The Dos and Don’ts of Getting an Airline Upgrade, According to Travel Experts

published Jan 29, 2022
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Whether you’re headed to the airport to visit clients in another city or to finally take a vacation, there is a lot to prepare for. After all, stuffing everything into your luggage and flawlessly making it through security — all while minding COVID safety protocols — takes some planning. But while you’re busy ensuring your suitcase isn’t overweight and getting to the airport on time, you could be missing out on one thing: upgrades.

Sure, a bump to first class is always nice, but it’s difficult to attain on the go. Luckily, there are other simple perks you can receive, such as a complimentary drink. So if you’re ready to up your travel game, here are the dos and don’ts of getting a plane upgrade, according to travel agents and frequent flyers.

Do: Upgrade your attire to dress the part.

Think twice before you pull on your yoga pants, faded tennis shoes, and favorite hoodie if you are seeking extra perks. Although dressing comfortably should be a priority for long flights, there are ways to blend comfort with a dressier look. Collen Clark is a lawyer who travels often and believes your attire can influence your ability to get an upgrade. “Dressing the part is crucial,” he says. “Consumers are more likely to be upgraded when they ask politely and if their appearance is decent.” Of course, dressing well offers no guarantees. Still, it can go a long way in being taken more seriously, especially if you ask for a complimentary alcoholic beverage or upgrade to business class.

Don’t: Be rude to airline staff.

When it comes to your attitude, a little positivity can go far — as long as it’s authentic. Plus, everyone appreciates basic human decency. Ivan Kralj, a journalist and travel blogger, says a smile and cordiality will go a long way in spreading good vibes. “You don’t know how hard a day the personnel had,” he says. “Even if you do not get an upgrade of any sort, you could still possibly do a good thing: brighten up someone’s lousy day at work.” If you’re going to ask, do so without any expectations, while treating the employees with respect.

Do: Be flexible if your flight is delayed or overbooked.

Being prepared and ready to accept delays, cancellations, and rerouting has become a standard part of air travel. Even if a change in flight status causes issues with connecting flights or — worse still — causes you to miss an event or important meeting, show that you can go with the flow, which won’t go unnoticed by airline staff. “The thanks for making their job easier and being understanding of the situation may just earn you a bump up a class or the freedom to voice out your preferred seating,” advises Clark.

This rule also applies to overbooked flights, which often call for folks to move to later departure times. Overfilled flights are common, and airlines often request volunteers willing to leave on a later flight. If you have time or can work on your laptop while waiting, you may want to accept their offer. “Letting the check-in staff know that you’re willing to be moved shows you’re cooperative and flexible,” Clark says. In addition, giving up your seat could lead to an upgrade or an extra snack on your next flight.

Don’t: Check in late for your flight. 

Getting to the airport early and making your request well before departure increases your chances of getting sought-after upgrades. “Checking in early gives you a big chance to be bumped to first class when a seat opens up,” says Anton Radchenko, founder of AirAdvisor. If upgraded seats don’t fill up or folks are on standby, you just might score a last-minute bump to business class as the airline tries to make room in the main cabin.

Do: Patronize the same airline.

Loyalty has its perks, especially when flying with the same airline consistently. Many companies offer frequent flyer miles, which offer rewards when you reach certain levels — some of which can include complimentary upgrades. “Use frequent flyer miles to upgrade your ticket,” suggests Geoffrey Lenart, owner of Seven Seas Travel. However, he warns against using your rewards on short trips. “This should only be used for longer flights over a few hours long as not to waste your frequent flyer miles.”

Another option is to see if you can secure an airline credit card. Although you shouldn’t do this frivolously if you don’t need another line of credit, many airlines offer incentives and sign-on bonuses. Often you can apply and be approved for an airline credit card at the ticket counter. “Ask if you can sign up and exchange the initial miles for a seat upgrade,” says Lenart. “Oftentimes, the airlines will allow this.”

Don’t: Ignore airline emails.

Sometimes, after finalizing your booking, you’ll receive an email from the airline offering the opportunity to upgrade at a reduced rate. Although this isn’t a complimentary perk, you can head to the airport knowing that you secured a better seat if you chose to pay a bit more.

Other tactics airlines use to ensure premium seats fill up is to send emails encouraging already booked travelers to bid on prime seats. “In an ever-increasing competitive airline market, many airlines now offer customers the ability to bid for an upgrade,” says filmmaker Nicholas Brennan, who travels extensively both domestically and internationally. However, don’t be tempted to win the bid and potentially overpay for your seat. “Check resources such as the airline’s website and SeatGuru to make sure that the premium class you’re bidding on is worth the money,” he adds.