Recurring Bad Advice on How to Secure an Upgrade

TripBase offers upgrade advice from Jonathan Marks,

a global investment banker and frequent flier has an envious track record of bagging flight upgrades. He’s agreed to share his secrets, helping us to reach that first class cabin!

There are a million of these silly upgrade articles out there, why am I bothering to comment on this one? Because I got pitched the post, they wanted me to link to it. I was going to ignore it but I htought I would take stab number 72 at putting the silliness to bed.

As usual there’s a kernal of truth, but on the whole the advice is msileading at best.

Ah the elusive flight upgrade. Everyone wants one but noone knows how. Read on for my upgrade secrets, guaranteed to improve your chances of flying like a VIP.

No one knows how? Seriously? At least they only guarantee to ‘improve your chances’ though that’s hardly much of a ‘guarantee’.

1. Ask

If you don’t ask, you rarely get. Be up-front and cheeky rather than shy and apologetic. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be you that gets the upgrade.

Ok, with many airlines you do have to request an upgrade even if you’re eligible. Take an American Airlines 100,000 mile flyer, who gets unlimited complimentary upgrades, but only if a request is placed (because you may prefer your exit row seat on a 757 pre-reserved with a flying companion who isn’t eligible for a free upgrade, perhaps. Asking may be a pre-requisite.

But the claim “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be you” seems just false. I can think of tons of reasons: everyone else ahead of you has a higher status, has paid a higher fare, requested the upgrade earlier, or is offering to redeem an upgrade instrument rather than just “being cheeky.”

2. Engage in check-in banter

Not all upgrades are confirmed at check-in. They are often allocated at the boarding gate when the airline has the full picture re. check-ins and no-shows (business travelers often fly on flexible tickets).

Working at a check-in desk is not the most thrilling of experiences. Make it more enjoyable for the airline staff and they will remember you.

Being nice at checkin might make you memorable. Same goes at the gate. They may be trying to get a plane out, and they’re oversold in coach but empty in the premium cabins. And here your status probably matters most. Perhaps there aren’t enough people on the upgrade list and they’re going to have to clear all of those and then some. And they’re deciding who to upgrade for free.

At that point, being polite, near the gate, unobtrusive, and not hovering can be helpful. Most carriers aren’t going to go onboard to pull someone out of coach and move them up. And they may be busy, looking to take the easiest route of grabbing the 100,000-mile flyer within eyeshot rather than beckoning for one who may be in the lounge. So this piece of advise is sort of true, albeit incomplete and potentially misleading. Gate agent banter that is unobtrusive could make the difference in occasional albeit rare circumstances.

3. Travel alone

There are not many seats available for upgrades and those that are tend to be given to passengers traveling alone.

If you don’t mind being separated from your travel companion, then book and check-in separately. You never know, you might both get upgraded!

If all he’s saying is that one seat is easier than two, that’s generally correct. And it’s also the case that companions traveling together on the same reservation, at least with most airline computer automated systems, will only have their uprades processed when two seats are available. The assumption is that passengers shouldn’t be split up. So it’s true that if you have a good shot at an upgrade anyway, but you’re waitlisted, you should consider being on separate reservations in the hopes that one person will clear, or potentially that each passenger will clear at different times.

4. Find out if the flight is over-booked

Often if a flight is over-booked the airline will be looking for volunteers to take a later flight.

If this is the case, and depending on where the volunteers were sitting, this may free up some seats for upgrades. Why not offer to take one of them? Just to be helpful of course!

So hope that someone sitting up front takes a bump? That will free up a seat up front of course, but why exactly will you get it… unless of course you’re next on the upgrade list or everyone else has boarded and you’re upgrade-eligible and still in the gate area, as I’ve described above.

How many gate agents will be pelased to have you “volunteer” to take the upgrade seat that’s been vacated by a premium cabin passenger taking a bump? This is a time that the gate agents are most busy and most stressed, trying to get the plane out the door. Remember, don’t hover. Remain within eyeshot of a gate agent who earlier learned who you were, saw your status on your boarding pass. But jumping up and asking for the upgraded seat when they’re trying to close the door? Probably not a good idea. And don’t wait so long, refusing to board even at the 10 minute mark prior to departure, that they give up your seat to someone they’d otherwise have to involuntarily deny boarding to…

5. Get an airline membership/loyalty card

Airlines store a lot of information on their passengers, including whether you are a loyal customer or cardholder.

Bear in mind that cardholders almost always get priority when there are seats available for upgrades.

Rewrite this as actually be loyal to the single airline or at least single airline program, earn status in that program, so that you are at the top of the pecking order for an upgrade. Simply being one of 40 million members in a large loyalty program is unlikely to help you. If you’re a general (non-elite) member it’s hard to fathom how you’re in a better position than a non-member for scoring an upgrade without surrending some sort of upgrade instrument like miles.

6. Travel in August or over Christmas and New Year

Business travel is much lower at these times meaning a reduced demand for premium classes.

Airlines still want to fill flights and therefore overbook their economy cabin. This means they’ll need to bump people up to ensure everyone gets on the flight.

One sign that they have done this is if they are offering cheap upgrade deals at check-in.

Add Thanksgiving to the list for sure. Frequent business travelers aren’t the key passengers during holdiays, and those are the ones usually grabbing the upgrade seats. I’ve flown a United 757 with 24 first class seats, and had only one other person in the cabin — a non-rev. So that much is true.

But if they’re “offering cheap upgrade deals at checkin” then indeed people purchasing those upgrades have the best chance of securing the seat up front!

Sure there could still be seats, but if you want the upgrade don’t count on the rest of your fellow passengers turning down the opportunity.

And if all the advice above is telling you is how many first class seats might still be available, well you don’t need a check-in kiosk offering to sell premium seats in order to know that…

7. Take advantage of special deals

The difference between Economy and Premium Economy is much smaller than Premium Economy and Business.

If you are offered a cheap upgrade to Premium Economy and take it, there is every chance you’ll get to jump another class to Business.

OK, you had to pay something extra, but the size of the leap and your odds of being chosen will be significantly improved.

Airlines that sell a separate premium economy cabin are more likely to upgrade people in that cabin to business class than to double upgrade someone from coach. But is that all there is to this tip? If so it doesn’t seem very meaningful…

8. Exploit special occasions

Honeymoons and anniversaries are great reasons to ask for an upgrade. But your chances will increase with some forward thinking.

First, let your travel agent know in advance and get them to note it in the booking. Second, take proof to present to the airline at check-in. As you would imagine, they may be skeptical otherwise!

Umm, yeah. Good luck with that.

Now, I knew a Flyertalker who had a good enough relationship with an airline that he managed to get them to cater different soft drinks for a particular flight. And there are certainly some Asian carriers who will manage to communicate and act on this sort of information inflight.

But having a travel agent enter a special service request, and expect that to yield an upgrade? That’s the tip to end the article on?

Can we please put this line of travel writing to bed finally? Please?

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, 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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  1. Actually, I love when travel writers publish these kinds of stories for the same reason that casinos love people who count cards: as long as the general public thinks that all it has to do is ask nicely and offer the gate agent a cookie, it’ll make it that much easier for me to get that upgrade.


  2. Mr. Pillows? 🙂

    “Now, I knew a Flyertalker who had a good enough relationship with an airline that he managed to get them to cater different soft drinks for a particular flight.”

  3. Surprisingly two of my friends on a flight from Nicaragua to the US went up to the counter, asked politely if they could buy an upgrade to first class for the flight home, and they were told they could have the upgrade for free. I’m not sure what airline it was, but I’ll definitely find out.

    So it doesn’t hurt to ask. It also doesnt hurt if you are two good looking girls.

  4. As someone who works in the industry, I can tell you that these approaches will SOMETIMES work. No guarantees. If an agent has time to make a decision (and that’s becoming increasingly rare), you’ll choose someone who’s been nice and well behaved over someone who hasn’t. Still, their is a hierarchy of upgrading, and these suggestions only come into play after the hierarchy is exhausted — which isn’t often these days.

    If you really want to make sure you get an upgrade, then clearly these suggestions are not the way to go.

    What will guarantee you don’t get an upgrade, though, is drunkenness, loud behavior, rudeness, and trying to throw your weight around.

  5. Many thanks for your detailed comments on my article.

    Just to clarify, I’m not offering fool-proof methods, just sharing some of the things I’ve learned from my own experiences and from speaking to people in the industry, that have led to me receiving considerably more than my fair share of upgrades.

    You clearly attribute a lower probability of success to the points I highlight so I guess I’m biased by my own success!

    We can both agree, however, that none of the tips are by any means fool-proof or guaranteed.

    Thanks again for your interest in my article and for the additional insight that you have offered.

    Jonathan Marks

  6. I’ve been a gate agent for five years. There are usually fifty people on the upgrade list (elites, in order of status) and first class always goes out full. On the rare occasion when there are open seats in F, I will get fired for putting somebody up there who doesn’t belong. It’s as simple as that. In the even rarer situation when coach is oversold, I will look for passengers on high-fare tickets to upgrade. I can definitely say that the last person I will upgrade in this situation is the “cheeky” businessman who thinks he is a smooth talker as he hovers in front of the gate and won’t get out of my face. As often as these guys travel, they seem to have no clue as to how busy we are in the half hour prior to departure. That’s my two cents.

  7. When my wife and I were on our honeymoon, Quantus upgraded our seats to business class on four out of five flights we took with them. We never asked, and they had a note in their computer that said we were on our honeymoon. SO I guess that piece of advice isn’t that bad. It’s sad that you know so much that you can just dismiss it without giving it any thought or asking people if it was true.

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