The 11 Most Effective Tactics for Getting Upgraded When Flying?!?

hen I saw this article pertaining to The Most Effective Tactics for Getting Upgraded When Flying, the first thing I did was check the date of the article of when it was posted at Yahoo! Travel.

It was posted on April 2, 2015; so it was neither an older article nor a joke for April Fool’s Day — unless it was posted one day late.

“Every time I check in for a flight, I secretly hope that a member of the airline will swoop in and dramatically announce I am being upgraded”, Sophie Forbes wrote in the article. “So far this has happened a grand total of zero times.”

That is because being upgraded — as she acknowledges — “is a much harder to accomplish and less frequent occurrence nowadays”; but she assures us that “there are still some tips and tricks of the trade that can help you secure that coveted premium seat.”

Premium seat. With the advent of the premium economy cabin seat, that can be a rather nebulous term these days — especially when the premium economy cabins of different airlines can vary in terms of amenities and quality.

Ironically, I might have given Forbes a pass if she were actually more nebulous about what constitutes a upgrade on an airplane — similarly to what are considered upgraded rooms at hotel and resort properties. “Oh, your room is considered an upgrade because the trees and bushes in the view from this room are a more favorable shade of green that of those in the other room.” However, I find that the majority of the “tactics” are useless at best.

All right — let us no longer postpone the inevitable slogging through this list of the 11 most effective tactics for getting upgraded while flying as a passenger on an airline…

Loyalty

Being an elite level status member of a frequent flier loyalty program will indeed give you a significantly better chance of an upgrade — but it will not ensure a significantly better upgrade. There are countless stories on both FlyerTalk and Milepoint — as well as in numerous weblogs — where loyalty is a much less significant factor for scoring that vaunted upgrade for a variety of reasons, which include but are not limited to fewer competitors; a reduced number of seats available in the premium class cabin for which more people are vying; and more stringent restrictions as to who should qualify for an upgrade.

Despite all of that, being an elite level status member of a frequent flier loyalty program is probably your best bet in your quest of being upgraded to a seat in the premium class cabin — or, more likely, the premium economy class cabin — of an airplane.

Just Ask (Politely)

“May I please sit in a seat in the premium class cabin?” Ask with a smile.

“Absolutely. Here you go. Seat 2B.”

2B or not to be: that is the question.

The answer: you might have a better chance of being struck by lightning or winning the top prize in a lottery. Don’t count on it…

…but then again, I have always espoused that it is better to ask than not. I agree with Forbes when she says “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” The worst that can happen is that the agent will laugh at you with a hearty guffaw as he or she announces over the public address system: “Hey, everybody! He thinks he will get an upgrade by just asking! What a maroon!” while pointing at you. The best that could happen is that you might actually be rewarded with that elusive upgrade.

I will, however, impart a rather unusual experience: while waiting at the gate for a flight to the Bahamas, I was checking to see if there were any seats available which were better than the one to which I was assigned in the economy class cabin. There were none which were available; but somehow that led to a nice conversation I had with the gate agent…

…and inexplicably — just prior to boarding the airplane for the flight to Nassau — I wound up with an unexpected upgrade for which I did not qualify — and I did not even ask for it.

That is a highly unusual example of getting upgraded which actually happened to me; but the job of a gate agent can be very demanding and stressful. Sometimes a simple smile or asking how he or she is doing can brighten his or her day; and that can be rewarding in and of itself — even if there is no upgrade.

It does not hurt to take a moment of your time and simply ask if an upgrade is available — as long as you just adjust and gauge your expectations accordingly, as in: no.

Fly During Quieter Times

Quieter times for flights have become increasingly rare mainly due to consolidation in commercial aviation, which has basically led to fewer flights; but they still exist. Realize that there is a reason why there are quieter times: because they are not as popular primarily because of when those flights are scheduled.

However, this basically only works if you are an elite level status member of a frequent flier loyalty program; and even then, your chances of scoring that upgraded seat are still elusive…

…but there are accounts of members of frequent flier loyalty programs who have earned the lowest elite status tier and had success in being upgraded. However, that is usually for a flight scheduled to depart at 5:30 in the morning on a Saturday — but there is hope…

Dress Nicely

“While being dressed in your best suit isn’t guaranteed to put you at the top of the upgrade list, being dressed like a slob is a sure-fire way to destroy your chances.”

Really? I cannot tell you how many passengers I have seen seated in the premium class cabin aboard airplanes who wear sandals, torn clothes and emit odors worse than a pungent cheese factory near a sewage treatment plant across from a sulphur mine next to a landfill — but then again, they probably paid outright for their seats rather than hope for an upgrade.

Conversely, I have seen people sharply dressed enough where they look like they should be modeling for a high fashion publication or out on the catwalk at a fashion show rather than struggling to be comfortable in their middle seats towards the back of the airplane.

Again, this basically only works if you are an elite level status member of a frequent flier loyalty program; and even then, your chances of scoring that upgraded seat are still elusive — but dressing nicely certainly would not hurt.

You might disagree with me, though, if I say that I believe you have a better chance for an upgraded seat by being polite while not nicely dressed than having an attitude of a DYKWIA — which means Do You Know Who I Am? — while formally dressed.

Birthday Benefits

“Pulling the ‘honeymoon’ card almost never works now, but if you are traveling on your birthday, and are flying alone, be sure to inform every member of staff you come across. You may well end up with the gift of more legroom and free drinks.”

Oh, sure. I can see it now…

“May I please sit in a seat in the premium class cabin?” Ask with a smile.

“I am sorry, sir. That is only for elite level status members of our frequent flier loyalty program.”

“…but I do have elite status.”

“There are 346 people ahead of you on the upgrade list, sir. Please accept my sincerest apologies.”

“…but it is my birthday today.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?!? Here you go. Seat 2B.”

There are 365 days in a year; but I will take a leap and say that there are 366 days in a year. A typical Boeing 777-300 aircraft can hold up to 415 passengers. Chances are that it is someone’s birthday on that flight, as most people have one every year — so it would not be possible to everyone who is celebrating a birthday on the day of the flight. While it does not hurt to ask, do not count on it — whether or not it is your birthday, honeymoon, wedding anniversary, graduation day, or National Pickle Day.

Exploit Your Injury

…and while you are at it, why not show your “emotional support” animal to the gate agent or flight attendant to further exploit your injury — assuming that it is for real? You might just win the sympathy of the crew, right?

“Excuse me; but I am hobbling on one leg and it really hurts — especially when I am not using my crutches. I am carrying my snake with me, which provides me with the emotional support I need. Upgrade me, please.”

“How did your leg get injured, if you do not mind my asking?”

“The snake bit me on my leg.”

Use Your Title

I am not even going to comment on how unfair this is — if it is indeed true — but this “tactic” smacks of DYKWIA in the purest form:

“I am Dr. Whatsa Schmosis; and I am the lead attorney for the law firm Dewey, Cheatham and Howe in Los Angeles. I just returned from outer space during my stint as an astronaut; and I need to get to Detroit to work out as linebacker for the Lions so that they can win the Super Bowl this year after starring in that new movie with Angelina Jolie and Ben Affleck.”

“Yes, SIR!!! You are far more important than these nobodies all lined up here at the gate. Here you go. Seat 2B. Better yet: let me summon our secret private jet just for you.”

Pay

What a novel idea. Pay for your upgrade. Why didn’t I think of that?!?

In all seriousness, this is your best chance of getting an upgrade these days — short of outright paying for a seat in the premium class cabin aboard an airline from the onset. In the endlessly relentless chase for more profits, many airlines now offer what frequent fliers call first class monetization — that is, the opportunity for an airline to sell upgraded seats at the gate to those who are willing to pay extra for them before giving them away as complimentary upgrades to elite level status members of frequent flier loyalty programs.

I find that — more often than not — the cost of the upgraded seat does not match the value, in my opinion…

…but as many frequent fliers say, “your mileage may vary.”

Fly Alone

“Available upgrades are almost always seats situated on their own, next to an already occupied seat”, wrote Forbes. “This means that solo travelers are far more likely to be upgraded than couples or small groups.”

This can be true — but again, this basically only works if you are either an elite level status member of a frequent flier loyalty program or pay for your upgrade; and even then, your chances of scoring that upgraded seat are still not in your favor.

After all, the number of seats in the premium class cabin are limited; and there are only so many of them available after the passengers who paid outright to sit in those seats have occupied them.

“Husband? Who, him?!? I do not know him from a hole in the wall. May I please sit in a seat in the premium class cabin?” Ask with a smile.

“Absolutely. Here you go. Seat 2B.”

After the flight has concluded, ensure that you are at least ten miles away from the airport before you apologize profusely to your husband or wife, who sat in middle seat 84Q on the same flight. Hopefully — or not — you will still be married by then.

Complain Nicely

“There are many reasons why a flight attendant would agree to move you from your allocated seat. These include a broken seat belt, a dodgy in-flight entertainment system, even a crying baby next to you. So it is always worth politely inquiring if you can be moved”, advised Forbes. “Admittedly, you run the risk of ending up in a seat right at the back, next to the lavatory, but in some cases the only available seat could possibly be the crown jewel 1A right up front. You never know.”

This can actually be true — especially if you are able to tug the ear of a sympathetic flight attendant — but be sure that the complaint is legitimate. You are more likely to be granted an upgraded seat with the aforementioned examples than if you complain about being uncomfortable because the thread count of the seat in which you are sitting is too low for your standards…

…but do not complain more often than necessary. You never know if employees of the airline are keeping track of you; and you do not want to emulate the boy who cried “Wolf!” where your complaints are little more than false alarms.

Offer to Take a Later Flight

I can confirm that this has worked for me more than once. I will impart to you an actual example.

On a flight from the United States to Zurich several years ago for which I was going to spend ten days in Europe — but some plans fell through and I did not need all ten days after all — an announcement by the gate agent requested volunteers who were willing to take a later flight.

I, of course, volunteered.

I was instructed to wait aside while the passengers boarded the airplane. After the door was closed and the airplane departed for Zurich, the gate agent then scheduled me to be a passenger on an earlier flight the next day, which was absolutely fine with me. I was already being compensated with a voucher worth $750.00 for a flight on which I paid $333.00; plus I was given $40.00 for meals and lodging for the night — and I earned frequent guest loyalty program points from a purchase at the hotel where I relaxed and stayed for the night.

“What seat would you prefer?” the gate agent asked me.

“A seat as close to the front as possible,” I replied — which is my typical preference…

…and then — after a momentary pause — I finished the response with a suggestion that I be seated in the business class cabin.

I was completely joking about that last part; so you can imagine my surprise when the gate agent said “Let me see…” and started clicking away at the keyboard on the computer.

Before I realized it, I was assigned to a seat in the business class cabin; and it was treated as though I paid for it and not as an upgrade, which meant that I earned bonus frequent flier loyalty program miles and qualification miles towards elite level status for the next year — as well as complimentary access to the airport lounge…

…all for only $333.00 and a night of my time.

There was another example from years ago where I volunteered to “bump” myself off of an airplane for a flight to West Palm Beach — on which I was assigned a seat in the economy class cabin — for a flight to Fort Lauderdale instead where I received a voucher; and without even asking, I was assigned to a seat in the first class cabin on the Fort Lauderdale flight, which departed only an hour later. All I had to do was change my rental car reservation, which was no problem at all. I was definitely well compensated for that hour of my time…

…which leads me to the next thought: do not offer to take a later flight unless it is really worth your time. If you value your time at $200.00 per hour, for example, offering to take a later flight may not be worth your time if the next flight departs two days later; the next day; or even several hours later. Ensure that the compensation is reasonable enough to alter your plans before offering.

Also, simply walking up to the counter and asking to depart on a later flight will typically not be of any benefit to you if the flight was not overcrowded. Airlines have become more efficient in their efforts to reduce “bump” opportunities over the years and would rather not compensate you unless it is to their benefit — but one of the secrets of the possibility of being “bumped” by an airline is that you can attempt to purposely book a ticket on a flight which may have more opportunities for a “bump” situation. A flight on the day before Thanksgiving in the United States has more of a chance of being overbooked than a flight on a typical Saturday morning, for example.

Summary

Many of the aforementioned “most effective tactics for getting upgraded when flying” are either obsolete or simply bogus — primarily because airlines are profitable and do not need to entice you with benefits like they did years ago when they were bleeding cash. Still, it does not hurt to try to secure an upgraded seat — especially if you are waiting at the gate or inside of an airport lounge with nothing better to do, as you never know what will be the result…

…but realize that upgrades are more difficult than ever for most passengers.

If you really and truly want to be assigned to a seat in the premium class cabin aboard an airplane, the best way is to simply pay for it.

6 thoughts on “The 11 Most Effective Tactics for Getting Upgraded When Flying?!?”

  1. Brian says:

    As silly and unlikely as it sounds, I have been undeservedly upgraded in the past at various times because I was 1) nice to the gate agent; 2) flexible with regard to seat moves; 3) nicely dressed; and 4) definitely not worth it) on the way to a funeral of a loved one. Somehow I feel obliged to point out that I’m average looking (at best) and have never thought of myself as overly charming. But, op-ups even if not technically at the discretion of the gate agent are something that they have a lot of control over. You can also end up in 35E by being an @$$ too.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Number four especially resonated with me, Brian.

      I will never forget the flight on which I was a passenger, heading home after witnessing the death of my mother some years ago.

      I was upgraded on that flight — and you are right…as much as I appreciated it, it was definitely not worth it.

      I would trade any upgrade any day to see my mother again…

  2. Dylan says:

    Thanks for the post, it’s always fun to hear what works and doesn’t work, even though there’s really no sure fire way other than to buy a ticket in the class of travel.

    The birthday option actually works if you have status with CX, and actually fly them on your birthday. They also often do an anniversary upgrade, e.g. the anniversary of when your membership year expires. While I had neither, there’s a pretty steady FlyerTalk thread about these benefits.

    There are a few interesting times I’ve talked my way into upgrades, even in recent years:

    * In cases where an award ticket would only book into economy for a segment, when the rest of the ticket was in business class (this happened on TG, with a nice beep when our boarding passes were scanned… and it did happen to be on the honeymoon)
    * Separate tickets on BA and UA, BA flight was late, arrived for the UA flight too late, was initially downgraded to economy, but I insisted that they put me on the upgrade list. I think my flustered confusion helped a lot.
    * On US, I was heading to my grandmother’s funeral, there was one empty seat available for paid upgrade. While I had status, my upgrade hadn’t cleared, but with a bit of kindness I received the seat.
    * On AA, they asked for volunteers to take a flight an hour later in exchange for a voucher. We volunteered, and I asked if we could also be upgraded. We were.
    * On BA, I had a nonstandard award ticket available for a business class ticket, but there was no availability for my city. In exchange for flying from elsewhere, they upgraded to First since I had to buy a domestic ticket between cities.
    * On BA, I was stuck in London for a few extra days during the 2010 snowpacalypse. I was upgraded from CW to F as this was the only seat they had left that would get me back to the US in time for Christmas.
    * On SQ, on an RTW business class ticket, I asked about upgrades to the suite. They said it would be $7500. On board, I talked to the flight attendants, and while I was not upgraded, because the cabin was empty I was given a tour and shown all of the amenities.

    One final bit of random commentary, a few months ago I had an F ticket on AA from EWR to ORD and arrived early after a meeting finished early. I was asked if I wanted to standby for an early flight in economy. I laughed, and said I wasn’t going to swap a paid F seat to fly in a middle seat in economy in order to arrive an hour or two earlier, as I could work in the lounge and on the flight, whereas in economy that wouldn’t happen. They seemed surprised that I wouldn’t want to take the earlier flight offer. I asked if F was available on the earlier flight, and it was not. I’m not sure I’d really ever voluntarily downgrade in many circumstances. I could understand if I had a paid economy ticket and had received an upgrade.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I am thinking back in my years of flying, Dylan; and I want to say that there have been one or two times where I was confirmed for a seat in the first class cabin but chose a seat in the economy class cabin on an earlier flight — but I cannot definitively recall.

      Boston keeps coming to my mind as to where it may have happened; but I otherwise agree that I would usually rather have the better seat if I have been confirmed for it.

      As to the article itself: the main point was that the title of the original article to which I referred seem to intimate that if you employ one or more of the “tactics”, you may get that upgrade — when the reality is that you will most likely not get it.

      There are, of course, anomalies and special cases — such as the ones you point out from your experiences — which comprise the exceptions; but that is what they are: exceptions on which you typically cannot count for that elusive upgrade…

      …and — as you also point out — the chance of getting an upgrade depends on a variety of circumstances, which include but are not limited to the airline on which you fly as a passenger and with which employees of the airline you deal. Again, none of them are guaranteed whether or not one employs the tactics mentioned in the article. At best, the chances for an upgrade might be slightly better at the most — but those increased chances are insignificant at best.

      While raising my virtual glass to you, here is hoping that you get surprised with more upgrades in the future, Dylan — and thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  3. Dylan says:

    @Brian, agreed that the original article was a bit comical. The real point is that upgrades are a complete crapshoot, and trying the tactics listed in that article are probably getting laughed at by airport employees on a regular basis.

    Thanks for the virtual glass, and the same to you! Thanks for the blog.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you for reading, Dylan — I truly appreciate it!

      You are correct about upgrades. Since I posted that article, I noticed a number of other articles which ranged from mildly criticizing the original article to completely lambasting it.

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