Airline upgrades are almost exclusively done by formula, with little discretion allowed to gate or check-in counter agents. The only time there may be wiggle room is when a flight is oversold, and while elite frequent flyers may get preference for moving up to a premium cabin, the most important priority is getting a flight out on time. Other than these “operational upgrades” though, upgrades are going to be based on published criteria – not who is nicest, who dresses best, or who asks.
Upgrades are tougher than they used to be. Airlines used to price first class several times the cost of coach, sell 10% of first class seats domestically, and give away the rest as upgrades. Now they monetize their first class cabins, and Delta even is aiming for 70% of first class seats to go to purchases and upsells.
If you want to have the best change of an upgrade, you want to fly when there’s the least amount of competition for scarce upgrade seats.
- Stay away from premium routes with limited capacity. People actually pay for business class between the US and Sydney. London is a premium route, but from New York there are tons of flights. Timing will matter, but there are enough seats, more so than Sydney.
- Stay away from the highest status upgraders. Don’t fly when most business travelers do, Monday morning first flight and Thursday and Friday afternoons between 5 and 7:30pm. If you want to upgrade without competition, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are your best bet and middle of the day.
- Fly during the holidays. There are fewer business travelers on the road.
American Airlines New Domestic First Class
Upgrades don’t generally go to those who ask (other than, perhaps, operational upgrades though even those often are distributed to those with elite status). They don’t go to those who dress well. And they don’t go to complainers. In other words, everything you read about upgrades in popular media is wrong.
So here are five less exciting, but more realistic, strategies for sitting up front.
- Jump Ahead of All the Elites By Confirming Your First Class Upgrade With Miles. Several airlines, like United and American, let you upgrade domestically with miles on any paid fare. If you have elite status with United (25,000 mile status or higher) you can spend miles and they will waive the cash co-pay that’s charged in addition to miles.
General members of United’s MileagePlus, and all members of American AAdvantage, have to pay the cash co-pay when redeeming miles for the upgrade. United’s price is variable based on your fare, American’s is fixed (except for full fare tickets).
American will charge you $75 plus 15,000 miles to upgrade in one direction on a domestic ticket. So the miles from a credit card signup are enough for three one-way upgrades or more.
- Book an Award Ticket. For short flights under 650 miles, it can cost as little as 9000 British Airways points each way for business class on American (think New York – Toronto) which comes with priority boarding and free checked bags. A domestic roundtrip on Alaska Airlines runs 40,000 Korean Air points, transferred in from Chase or Starwood.
- Just Buy the First Class Seat… at a Discount Airlines used to charge full fare for first class only, and didn’t discount. They sold fewer seats that way, and had more left over for upgrades. Now they frequently sell the seats at a discount, and it’s worth looking to see what the price of first class is when shopping for flights.
If you were going to spend miles and cash to upgrade, it may be ‘cheaper’ to just buy the ticket. For instance on shorter flights I’ll often see American price first class at ~ $120 more than coach. I’d rather spend $120 than spend $75 plus 15,000 miles (because in that case the miles would only get me 3/10ths of a cent in savings). Of course I’d usually rather hold out for a complimentary upgrade, and will often settle for extra legroom seats if my upgrade doesn’t clear.
- Avoid Your First Class Upgrade Competition. If you’re eligible for a complimentary upgrade or to be bumped up to first class with e-upgrade stickers, you want to maximize your chances. A 100,000 mile flyer will usually get their upgrade, a 25,000 mile flyer won’t… but the tables can be turned by picking and choosing your flight times.
Business travelers fly the most and have the highest status, usually. So flights that are popular for business travel have the most elite frequent flyer competition for upgrades.
That means you want to avoid flying when business travelers fly. Monday mornings and Thursday and Friday evenings can be toughest. There’s a not insignificant number of business travelers starting their weeks on Sunday nights, too.
- Fly mid-day
- Fly mid-week, or Saturday
The noon flight on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday won’t encounter many business travelers, and thus won’t encounter many elites fighting you for your upgrade.
- Fly mid-day
- Pick Flights on Planes That Maximize Your Chances of the First Class Upgrade. More first class seats mean more upgrades, so pick the planes that have the most seats — or, more specifically, have the greatest percentage of premium seats.
You may not be in the top 6% of elites looking for a first class upgrade on a flight, but you might be in the top 12%. A cabin with 12% premium seats gives you a much better shot at the upgrade.
Three years ago I recorded a video on how to get airline upgrades. Most of the advice still rings true.