When it comes to flight upgrades, the days of “dress nicely and maybe a gate agent will take a shine to you” are long gone. Today, nearly all upgrades are driven by airline status, class of service, amount paid, computer algorithms, and other dollar- and tech-driven factors—which makes it tougher, but not impossible, to snag an upgrade.
How to Get a Flight Upgrade
First, a quick explanation of “class of service.” We commonly think of just two to four main classes on airplanes, including first, business, and economy, with the recent emergence of premium economy or some other similarly named intermediate class.
But the fact is that economy class can have nearly a dozen sub-classes, as outlined in this Points Guy article—and each of these class levels carries eligibility (or lack thereof) for various amenities, including upgrades.
Briefly, the very lowest levels of economy class will rarely be prompted to upgrade, or even eligible to upgrade. Before getting upgraded from the very cheapest fares you may see a pig sail by outside your airplane window.
Airline computer booking systems have become so sophisticated that most upgrades are doled out based on a complex brew of data, and it’s now much more likely that a computer (rather than a helpful airline agent) decides if you get an upgrade or if you are stuck in a middle seat in the back of the plane. This article includes a couple of interesting graphics on how Delta and United assess upgrade eligibility.
In the end, the computer doesn’t know how you are dressed—it just knows how much and how often you pay the airline. Here are your best ways to get upgraded in age of kiosks that don’t care about your clothing.
Be a Seriously Loyal Customer
If you fly a lot on the same airline, your options for getting upgrades soar. High-mile/point travelers are the first eligible and first chosen for most upgrades, so despite the fact that airline experts have been bemoaning the devaluing of airline miles for years, if you are a high-mileage and high-dollar flier, you will see greatly increased upgrade offers, often at no cost.
Get an Airline Credit Card
In addition to helping you rack up miles or points, some airline credit cards also qualify you for upgrades reserved for only the top levels of loyalty programs. The Points Guy has a list of the best cards this month that’s worth a look. For more information, see How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card.
Pay a Lot
As suggested above, folks who have purchased fares in the highest grade of service are most likely to see upgrade options in the days before their travel, at online or airport check-in and even at the gate. Read more on this below.
Book Early and Get on the Upgrade Waiting List
Last year, American was upgrading passengers based on both elite status and the time you get on the waiting list (more or less first come, first served). Recently it has changed to priority based on annual spending, and the importance of timing is lessened, but there still seems to be some advantage to getting on the wait list early. Which leads us to the following…
Check in Online at Earliest Possible Time
Online check-in is available beginning 24 hours (usually to the minute) before your flight, and the early bird has the best chance of nabbing an upgrade—though you’ll usually have to pay for it. As the minutes pass and more travelers check in, some of those folks will be looking and paying for upgrades, and once those seats are gone, they’re gone.
Set up Email and Text Alerts
If your specific fare class qualifies you for an upgrade if a seat becomes available, you may receive offers by email or text to purchase (most often in cash but sometimes for miles) the option to upgrade as flight time approaches and seat availability becomes more clear. These tend to disappear quickly, so if you miss the message, the seat won’t last long.
Ask Again at Check-In
Again, these offers are mostly automated, but if you feel you meet any of the qualifications above, you should probably keep asking about upgrades all the way up to boarding time.
If you get through security and have not been able to upgrade yet, stop at the gate desk to ask to put be on a list if upgrades become available; the practice of overbooking exists in part because folks with refundable airfares often decide not to fly at the very last minute, and seats can come loose almost right up to the point the aircraft doors close.
Whenever airlines overbook flights and need folks to give up a seat, that is when you have the most leverage for getting concessions and upgrades from the airline. Most of us have been in airports listening to increasingly urgent announcements looking for volunteers to give up their seat; in that situation, you can go up to the gate, set your conditions and then let the airline decide if it can meet those conditions.
You might say, “I can volunteer to give up my seat for X hundred dollars in flight credit or an upgrade on my replacement flight, as long as I still get there by Y o’clock.” This may not work on the first round of volunteer requests, but when the gate agents come up on departure time and still need empty seats, they can often deliver quite a bit.
To learn more, see Overbooked Flight? How (Not) to Get Bumped.
Use Your Leverage When Things Go Kablooey
If your itinerary is botched or implodes for some reason, particularly if it affects only you and no one else (such that the airline is not trying to accommodate lots of folks in the same situation), your case for an upgrade on a subsequent flight becomes more compelling. The airline is not obligated to upgrade you, but if this happens, pleasantly but firmly let the gate agents know that if an upgraded seat is available on your rebooked flight, you would greatly appreciate getting that seat.
If you have been extremely inconvenienced—maybe you were sent back to your hotel a couple of times, or you slept on the airport floor all night—let the gate folks know, as they may have some sympathy for you.
If, once all of the cost and technical factors are reckoned, a gate agent needs to pick someone to get a primo business class seat, it just might be the person who looks the part. The kiosk still doesn’t care, but in tricky situations eventually even the computers may have to cede authority to an actual person, and making a decent impression can’t hurt.