Have you ever boarded a flight, walked past the passengers in first class, and wished you were sitting in their seats? We’ve all been there. Fortunately, there are ways to live the high life at the front of the plane — without having to pay up for the expensive tickets.
Here, we break down how to score free upgrades on domestic and international flights, plus bust some common myths about the process.
How to get an upgrade on a domestic flight
Most airlines market their premium cabin on domestic flights as “first class,” and these are typically spacious armchair-like seats on narrow-body aircraft (those with one aisle).
The best way to get upgraded to first class for free is to earn elite airline status. Complimentary upgrades are offered to frequent fliers on all the major airlines, although not necessarily on every route. United, for instance, does not offer its elite members a free upgrade on its “premium” transcontinental routes, which include Newark–Los Angeles, Newark–San Francisco, and Boston–San Francisco — these routes have flat-bed business-class seats rather than first-class armchair seats. Delta, on the other hand, does offer free upgrades on transcontinental routes with lie-flat seats, including flights to Hawaii.
If you have elite status with your airline, all you have to do is make sure to request a complimentary upgrade for your booking before your flight or as you’re checking in (specific methods vary by airline).
Upgrades are given out based on availability, and the list for those limited seats has a specific hierarchy. Top-tier elites rank highest, while other factors like having an airline-branded credit card come into play, too. Your complimentary upgrade could clear any time from a few days before your flight to the moment you scan your boarding pass. In some rare cases, you might even be called to the front after you’ve taken your seat in economy.
If you don’t have status, you can still score an upgrade, but you’ll have to pay for it. Many airlines offer upgrade deals if there’s availability in the first-class cabin, which can be paid in money or miles — choosing to pay with miles means you’d technically be getting the upgrade for free. Keep an eye out on your booking online or via your airline app to spot potential paid upgrades, or enquire at the desk if you’re checking in in person.
How to get an upgrade on an international flight
Airlines often brand their premium cabin as “business class,” with special names like Polaris (United), Delta One, Flagship Business (American), and Mint (JetBlue). Some airlines also have a class even more luxurious than business, which is, confusingly, also called first class. But in all these cases, the seats are lie-flat (or close to it).
Unlike domestic flights, upgrades on international flights are very rare. Most elites are not eligible for free upgrades to business class, except for some short-haul international flights to the Americas on some USA-based airlines. (Delta, for instance, offers free upgrades to elites on some flights to Central America, South America, and the Caribbean — usually on planes with first-class cabins, not business-class ones.)
There is one other exception: Top-tier elites are often gifted systemwide upgrades for their loyalty, and those certificates are redeemable for upgrades to business class on international flights, pending availability in the cabin. They can sometimes be used on partner airlines, like Copa for United and Air France for Delta.
If you’re not in possession of a systemwide upgrade, then you’re pretty much limited to paying with money or using miles, which, as with domestic flights, you can do before your trip or during the check-in process.
If you’re willing to pay for an upgrade, but are looking for a good deal, there are a few methods you can try. Some airlines, including Etihad and Hawaiian, allow passengers to bid for an upgrade before the flight, while others, like KLM and Qatar, sometimes offer upgrades at a sizable discount if you ask an agent at the airport.
Why you might get a “surprise” upgrade
In rare circumstances, a flight may be oversold in the economy cabin, but there could be some space in first or business class. In that case, some very lucky passengers might be bumped up to first or business class for free in what’s known as an operational upgrade. Airlines won’t pick passengers out of a hat, though — these upgrades are typically offered to elites first.
On a similar note, if your plane is overbooked and the airline is asking for volunteers to take a later flight, passengers willing to do so might have a bit of negotiating power to score an upgrade. “If you volunteer to take a ‘bump’ to the next flight, you can negotiate your way into a first-class seat. I did it for a flight from Phoenix to San Diego,” Bobby Laurie, the host of The Jet Set and a former flight attendant, tells Travel + Leisure. “I took a flight two hours later, got upgraded, and got a lounge pass to eat and pass the time.”
Can I get upgraded to first class for free on my birthday or honeymoon?
No, sadly those days are long gone. Telling the agent at the check-in desk that it’s your birthday or that you’re travelling for your honeymoon isn’t going to score you a free upgrade.
Can I ask a flight attendant or gate agent to give me an upgrade?
This policy varies by airline. “At Virgin America, it was a big no, no — a fireable offence,” says Laurie. “But at other airlines I’ve worked for as a flight attendant, we were allowed to do it once the cabin door closed. At that point, all of the elites that should have been upgraded were, and we’d use the upgrade for service recovery had something gone wrong.” In essence, there’s no harm in politely asking, but don’t hold your breath for that upgrade.
Does dressing up help my chances of an upgrade?
No, it does not. Upgrades for paying passengers do not depend on wardrobe choices; they’re primarily based on elite status. Airlines do have dress codes, though — you’re not allowed to wear clothing with offensive language, for instance. But there’s no requirement to wear business attire in business class.
However, there is a scenario where clothing might matter. “This is more of a ‘thing’ if you’re travelling on a space-available ticket or an employee pass. If it’s the only seat left on the plane, they will put you in the seat so long as you ‘look the part,'” says Laurie.