How To Get Airline Upgrades

by TFB Editors on February 20, 2012

By Kim Weiss 

It's a lot more fun to fly in First Class or Business Class.

One of the most frequently asked questions among Baby Boomer airline travelers is: “How do I get an upgrade?”

Let’s face it, Baby Boomers do not want to sit in a cramped middle seat back in coach. We want leg room, a cushy seat, more food than a bag of pretzels, and we don’t want to share an arm rest with our “neighbor.” On international flights, we want those lay-flat seats in a First Class. In short, we want a taste of the good life, as Christine spelled out so beautifully in her Travel For Boomers post, “First Class: Traveling In Style.”

Airlines protect Business Class and First Class seats as if they were made out of gold. Selling those seats means more revenue. Airline travel is a business, after all, and it’s all about the bottom line.

That said, knowledge is power in the upgrade game.

First and foremost, if you are a frequent flier with a certain airline, you may be eligible for a complimentary upgrade.  If you’re not sure, call the airline. Reservations agents and customer service representatives know the upgrade policies. The airlines set the rules and they have to follow them.

If you’re not eligible for a complimentary upgrade, perhaps the ticket you’ve already purchased can be upgraded. Give the airline a call a day before your flight, or check-in with the gate agent at least an hour prior to your flight’s departure, to see if you can purchase an upgrade.

The gate agent has ultimate control over who sits where.

Some of the best advice on getting upgrades comes from airline reservations agents and customer service representatives, who remind us that the person with the most control over your upgrade fate (other than you by actually purchasing a First or Business class ticket) is the gate agent. The gate agent has ultimate control over who sits where.

Here are some tips for approaching gate agents from our reliable sources:

1. Be realistic. If the flight shows that there are 30 people on the upgrade list, they are likely Elite status fliers already on the complimentary upgrade list. It’s a benefit of being a frequent flier and gaining status. Getting upgraded over a status flier isn’t worth the effort. It isn’t going to happen.

2.  Follow the Golden Rule.  If gate agents are really busy and it doesn’t look as if they have time to chit-chat, don’t bother. They have a small amount of time to get a lot of paperwork done. Treat them as you would wish to be treated if you were busy. If you have any chance of getting an upgrade from a busy agent, it will be because you ask if you can get them something, such as a cup of coffee or some water. Even if you don’t get an upgrade, you’ve done your part to be nice to someone.

3. Be Polite. Sugar goes farther than salt.

4. Board late. This can be tricky because if you board late, you may have to gate-check a carry-on bag due to limited overhead bin space. That said, if someone with a First class seat doesn’t show up, you have a chance to score that upgrade by coming in late. Follow the other tips and remember that nothing is guaranteed.

The best way to guarantee a first class or business class ticket is to pay for it. Better yet, if you have enough frequent flier miles to book a better ticket, do it. That’s a “free” way to get an upgrade.

Anyone else have a suggestion for how to get an upgrade? Please share in the Comments section.


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