Every traveler dreams of flying first class. A boarding pass with a seat in one of the first few rows of the plane is like a ticket to bliss at 35,000 feet in the sky. You get to board first and sip Champagne as you settle into your roomy seat with extra legroom while the rest of the passengers shuffle back to coach. Throughout the journey, flight attendants spoil you with multicourse meals and premium amenities. And when it’s wheels down, you’re one of the first to saunter off the plane, feeling fresh and ready for what’s ahead.
The experience comes at a price, though. First-class tickets often cost 70 percent more than economy airfare -- putting them out of most travelers’ budgets. Is there a way to get upgraded to first class without breaking the bank?
Well, yes and no. The only guaranteed way to get upgraded to first class is to shell out big bucks for a ticket. But not every first-class seat sells on every flight, giving airlines the opportunity to bump a few lucky passengers up to the front of the plane. Here are nine ways to boost your chances of getting upgraded to first class.
1. Show Your Loyalty
When airlines are choosing which passengers to upgrade to first class, they often prioritize their most loyal customers. They want to reward the customers who choose their airline over others for their travel needs throughout the year.
“Loyalty counts!” said Nick Brennan, a frequent traveler and the founder of My UK Sim Card. “If you’re going to be a frequent flyer, even on just a semiregular basis, stick to one airline.”
It’s even better if that airline is part of an alliance that can help you earn miles and status on a network of other airlines around the world. American Airlines, for example, is part of the Oneworld alliance, which includes 12 other airlines. Similarly, Delta and 18 other airlines form the SkyTeam alliance, while United is part of the 28-airline-strong Star Alliance.
“Your loyalty to one airline [can be] recognized across that airline alliance when you travel on international flights,” added Brennan. “If there’s an operational reason to upgrade passengers, such as a delayed or cancelled flight, you will be recognized before others who mix and match their flights on different airlines.”
Once you’ve earned a high status, the airline may even send you upgrade certificates you can redeem for a better seat. Score!
2. Avoid Popular Routes And Flights Between Hubs
Flying between airline hubs significantly reduces your chances of getting an upgrade. Hub cities tend to be home to more travelers with status on any given airline, creating fierce competition for first-class upgrades. If your travel plans are flexible, consider changing your route to avoid hub cities. It’s also a smart idea to avoid routes that are popular with business travelers, who use company dollars to snatch up the best seats.
“The key to securing an upgrade in the first-class or business-class cabin is that there needs to be availability,” explained Jeff Miller, cofounder of the travel blog Our Passion For Travel. “Flying San Francisco to Boston or London to New York City? You’ll be hard pressed to find availability. But if you find a route to a less popular destination, you increase your chances purely by there being seats available.”
3. Time It Right
Just as the route you take can affect your likelihood of scoring a first-class upgrade, so can the timing of your flight. Look for flights that depart at times that are undesirable to other travelers. The earliest flight of the day tends to fill up less quickly than a mid-morning route, potentially leaving space in the first-class cabin.
The time of year you fly can also impact your chances of getting an upgrade to first class. The summer travel season, high season at your destination, and the holidays are all extremely busy times to travel, and you’ll be more likely to see people bumped from an oversold flight than to get an upgrade to an already sold-out first-class cabin. Schedule your flights during the middle of the week in slow seasons for the best shot at an upgrade.
4. Volunteer To Give Up Your Seat
Go into every flight willing to be flexible. Bad weather, overbooked flights, and other issues can cause chaos and hordes of angry passengers. Be the one who volunteers to be bumped to another flight, and you may be rewarded with a first-class upgrade.
“Gate agents are empowered to offer big incentives (including money and upgrades) to passengers willing to take another flight,” said Brennan. “Politely ask at check-in whether the flight is overbooked, and let them know that you’d be willing to take another flight if the compensation is reasonable. Check again at the gate, and if you’re offered the chance to take another flight, politely negotiate the terms, which should include an upgrade to the premium cabin in addition to money.”
Parents separated from their children on a flight may be desperate to switch with someone. Offering to swap seats so that a mom can sit with her three-year-old not only earns you good karma -- it may also get you a first-class upgrade if a flight attendant takes notice and there’s availability.
5. Look The Part
Looking like you belong in first class can make you more likely to receive an upgrade than travelers wearing old sweatpants and T-shirts.
“Position yourself for an upgrade by dressing business casual,” said Grainne Kelly, a former travel agent and the creator of BubbleBum, an inflatable car booster seat. “If your flight is oversold, you could potentially get upgraded to first class, but your attire could play a role in the airline’s decision.”
Everyone wants to be comfy on a long flight. Toss your leggings and cozy clothes in your carry-on, and wear something nicer at the airport. You can always change into those other clothes once you’re on board (preferably in seat 1A!).
6. Embrace Solo Travel
Getting one first-class upgrade is hard enough. The chance of you and a companion both scoring better seats at the same time is even slimmer. If you really want to improve your odds, travel solo or make sure your ticket is on its own reservation.
7. Open An Airline Credit Card
Ever get offers for airline credit cards in your mailbox? Don’t toss them out with the rest of your junk mail -- opening a branded airline credit card will put you in a more favorable position to earn free upgrades to first class on future flights. Plus, it could earn you other perks, like early boarding and free checked bags. Ideally, the credit card should reward new customers with bonus points that they can use to upgrade their seats on future flights.
“This allows you to fly just about anywhere in the comfort of a lie-flat bed. You don’t want to overextend yourself on credit, but [points from airline credit cards] can turn a flight worth thousands of dollars into a free one,” said Miller.
Always weigh the benefits of the points against any annual fees, though. And it almost goes without saying, but no first-class upgrade is worth going into debt. Use your credit card responsibly and pay down the balance in full each month to reap the benefits without incurring costs.
8. Bid For An Upgrade
Frequent travelers lament that complimentary first-class upgrades are rarer than ever. This may be because airlines are increasingly trying to monetize these seats. Rather than giving them out for free, some airlines now auction off first-class seats to the highest bidder close to departure time. Consider putting in a bid for the chance to get a better seat for less than the face value.
“You may receive an email prior to your departure date offering you the ability to place a bid to upgrade to a premium cabin,” said Brennan. “Remember, you are bidding against others, [so be competitive].”
9. Pay For A First-Class Ticket
There are countless ways to increase your chances of getting an upgrade, but the only surefire way to sit in first class is to pay for it. Look out for curators of great flight deals online (The Flight Deal is a personal favorite of mine!), and pull the trigger when you see a reasonable fare on a first-class ticket. Devoting a chunk of your travel budget to an improved flying experience might be the icing on the cake of a bucket-list-worthy adventure.