Free flight upgrades are still possible, but they require both planning and luck.
Here are the top ways to increase the odds of scoring free airline upgrade:
Join the Airline Loyalty Program
Airlines give priority for upgrades to frequent fliers, especially their top-tier members, along with letting you board early in the game, when there is still space left in the overhead.
Pick an airline and stick to it. If you are a regular customer you are more likely to get those three coveted letters: SFU (Suitable For Upgrade) next to your name on the passenger list.
Also, there are often rewards for accumulating miles quickly, usually over one calendar year, and different “perks” are awarded each time you hit a certain mileage tier.
It’s FREE to join an airline frequent flyer loyalty program.
- ecoXplorer tip: Even if you don’t get an upgrade, loyalty program members are less likely to be assigned the dreaded middle seat. To me, not being stuck in the middle is an upgrade.
Get a Credit Card from Your Favorite Airline
Some cards, like my own American Express Delta card, cost $95 or so a year, but offer one free checked bag on each trip. So the card pays for itself after two round trips.
Another bonus is that your free checked bag perk extends to friends or family traveling together on the same flights.
Others, like the one from JetBlue, carry no annual fee, but still give you the perks of priority boarding and one free checked bag.
If you are travelling as part of a small group, an airline is unlikely to be able to upgrade everyone, and therefore nobody gets an upgrade.
However, you still have a chance if you are the only one in the group who is a high-mileage loyalty member.
The economy seats will likely have been filled, meaning you may get upgraded directly to comfort or business class.
This is a very risky strategy because airlines are entitled to give away your seat if you have not checked in by a certain time, generally 30 minutes before a domestic flight and 45-60 for international.
- ecoXplorer tip: You should only try this gambit if you are travelling with carry-on only. Checking in late also means you could miss the cut-off for checked baggage, which is also generally 30 minutes before departure for a domestic flight and 45-60 for international.
Be Plane Picky
Pick a flight that will be using an airplane with a large comfort, business or first class cabin.
- ecoXplorer tip: You can find out this information from sites like Seat Guru.
Volunteer to Give Up Your Seat
Airlines routinely over-book flights, to make up for the inevitable no-shows. If you are not in a rush and can take a later plane or connection, you can give up your seat for a reward that can be money, a voucher for a free flight, and an upgrade.
Years ago, I gave up my seat and those of my two kids to a military family who would oherwise miss their connection. The airline rewarded us with an upgrade to first class on the next flight, and my young son wound up sitting next to a Hollywood action film star he idolized.
Be Courteous and Dress Appropriately
You are more likely to be upgraded if you are smartly dressed. Passengers wearing sweatpants, t-shirts with tacky sayings and such don’t stand much of a chance to get an upgrade.
You are also more likely to be upgraded if you ask nicely. Gate attendants are human, after all, and they are not likely to say yes to an arrogant, demanding or hostile paassenger.
When All Else Fails
Marry a flight attendant or pilot. Seriously, even if it doesn’t get you an upgrade, you’ll still be traveling on a steeply discounted ticket.
What’s your system for getting an upgrade?