Take to the skies in style with a flight upgrade

Flying is a great way to get from point A to point B, but sitting in economy class is rarely enjoyable. With these tips and tricks, you could enjoy an upgrade on your next flight.

Follow our tips to maximize your changes of upgrading your flight. Image credit: iStock
Follow our tips to maximize your changes of upgrading your flight. Image credit: iStock

For the average passenger, flying in economy class is the easiest and cheapest way to get across the country or around the world. Unfortunately, even though some airlines are actively working to make flying economy a better experience, other airlines have created tighter accommodations with limited leg room, upcharges for carry-ons, and a limited ability to recline. As such, a free or low-cost upgrade to first class or business class can be worth its weight in gold – particularly on long flights.

The ins and outs of upgrades

Several years ago, free flight upgrades weren’t so rare. Regular travelers, whether for business or leisure, were occasionally upgraded at the gate by pure chance, adding a surprising twist to what was originally a routine flight.

Today, times are different. Free upgrades aren’t as commonplace anymore, with a number of airlines preferring to only put passengers in premium seats who are willing to pay for them. However, by taking advantage of insider tips and tricks to improve your odds, it may be possible to get that first class seat without having to pay for it.

Increasing your chances of free airline upgrades

Arbitrary upgrades aren’t the norm anymore, with desk agent preferences and airline policies limiting opportunities to those that have best met a series of internal metrics. To improve your odds, it’s up to you to take the steps that will put you on the list of deserving customers. Here’s what you can do to boost your chances of a complimentary upgrade the next time you fly.

Arrive early

Airports and airlines often emphasize checking in at least an hour prior to take-off for domestic flights and two hours for international flights, but showing up even earlier can be to your advantage. When there are unsold seats in first or business class flights, some kind desk agents may be willing to give you a boost if you’re the first passenger to check in.

Arrive late

Getting to the airport after recommended times is never a good idea, but if you happen to be running behind, you may wind up with an unforeseen advantage: a free upgrade. When guests fail to check in close to the time of boarding, gate agents may begin to give economy seats to passengers on standby. When you check in, you may get a bump to first class simply because there are no other seats to offer.

Time your arrival to the airport. Image credit: izusek/iStock
Time your arrival to the airport. Image credit: izusek/iStock

Purchase last minute

Common sense often dictates against booking last minute as flights are can be expensive in the days leading up to departure, but taking this step could be a benefit. Some airlines will continue to permit customers to book economy tickets even if all standard economy seats are taken; this is most frequently true for airlines like Delta and United, which offer higher priced economy plus seats for a surcharge to economy class ticket purchasers. By intentionally choosing not to select a seat during booking when only economy plus seats remain, there’s a chance these economy seats will be filled by standby passengers and you’ll get a free upgrade.

Invest in your experience

There’s no need to spend more than you were planning on in hopes of a better seat, but if you have a pricey trip coming up due to unique circumstances, such as a need for additional checked baggage or overweight items that require extra fees, you may be able to negotiate an upgrade. As with most businesses, bigger spenders often reap the best rewards.

Join loyalty programs

If you’re partial to a particular airline or find yourself regularly purchasing from the same airline out of sheer coincidence, consider signing up for their loyalty program. Most major airlines offer free programs and the opportunity to accrue points and curry favor with the brand. If you’re in the market for a new credit card, this is an option as well.

Stay on top of emails

Most people send promotional emails straight to the trash, but if you have a big trip coming up, keep an eye on your email for messages from your airline. While most are likely to be advertisements for future trips, you may receive hidden gems; occasionally, airlines will contact passengers enrolled in loyalty programs or who have spent a lot on a flight with the chance for a free upgrade to business class.

Stay on top of your emails if you want a chance of getting an upgrade. Image credit: iStock
Stay on top of your emails if you want a chance of getting an upgrade. Image credit: iStock

Just ask

Want that first class seat? Just ask. While it can be nerve-wracking to approach a desk agent and ask for favors, the worst outcome is a “no”. Some airlines have a blanket policy against granting these requests, but there’s no harm in trying. If you’re polite, courteous, and non-confrontational when you approach the desk, you may be the lucky recipient of a business class or first class seat without having to pay extra.

It’s rarely easy to get anything in life for free, and that includes flight upgrades. With tighter margins and more conservative pricing, it’s no surprise that airlines aren’t as generous as they used to be. However, this doesn’t mean a complimentary bump to a better seat is impossible. Knowing the ins and outs of airline practices can increase your odds, putting you at the top of the list for a free airline upgrade if you play your cards right.

If you miss out on a free flight upgrade, you can always upgrade your travels by booking a Blacklane professional airport transfer to get to your destination in style.