Get An Airline Upgrade By Simply [Tip Here] … Um, No

On a nearly daily basis I receive promotional emails offering to teach me the secret to scoring an airline upgrade, a few times a week readers email asking about how to score an airline upgrade, at least once a week someone will complain that they didn’t get an upgrade …so what is the secret to an upgrade?


First lets start with the five most common false ‘how to get a free upgrade” tips I see constantly perpetuated.


– Ask A Flight Attendant

– Complain Via Social Media

– Dress In Business Attire

– Board Your Flight Late

– Ask A Travel Agent To Mark Your Reservation


So, let’s pick apart these five myths shall we …


For starters, Flight Attendants cannot upgrade passengers. Asking a flight attendant for an upgrade will almost always result in being rejected and likely annoying the flight attendant.  Moving to a first class seat and telling the flight attendants in the cabin that another flight attendant said it was OK will result in your removal from the cabin … and probably being ignored by the in-flight crew for the remainder of the flight.


Occasionally some flights may have weights and balances issues that require passengers be moved around. Weights and balances adjustment may result in a few passengers being moved to the forward cabin, but if flight attendants do this they are moving people from specific areas, generally from the middle of the aircraft. It is not possible to figure out what flights may have weights and balance issues, so forget trying to predict this for an upgrade.


If you plan to complain via social media for your upgrade … well good luck.  An airline’s social media team may work to smooth over passenger issues, but more often than not, providing an upgrade is not something within the power of those handling an airline’s social media  (I speak from having been a person handling airline corporate social media engagement). Complaining via social media can expedite a phone call from the airline, assist in changing flights, result in a message being passed along that results in bonus miles, it may rarely get you into a lounge … but an upgrade … don’t count on it.   Those who handle airline social media are adept at determining real passenger issues vs those who are just seeking free handouts from the person complaining.


Dressing in business attire for an upgrade may have worked a decade or more ago, but no longer.  Look around first class and you’ll see quite a few passengers in jeans and t-shirts and nearly all of them are likely to be top tier elite frequent flyers … the people the airline’s give free upgrades to as a reward for their loyalty.   Looking like you’ve just rolled out of bed after a two day bender is probably not the best way to present yourself while seeking an undeserved upgrade, but wearing slacks, a sport coat and a big smile along isn’t going to get you moved to the big seats upfront.


Boarding late is an odd myth that is perpetuated as a way to score an upgrade. The logic is that gate agents scanning the boarding passes of those last to the flight may move them to an open seat in first class. In reality, by the time the last minute passengers have arrived at the gate, the gate agents have already gone through the list of eligible frequent flyers and moved them to their upgraded seats.


Many years ago travel agents had more pull with airlines to influence airline passenger upgrades.  If a travel agent had a high priority client, friend or relative they would mark the reservation with Commercially Important Passenger (CIP) or Suitable for Upgrade (SFU) and very often the airlines would select these passengers for upgrades. Now, with airlines full of elite level frequent flyers, loyal to their airline and passengers purchasing full-fare economy seats that cost more than discounted first class seats, the chances of a ticket marked with CIP or SFU getting an upgrade is generally slim-to-fat.


If you want an upgrade you should join a frequent flyer program of the airline you prefer to fly, then fly enough to qualify for top tier elite status.  If you don’t fly enough to qualify for elite status, consider a full fare ticket for a Y-up. A Y-up is when a passenger pays for a full-fare economy seat and is upgraded to first. If Y-up fares are to expensive, then check in at a kiosk at the airport, even if you’ve checked in online. Many flights offer affordable last minute upgrades for purchase at the check-in kiosks (I once scored a business class upgrade from Philadelphia to London for $150 at a kiosk!)


On a more personal note … if you get an upgrade you didn’t really deserve and see a member of the military traveling in uniform, consider getting up and giving them your seat.  I don’t care what service they are in, or what country they serve, their job is a sacrifice and the seat up front is a small piece of comfort they likely don’t get often enough.


Happy Flying!


  1. ” . . . then fly enough to qualify for top tier elite status.”

    Or, pick flights that likely have fewer top frequent flyers, e.g., avoid late Friday afternoon & early evening out of Newark.

    Saturday flights work well for me.

    I get upgraded amazingly frequently & I am at the lowest level of elite status.

  2. On Delta Flights, the Purser has the power to upgrade folks at their discretion. This has been done before.

  3. You left out “the speech” which is a popular myth on flyertalk.

    You also left out one way for elite FF members to increase upgrade chances: consult a database like UDUstats which provides real time historical data on which flights have the most upgrades depending on status/day of week/time/fare paid. Also for international flights, selecting a flight that is perpetually overbooked may result in an op-up. However with loads close to 100%, that is less likely these days. Conversely, for domestic flights you can increase your upgrade chances by booking flights that have fewer elites, i.e. by avoiding hub-to-hub routes like SFO-IAD for United, or flying offpeak times when there are fewer elites. But maybe that’s another subject for another column.

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