand wipe or a question about airline status. It’s important you don’t annoy them, but you want to make some sort of positive impression. This way, if they can give someone an upgrade, you’ll be the first person they think of.

Report Seat Issues

Interior of airplane with passengers on seats waiting to take off.
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We do not want you to sabotage your airplane seat or do something else chaotic. But if you get to your plane seat and something is wrong, anything, tell a flight attendant. This is one of the situations where attendants do have the power to give someone an upgrade.

If your seatbelt is tattered, your TV doesn’t work, your outlet doesn’t work, your seat is ripped, your armrest won’t go down, or your chair won’t lean back, use this to try and get an upgrade.

Many times, the flight attendant will say there’s nothing they can do unless it’s a safety issue. However, if you’re polite and express your discomfort, you might find yourself with a glass of first-class champagne in hand.

Dress to Impress

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We all want to be comfortable on a long, squished flight. Funny enough, first-class people usually dress better, not because they’re richer or classier, but because they aren’t crammed in like sardines. It’s easier to wear a nice outfit when you know you can cross your legs.

Agents are more likely to give polished passengers an upgrade. We’re not sure if it’s purposeful or subconscious — if it’s to keep first-class refined or reward style. Nevertheless, wearing something better than sweatpants or leggings might get you a business-class seat.

You don’t need to show up in a tux; just don’t look like you’re heading to bed. For the record, we’re all about comfort on flights, but an elevated look improves your chances of an upgrade.

Don’t Select a Seat Yet

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This one is risky, as you’ll likely end up with a far-back middle seat if it doesn’t work. However, some gate agents will give available upgrades to passengers without an assigned seat. It’s often less hassle for them than upgrading someone who has already chosen their seat.

Fight the temptation to pick that aisle seat toward the middle of the plane, and you may get lucky and snag an upgrade; just know that the middle seat is a real possibility.

Keep an Eye on Your Emails

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We want you to get a free seat upgrade, but at the very least, this tip might get you a hefty discount on an upgrade. If you’re a frequent or elite flyer, keep a close eye on your emails leading up to your flight.

Within the week before your flight, you may get emails offering heavily discounted or free upgrades! Missing these emails means leaving free upgrades in your inbox, so even though you know your flight times and whatnot, always open those airline emails.

Ask for an Upgrade

Woman, airport and service agent with passport helping traveler for check in at terminal counter.
Image Credit: PeopleImages.com – Yuri A and Shutterstock

We’re sorry that this tip isn’t creative or revolutionary, but it’s one of the most effective. You’ll never know if you don’t ask! It might feel like begging, but you’re just being prudent and thrifty.

We recommend intertwining your upgrade request with your gate-agent small talk or mention of a special occasion. If you’re kind and sociable and catch the airline employee in a good mood, they might bump you up just because you asked nicely.

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Veronica is a lifestyle and culture writer from Boston, MA, with a passion for entertainment, fashion, and food. She graduated from Boston University in 2019 with a bachelor's in English literature. If she's not in the kitchen trying new recipes, she's binging the latest HBO series, catching up on the hottest trends in Vogue, or falling down a research rabbit hole. Her writing experience ranges from global news articles to celebrity gossip pieces to movie reviews and more.
Her byline appears in publications like The Weather Channel, The Daily Meal, The Borgen Project, MSN, Wealth of Geeks, and Not Deer Magazine. She writes about what inspires her — a stylish Wes Anderson film, a clever cleaning hack, a surprising fashion trend. When she’s not writing about life's little joys, she’s keeping her dog away from rabbits and spending too much money on kitchenware.