11 Travel Hacks to Get You a Free Upgrade When You Fly, Revealed by Travel Experts


Leg room, armrests and the ability to (politely) recline your seat hassle-free — it’d be nice to travel like this wherever you fly. It’s too bad first class seats are ridiculously expensive. But every once in a while, we win the lottery of air travel and a smiling flight attendant or someone at the ticket counter asks if you’d like to be upgraded to a plus seat or first class for free.

How do you get so lucky? It turns out it isn’t always luck, and just about any system can be gamed. Reigo Elijas, a trading director at Lastminute.com, told DailyMail:

“Winning the upgrade lottery, where you can turn left on entering the aircraft instead of right, is sadly only a pipe dream for many and one which unfortunately very rarely comes true. Upgrade opportunities really vary from airline to airline and can be random, so your best chances will come when a flight is particularly full or overbooked in the economy cabin.”

In fact, if you know what planes to fly on, what day of the week to travel and what to mention to flight attendants, you can increase your chances of being offered that golden ticket. Here are 11 ways you can land yourself a free upgrade and enjoy flying just a little more.

1. Become a frequent flyer.

This one shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s a no-brainer if you are this kind of traveller. If you fly a lot, especially for business trips, stick with one airline and join a frequent flyer program to use your business trips to become an elite.

When economy class gets overbooked, flight attendants will move passengers to first class; they usually upgrade the most loyal passengers first, according to Katherine Clark, regional business development director for TripAdvisor Flights.

Elite frequent flyers may also use their accumulated miles to trade for upgrades, but you should only do this for longer flights, explains Oonagh Shiel, an expert at Cheapflights.com:

“Long-haul is where the upgrade action is. Don’t invest your hard-earned points on short-haul city hops.”

2. Check in as early as possible …

The earlier you check in on most carriers, the more likely you are to be able to choose that window or aisle seat you want. But if the flight is going to be packed to the max and there are some economy plus or first class seats available, flight attendants may choose to move those who’ve checked in first.

Bob Atkinson, a travel expert at TravelSupermarket.com, explained:

“If a cabin is overbooked they will move people early to avoid operational issues on the day. So, where possible, check-in online as early as you can.”

3. … Or try to be strategically late.

You obviously don’t want to miss your flight, but if you time your arrival just right and the online check-in shows that all the other seats are full, you might be able to snag some of those empty premium economy seats that no one has booked. That’s the first place attendants will move extra passengers. It’s a gamble though — maybe you’ll get a big seat to sit in or maybe you’ll get the middle seat in a crowded plane.

4. Don’t wear sandals or sweats when you fly.

It might be more pleasant for you to travel in comfy clothes, but you’ll never get an upgrade if you don’t look like you belong in a higher class, as elitist as that sounds.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com and experienced this phenomenon firsthand:

“I was in the lounge and I was very nicely dressed when I heard my name paged. I thought I was going to be bumped but instead they handed me a first class boarding pass and I’m sure it was because I was the only person who was decently dressed … I’ve talked to gate agents before and they tell me if they’re oversold on economy, ‘Who are we going to put in first class? Are we going to put the slob or the person who is nicely dressed?’ It doesn’t hurt to dress like you belong in first class.”

Ross Matthews, the chief marketing officer for Icelolly.com, adds:

“You need to look the part, dress smart and keep your Hawaiian shirt firmly packed until you arrive.”

5. Say you are going on your honeymoon.

This only works if you are travelling with someone, if you haven’t figured that out. There are certain special events that make flight attendants really feel the feels — a honeymoon is the one that makes them want to upgrade you. Eljas explains:

“Be aware that what airlines consider to be a “special occasion” doesn’t quite match up with the general public’s view. For example birthdays and anniversaries might be special to us but they are not recognized as special occasions by the airlines, so telling them it’s your 37th birthday might not get you very far … Honeymoons are the only special occasion you have a chance of securing an upgrade for. I have heard many upgrade stories from newlyweds who have been bumped up to business class as a congratulations.”

6. Don’t ever ask for an upgrade.

Former flight attendant Carolyn Paddock wants all passengers to know flight attendants already know that you want a free upgrade, so they don’t need reminding. More often than not, people who ask are deemed annoying or rude.

“You might think that if you don’t ask to be upgraded, you won’t get it. But every agent and flight attendant knows you want a complimentary upgrade — who wouldn’t? … Do what you can to stand out from the crowd by being friendly, well dressed, and even helpful. Asking will likely get you a ‘no.’ Why? Because so many people request, demand, and even expect it.”

7. Travelling alone makes you more eligible for an upgrade.

It’s common sense that if someone needs to be moved to first class, that someone is going to be by themselves, not with a family. Plus, if you are with your family and you ditch them for first class, you are just selfish. According to Shiel:

“If you’re without partner or children you’ll be easier to place. There are no seating considerations if there’s only one of you.”

8. Fortune favors the flexible.

When flights get overbooked, sometimes airlines will offer incentives for passengers to give up their seat and take the next flight. Incentives could be vouchers or upgrades on the next outbound flight, Shiel explains.

“This might be a lucrative move. Incentives can often include an upgrade … If you can afford to do this, tell the airline staff upon check-in.”

What you do before your flight can also make you less flexible and therefore not eligible for upgrades. According to Atkinson:

“Pre-booking meals or making pre-flight requests could hinder your chances of being upgraded, as it may be seen as too much hassle to move you … Unless you have special dietary requirement, try and be as easy to work with as possible.”

9. Don’t travel when businessmen do.

If you’re trying to increase your chances of being upgraded or choosing a seat you like, avoid flights full of people travelling for business by flying on bank holidays and during the middle of the day.

Loella Pehrsson is the regional managing director for Kayak.com and explains:

“Travelling at these times will increase the likelihood of you being able to snap up a seat in business class, as peak time travellers normally snap up the first class and business class seats.”

10. Try to book flights on wider or newer planes.

This is just for a comfier flight in general. Airlines with newer planes tend to offer more legroom and comfier seats. Clark suggests checking SeatGuru.com, which publishes seat maps that show you the best and worst seats on specific aircraft owned by specific airlines.

11. Just be a nice person when you travel.

No one — I repeat, NO ONE — cares for a rude passenger who is only concerned for their own selfish needs when they travel. Everyone has to fly, everyone has to deal with whatever inconveniences might come up, and there is no room for you to act special and privileged. It pays to be a kind person in situations where most people may not be, according to Paddock.

“Crew members have plenty of authority and should not be underestimated. If you make an effort to brighten their day, chances are they’ll be much more likely to do what they can to brighten yours … I know that when I was flying for a commercial airline I loved spoiling people I knew would appreciate my effort – and they were never the moaners and complainers.”

On a flight from New York to Milan, economy class was full and she was asked to choose six appropriately dressed passengers to move to business class.

“I walked through the cabin and selected those who were the most polished and gracious to me upon boarding. I can promise you that if you’re wearing sweats and flip flops, you may be cozy for the flight but you’ll never get the upgrade — and you’ll never even know that you’re being passed over.’”

Feature Image via Justin Ross Lee

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