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Five Easy Ways to Fly First Class … Without Paying for It

These days, most of us resign ourselves to flying in coach. It’s the cheapest way to travel by air, and if we have to put up with cramped seating, minimal legroom, and reduced (or nonexistent) amenities—well, at least it’s a relatively cheap way to travel on a short-haul flight. But for longer flights, the idea of a first- or business-class upgrade becomes more attractive. Bigger seats, more legroom, and several meal options? Yes, please.

“Your vacation essentially starts when you board the aircraft,” says Matthew Bennett, CEO of “A first-class seat can help you absorb jet lag and get over all the nuisances and grumblings that you inevitably experience flying economy class.”

For most of us, though, the high price of first class is what keeps us squeezed in at the back of the plane rather than resting comfortably up front. That’s where upgrades come in. Here are some great tips for getting a comfier seat on your next flight.

Rack up Miles

The best way to cash in your frequent flyer miles is to apply them toward an upgrade. You get more bang for your buck, and availability is generally more plentiful. “If there isn’t availability for a free seat, there may be availability for an elite upgrade,” says Bennett. “Especially now with capacity cuts and flight reductions, there are fewer economy seats, but a surplus of first- and business-class seats. Sometimes people will design a trip around economy class availability, rather than looking for upgrade availability.”

Sites such as ExpertFlyer take some of the guesswork out of finding an available seat. You can track what’s on offer, both for upgrades and economy seats, and access specific prices, routes, and other flight information.

You should also take advantage of mileage-accruing credit cards to build up your mileage base through everyday purchases. Retail and travel promotions often give you double miles, while cross-provider offers (from hotels and rental car companies, for example) will often net you even more miles. You’ll get the requisite number of miles needed for an upgrade much faster than by flying alone.

Look for Promos

You might be surprised to learn that airlines occasionally offer first-class seats at a bargain price. Sign up for your preferred airline’s email newsletter alert service to get early notice when seats go on sale. SmarterTravel also publishes a frequent flyer newsletter that lists the latest deals and promotions.

Be a savvy consumer when taking part in airline promotions. “America West ran a promotion before merging with US Airways. If you called a special number and asked to be in the Silver Elite Frequent Flyer program, they put you in immediately in the hopes that you would fly enough to earn points to become a loyal customer,” says Rick Brown, founder of “You had 90 days to fly six segments to retain silver level for the year. Once you had silver, you simply had to call America West a day before your flight, and if first-class seats were available, you had the upgrade.”

Research Inventory Online

Upgrades, like any travel purchase, require some legwork before you commit. “Deals and opportunities lie in the fine print,” says Bennett. “Disappointment usually comes from [customers] reading an airline’s ad and not venturing down to the fine print … There can be major discrepancies in fare and product offerings from one carrier to the next.”

If seat pitch, width, and legroom are important to you, compare each airline’s first- or business-class product on SmarterTravel’s sister site, SeatGuru. Sometimes even the same airline can use different plane models on the same route, so be sure to find out which aircraft your desired flight will be using before you book the upgrade.

In addition, you need to find out if the ticket you’re planning to purchase is even eligible for an upgrade. “The number one mistake people make is buying a discounted ticket and then searching for ways to upgrade,” says Brown. “It will be difficult to impossible [to upgrade] with a fare class that is full of restrictions.”

Follow the Discounts

Airlines frequently offer a plethora of upgrade opportunities with every new route or seasonal itinerary. Browse around on your preferred carrier’s website to see the latest upgrade offerings. Also look for airlines with a significant presence in the region you wish to visit for increased upgrade availability.

In addition, search out routes with plenty of available flights from a wide variety of carriers. “The general rule of thumb is the less competition an airline has, the less likely they are going to be generous with upgrades,” says Brown. “Try finding an upgrade certificate with Qantas. They don’t exist … [But] in the U.S. where competition is fierce and everyone is trying to survive, you will find numerous carriers trying to entice passengers with certificates, incentives, and upgrade possibilities.”

You may also find a good deal right at the airport. If you notice your flight isn’t full, ask if there’s an opportunity to upgrade. “[When] checking in at a kiosk, oftentimes upgrades are available for purchase,” says Bennett. “They’re not always cheap, but they’re cheaper than paying full fare.”

Be Creative

Sometimes, approaching an upgrade creatively, like a puzzle to be solved, can result in new tactics that deliver a first-class seat.

“Most experts will tell you that staying loyal to one carrier is a good idea, and they are correct, but also consider which one to use,” says Brown. “Let’s assume you fly a lot with American and their rules state that in order to upgrade to first class you need 25,000 miles. However, there is a loophole: If you join Cathay Pacific‘s frequent flyer program, Asia Miles, you may only need 15,000 miles for an upgrade on one of their partner airlines, and since American and Cathay are both part of the oneworld alliance, you may find yourself upgrading a lot faster than your [fellow travelers].”

Know What Doesn’t Work

Finally, it’s also important to know which upgrade strategies aren’t successful anymore.

Many people still strive for elite status with their preferred airline, but don’t get past the low-tier level. If you’re going to go elite, make sure it’s going to be worth your while. “There are too many flyers with low-tier elite status; there are too many people in line, even with the excess inventory,” says Bennett. “So unless you’re going beyond that level for elite status, [it] may be hard to get an upgrade.”

Asking for an upgrade at the gate probably won’t get you to the front of the plane, either. “Asking politely will do nothing more than annoy the ticket agent,” says Brown. “They have heard every story in the book and are typically not authorized to upgrade anyone unless they are a frequent flyer with status or are willing to pay for an upgrade.”

Do you have any tried-and-true strategies for snagging an upgrade? Share your expertise by submitting a comment below!

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