Five Strategies to Get Discounted First and Business Class Upgrades

It used to be that the front of the plane was reserved for the very rich, or high-powered executives, or elite miles members.

Not anymore. The rich have fled to private planes or they’ve cut back, while more and more business travelers are being told to “fly coach”. As for the frequent fliers, well those miles clubs aren’t what they used to be as airlines fly more “revenue” passengers per square inch than ever before.

Depending on your point of view, the airlines are either getting more democratic or more capitalistic – but either way, that’s good news for you. It means you have a better chance than ever at sitting in first class or in business class without shelling out super-big bucks.

Now, if only you knew how. And that’s our cue.

Before we get started I want to be clear that if you have your heart set on that business class ride or your new bride is expecting it, most of these strategies aren’t necessarily for you as they are not guaranteed and you’ll have to be willing to sit in the back.

Discount First and Business Class Upgrades

Want cushier seats with extra legroom – a better shot at the bag bins – free meals and drinks? Some of these things you can now pay for separately – like with  Southwest’s EarlyBird boarding, or United’s seat upgrades.  But if you want the whole package, here are five strategies to get you there:

1) Check-in Online, Early

Like it or not, airlines are unbundling their products – meaning, stuff you used to get for free is now a bunch of separate services, each with a price tag (so unbundling is really a “nicer” word for airline fees).

Anyway, I know unbundling is unpopular as many of us feel nickeled and dimed, but there can be some advantages. Airlines have slowly begun to roll out “add-on” services and the ability to quickly pay for them and include them on your itinerary.

For example, if you check in online early (that means 23 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds before departure), sometimes your airline will offer a seat upgrade as part of the check-in process; and because the first or business class upgrade is being offered at the last minute, it will often be discounted to prices well below the going market price.

2) Always Check the Airline Kiosk

Even if you have checked-in online (and done so early), go ahead a swipe your card at the kiosk and pull up your itinerary anyway.

Here’s why: airlines are starting to offer upgrades at the last minute at the kiosk (where there’s even more urgency to discount to get that last minute revenue than during the 24 hour check-in period).

As always, there are no guarantees, but it is definitely worth a shot — I personally have upgraded a few times using this method.

3) Look for Airline Gate Agents Ready to Deal

Recently my friend (and co-founder of FareCompare) was flying back from Europe; at the gate, he noticed airline personnel discreetly asking customers if they wanted to upgrade to business class.

These agents were being very discreet – my friend watched as one of them wrote down a figure on a pad and showed it to a single passenger, and waited for a “yes” or “no”. My friend was also shown a number, but instead of saying yes or no, he simply suggested a figure of his own – and it was accepted. So he got the price he wanted, for an upgrade to business class – a price that was thousands of dollars below the market price!

4) Become an Elite Miles Member

This is the old fashioned way to do it, and it works. Historically, upgrades have been reserved for elite airline fliers who achieve status by flying a lot (typically, 25,000 miles or more a year.)

For those of you who only fly a couple of times a year, it may seem impossible to join the ranks of these frequent fliers, but it may be easier than you think. You see, airline loyalty programs have been taking it on the chin in recent years, and from time to time, they will offer significant bonus miles – sometimes system-wide, sometimes on select routes.

The hard part is getting that initial elite status; once you get that, there are all kinds of bonus programs that make it easier to maintain. And the airlines want to help you; frequently you’ll see  deals that offer double or even triple miles.

The community over at have compiled the best of the best information for those interested becoming and maintaining elite loyalty membership on your favorite airline.

American’s Sort of Hush-Hush Secret Miles “Challenge” Program

American Airlines is home of the original frequent flier miles program, but it’s also home to a couple of “sort of secret programs” very few frequent fliers know about: The Gold and Platinum Challenge. One caveat: since this program is not even acknowledged on the American website (you must call AAdvantage Customer Service to inquire about it), it is difficult to know if the program is still in effect, but it is believed to be fully operational – a buddy of mine did this last year, challenging up to platinum and I challenged up as well 3 years ago.

Basically, these “secret” programs provide a short-cut to higher status and more rewards, if you will be flying a lot in a short period of time. Again, you have to ask about it, and sign up for it (and the folks over at FlyerTalk have more info on this airline miles program).

Also if you are elite on an airline in a hub city and have to move to a city that doesn’t have that airline — you can call the VIP program of the new airline and ask for a transfer of status — I have heard of a few that have got this route to work.

5) Work Out a Deal with a Mega-Miler

George Clooney was a mega-miler in “Up in the Air” – if you’re lucky enough to be buddies with someone like this, maybe you could work with them to get an upgrade.

In other words, ask someone who has more miles than they know what to do with, to procure your seat on their account loyalty account and you in turn, offer something in kind. In other words, use the barter system (airlines tend to frown on this if abused, but I have done it for my charitable donations and family members in the past).

Maybe you could offer to trade – oh, I don’t know – perhaps some yard work, or to go over tax returns, or to supply some tickets you have access to for the big game. Again, worth a shot.

So What about Elite Fliers – What Does This Mean for Them?

Some final thoughts: elite miles club members may well be wondering if their pool of benefits is being reduced by all this, and the answer can only be – yes. However, the airlines are very aware of this and are trying to thread a needle between the elites’ needs and expectations of their “capacity controlled” upgrade seats, and the carriers’ attempts at creating more needed revenue. It is not an easy balancing act.


Published: July 16, 2010