There’s a New Reality for Upgrades. Here’s How to Get Into First Class.

The New York Times has a piece on how airlines are monetizing premium seats making first class upgrades harder to get.

The perks of being a frequent flier are not as valuable as they once were. That is especially evident to travelers hoping to score a free upgrade to first class.

Airlines, more and more, would rather get money for those upgrades. So they are using last-minute deals to entice passengers to pay to move to the front of the plane, while leaving frequent fliers languishing on the waiting list.

Why First Class Upgrades Have Gotten Harder

It used to be that 100,000 mile flyers found themselves in first class nearly all the time, and even mid-tier frequent flyers found themselves with first class upgrades most of the time.

Two years ago I explained why first class upgrades had become harder to get.

  1. Airlines are selling discounted first class fares far more than they ever used to.
  2. Airlines are making aggressive buy up offers to first class.
  3. The economy has doing better than it was.
  4. Airlines aren’t expanding as quickly as they used to. As air travel grows, and airlines ‘practice capacity discipline’, there’s more demand for a dwindling number of available upgrade seats.
  5. Lots of people confirm their upgrades in advance – in part because of all the miles that are out there, and in part because of how tough the competition is.

Airlines Sell First Class Cheap Instead of Giving Them Away to Elites

A decade ago discounted first class fares were rare. People paid $2000+ for an airline ticket up front, or they got the upgrade for free with their coach ticket. Back then revenue first class was usually less than 10% of the cabin, although on some routes of course it was higher.

There was very little in-between. Now airlines are more aggressive in taking some incremental revenue for the seat instead of only offering first class at full fare.

The technology has changed, too. There used to be coach fares and first class fares. Now airlines can sell first class as an add-on to the cheapest available coach fare (indeed to any coach fare).

Not only are airlines selling the seats cheaper, they’re making it easier for people to buy them. Go to United.com or AA.com to buy your ticket and you’re likely to be prompted with the suggestion that it’s “only” a certain amount more for first class. When people don’t look for that cheap price, it’s suggested to them. Some say yes.

Didn’t buy first class? If there are seats left the airline may try to sell it to you in person. While airlines usually say they are trying to accommodate free elite upgrades before selling those first class seats for “tens of dollars” to non-status frequent flyers, it doesn’t always work out this way. United’s systems are notorious for the cheap buy up offers, sometimes made only to non-elites.

Last month I wrote about United offering me (a non-elite) a $59 buy up to first class for one of the last 2 seats while 13 people were on the waitlist for an elite upgrade.

first class upgrades

Upgrade Success Has Fallen Dramatically

In 2010, Delta disclosed the rate of success for elites in securing first class upgrades.

  • Diamond 125,000 mile flyers: 85%
  • Platinum 75,000 mile flyers: 75%
  • Gold 50,000 mile flyers: 55%
  • Silver 25,000 mile flyers: 40%

Since then however first class upsells have been on the upswing. When Delta began upselling into first class, only 11% of premium cabin passengers had paid something to be there. Since then:

  • In 2011, 31% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
  • In 2012, 36% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
  • In 2013, 40% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
  • In 2014, 45% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there
  • In 2015, 57% of domestic first class passengers have paid something to be there

In 2018 Delta expects to be up to 70%. And they expect to go from selling 36% of extra legroom coach seats to over 50% by that time.


Delta Investor Day Presentation

How to Still Score First Class Upgrades

If you want to have the best change of first class upgrades, you want to fly when there’s the least amount of competition for scarce upgrade seats.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Fly during the holidays. There are fewer business travelers on the road.

first class upgrades
American Airlines New Domestic First Class

First class upgrades don’t generally go to those who ask. 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.

Five Strategies for Sitting Up Front

Here are five less exciting, but more realistic, strategies for sitting up front.

  1. Jump Ahead of All the Elites By Confirming First Class Upgrades 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.

  2. Book an Award Ticket. Use your miles outright. Some programs charge less than others. For instance you can use 40,000 Korean Air SkyPass miles to book an Alaska Airlines domestic roundtrip.

  3. 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.

  4. Avoid Your Competition for First Class Upgrades. 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.

  5. Pick Flights on Planes That Maximize Your Chances of First Class Upgrades. 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 flyers looking for a first class seat either paid outright or upgraded, but you might be in the top 12%. A cabin with 12% premium seats gives you a much better shot at the upgrade.

Unquestionably upgrades are harder as airlines sell more seats, including selling them cheaper than before. And that makes loyalty less valuable than it used to be.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. #3 is where it is at, especially if you fly Delta…Best. Frequent. Flyer. Enhancement. Ever.

  2. #3 is definitely where it’s at, and DL has been the most aggressive. On DL a connecting F flight is marginally more than coach, and they are very good operationally so not that risky. Just don’t forget to credit to AS. 🙂

  3. You mentioned that UA waives the co-pay when elite status mileage plus redeem mile to upgrade. I just upgraded on their site and they charged me 30K in miles PLUS charged me $600 on a SFO-NRT flight. I’m Gold Elite, should I be seeking a refund?

  4. Yep- good synopsis of the current situation, though as usual, Gary, you have a typo- the title of the second paragraph says “why first class upgrades have gotten harder”, when you mean easier, right?

    Between buying a cheap upgrade, to using miles, there are more ways than ever to get a first class seat. And you don’t even have to go to all the work of flying tens of thousand of miles on the same carrier to get that upgrade.

  5. i wish you would talk about AA’s left over upgrade stickers, for Golds they still pull stickers you pay for, that for FF elites they’ve always monetized the upgrade, not free. surely that has to have been and should remain a revenues source.

  6. And as you have pointed out before, for a non-EXP on AA, an upgrade costs $40/500-miles (if you don’t have any of the few stickers you get). A transcon can take 5 stickers or $200 one way for the upgrade. For an AA Platinum, it is likely better to just buy it for say $250 one way upgrade. I think the AA scheme with lower F tickets makes it just as cheap to buy F than buy stickers and hope for an upgrade.

    Of course, as pointed out, you earn more miles under the new scheme if you buy the higher priced ticket rather than the stickers.

  7. #2 for me. I have so many miles and points that as a low-level elite I’d rather just burn 20k KrisFlyer miles for United J. Being a transfer partner of all 3 banks makes them super easy to come by, the only annoying bit is having to call in to book.

  8. Been looking at tix this evening from PUJ-PHL area. DL had, by far, the lowest business class tix. Some cities were only 1 or 2 hundred more than the coach fares.

    I’m an AA guy, but the DL fares were noticeably good.

  9. 10-15 years ago, the companies I worked for more or less let me book whatever coach ticket I wanted. Now, both my company and others demand I book the cheapest flight (although most won’t require flying ULCCs like Spirit or Frontier).

    When I could book whoever I wanted, I picked an airline, got status and reaped the benefits of that status.

    Now, I’m on airlines with little or no status, but I can often “upgrade” at purchase or check-in. Granted, whether I do so depends on the cost and the flight, as these upgrades are on my dime, versus the company’s.

    I’m actually kind of glad to have options. Back in the “good old days” I’d often fly ridiculous routings to fly on my chosen carrier or, worse, to get more miles/segments.

    Now I fly more direct routings far more often than before. No more SBA-SLC-ATL-BNA craziness when I can SBA-DFW-BNA.

  10. Question about all this, if I’m an elite and upgrade with miles (or money) for a flight with someone else tagging along, will that person still be on the upgrade list because they are traveling with me?

    Sometimes the fees & miles are so expensive that it doesn’t make sense to pay for two. My physical characteristics (very tall) make it quite uncomfortable to travel in coach for long stretches of time so I usually confirm ahead of time, but my wife doesn’t care so much…

  11. Sad state of affairs. I’ve accumulated a lot of AA miles – more than 3 million – thinking that I would prefer to save them for pleasure travel when I have more time. I’ve probably used about 1 million – but kept too many. I’m still Executive Platinum – but I hardly notice any really benefit of it. That business about clearing EP upgrades 100 hours in advance has become a bad joke – bordering on false advertising claims. It is always at the airport, if at all. I was just checking to see if I could get Cathay Pacific First Class flights for my wife and I – about six months out. Yet another bad joke. Thanks President Reagan – the deregulation has worked out really great.

  12. Reply to Flyerman: I have noticed that AA will have my wife on the upgrade list with me and at my status for upgrades that clear before the inventory goes to airport control – but once we’re at the airport they split them, which to me makes no sense. Recently we flew back from Barcelona to Miami and I had requested use of (formerly golden) system-wide upgrades. When we arrived at the gate I was told that I was number 1 and my wife was number 14 on the list. I think the ground crew had it wrong – but that didn’t help us.

  13. What a joke!

    Just called Delta for a flight in 2 days for 3 of us.

    3 first class seats left.

    They wanted the $200 per person change fees and $200 per person to upgrade!

    They could not waive the change fees?

    I guess they will just give them away for free instead of reselling our seats that list for $450 per person one way(all 3 together)!

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