Airline Upgrade Secrets: 10 Ways To Get That First Class Seat

In the age of endless airline surcharges, seat upgrades seem unlikely. This is primarily because computers, not people, are the ones assigning the prime seats, and they’re not looking at how uncomfortable you are scrunched into a seat back in coach. They measure you against your other passengers with cold, hard statistics.

While it’s a lot tougher to get an out-of-the-blue upgrade these days, there are ways you can improve your odds of landing in first class while still buying low-cost airfare.

First Class Seats for Free? writer Ed Hewitt offers several suggestions.

1. Be loyal

Airlines will reward their most loyal customers with seat upgrades, and they know these customers by how many frequent flyer miles or points they’ve racked up. So make sure to sign up for airline programs; even if you’re not a frequent flyer, just being a member could gain you a little caché. You can also cash in your points or miles for a seat upgrade.

2. Pay for it

Airlines are less likely to upgrade passengers who are using discounted tickets, and they can tell who the budget travelers are based on coding on the tickets. So, paying full price for an economy ticket will improve your odds of being upgraded. In addition, purchasing upgrade-eligible tickets obviously helps you out, although lately these tickets have come at a premium. According to a Wall Street Journal article, many airlines charge passengers with upgrade-eligible tickets a fee (anywhere from $50-$500) for the upgrade, in addition to deducting miles or points.

3. Dress well

While being dressed to impress doesn’t guarantee a seat upgrade, it will improve your odds against the guy who showed up in Bermuda shorts, flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to his navel.

4. Be polite

Being punctual, if not early, to the gate will mean the agents won’t be swamped with people checking in and might have more time to listen to your request. Make sure to say “please” and “thank you,” and be reasonable about your request (if you’re traveling with your family of eight — including 2-year-old twins — getting that upgrade will be a shot in the dark).

10 ways to get upgraded to first class on your flight

5. Look for full flights

Airlines are actually less likely to upgrade people on flights that are relatively empty. However, they don’t mind upgrading seats to accommodate passengers on full flights, so just make sure you have a good story for the gate agent. According to an article on, look for flights where it’s likely that the economy seats will be packed, but the business or first-class seats empty — for instance, flights during school breaks to popular vacation destinations.

6. Volunteer to give up your seat

Who doesn’t love that benevolent soul willing to give up their seat on a packed flight? If the flight is overbooked, let the agent know that you’re willing to give up your seat. If they end up taking you up on the offer, ask if they could give you an upgrade on the next flight.

7. Stand up for yourself

If the airline has inconvenienced you in any way — maybe they messed up your reservation or lost a bag on your first flight — don’t be afraid to use this as leverage for a seat upgrade. Just be polite about it.

8. Network

Hewitt said that his travel agent has special relationships with certain airlines, which allow her to book upgraded seats to her customers — seats not available to everyone else. Talk to your travel agent to see how he might be able to help you out. Or, if you know someone working for the airline, see if she might be able to pull some strings for you.

9. Look for sales

When you’re searching for flights, keep your eye out for business-class sales, which can sometimes land you seats for the same or less than people on the same flight flying in coach. This might require more fare-searching homework than you’re used to, but it could have excellent pay-offs.

10. Title drop

If you have a good title — say doctor, judge, or professor — it doesn’t hurt to let the airline know about it, according to an article on You don’t have to wear it on your sleeve or be pompous, just ask your travel agent to note it in your file or use the title when booking on the web.


Updated: May 8, 2015