I’ll never forget the time we were upgraded to first class. 

Like many travelers, my husband and I are leisure, non-status, grateful-just-to-be-here economy fliers.

Getting upgraded to first class is quite rare for a non-status flyer, but I’ll let you know exactly how it happened to us. I also interviewed a handful of leading travel industry experts whose tips can help you score an upgrade on your next flight, too.

The Conditions Were Right

On our trip home to Utah, the first leg of our journey took us from Ho Chi Minh City to Tokyo—about a 6-hour flight. With the intense traffic in HCMC, we made sure to leave for the airport very, very early.  

The taxi showed up in the wee hours of the morning and we found ourselves buzzing through the streets of HCMC more quickly than expected. We were so early, we had to wait for the check-in desk to open. 

Once checked in, we found a seat near our gate and took turns putting our heads on each other to rest. 

About an hour before our departure, a friendly gate attendant called me up. 

“We have two seats in first class. They won’t be together, but they’re available if you would like them.” 

“... Does it cost extra?”

“No, ma’am. It’s a free upgrade.” (I couldn’t believe it—I really did ask her to clarify for me.)

“Uhhh… I think that will work just fine.”

New tickets. New seat numbers. A dedicated flight attendant. Steak dinner. And, oh my gosh, have you ever slept on a first-class seat? You aren’t reclining into someone else’s lap or passing your neighbor’s garbage to the flight attendant. It’s an entirely different experience.

We landed in Tokyo and flew the remainder of the way home on the last row in coach. Once you’ve had a taste of first-class comfort, flying economy isn’t quite the same. 

Why We Were Upgraded

I’m almost certain the reason we were upgraded was our early check-in at the airport. I’m also aware of how rare this is. Airlines typically have an algorithm that ranks passengers for upgrades. Those with status are at the top of the list and infrequent travelers at the bottom. This means there were no passengers with status on our flight—or the ones that did had already been upgraded and there were still seats left.

You may have also heard the advice to “dress the part,” but the gate attendant didn’t know who we were before calling us up. We were presentable, but I’m pretty sure I was wearing a shirt with magenta stars on it. Classy.

Getting a free upgrade is a long shot, but there are still some clever ways you can score a free or cheap upgrade. 

The Value of a Business Class Seat. 

Beyond the comfort, it’s essential to know how much a business- or first-class seat typically costs to help guide your search for a deal. Travel industry leader Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a flight deal alert service, says, “Business class seats tend to be significantly more expensive than people realize. They might have it in their head that it’s twice or three times as expensive when in reality it can be more like five to ten times more expensive.”

Just for example, a good deal on a transcontinental economy seat would be around $200, where the price for a business class seat would be closer to $800 or $1,000. 

Knowing how much the business class cash price for your desired flight goes for will help you know what a good number is to bid for an upgrade.

Buy or Bid on the Upgrade at Check-In

Keyes suggests buying an upgrade at check-in, as they’re often priced at a discount. More than fifty airlines also offer customers the opportunity to bid on an upgrade, including Air Canada, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and Virgin Atlantic. Most travelers will find out if they can bid on an upgrade via email from the airline or at check-in. 

The process is relatively straight-forward: you’ll enter an amount you’re willing to pay for a premium seat. If they accept your bid, you’ll be upgraded just prior to departure. 

Join an Airline’s Loyalty Program and Work Toward Earning Statusa

Loyal travelers who earn status can be rewarded with upgrades. Every airline has its own requirements for earning elite status, but upgrade benefits are one of the top reasons travelers work to earn elite status. The only trouble with this method is everyone else is trying for the same thing and you’ll end up on a long list of names competing for limited upgrade space.

Upgrade With Miles for Maximum Value

Zachary Abel, a travel-hacking expert, uses points for upgraded flights. He recommends always doing these three things for the best chance at an inexpensive upgrade with points: 

  1. Search for flights that have the upgrade space already available so you can use points or elite status upgrades to guarantee the upgrade at the time of booking. 
  1. Book the flight with seat maps that are wide open and hope that upgrades will be offered at a discount or that you’ll get upgraded based on your elite status.
  1. Travel during off-peak times to increase the possibility of the first two things on the list happening.

Keyes agrees. “Points are one of the most accessible ways for the average traveler to get business class seats,” he says. 

Watch for New Award Space Just Before Traveling

Another trick Abel uses to upgrade his seat is to change flights when additional business-class award space is released on another plane close to departure. 

If the route is the same and the new flight leaves within 24 hours of the original flight to the same destination on the same airline, a $75 change fee makes sense for a business class seat upgrade. 

“Just make sure you do it over the phone so the airline representative can hold the upgrade space while you change your ticket,” he advises.

Offer to Change Seats With Someone

You see it on every flight—somehow, a family hasn’t been assigned seats next to each other and there’s a wide-eyed parent worried about sitting apart from a young one. Flyers coming to the rescue have reported being upgraded to a seat in the next class up after kindly offering someone their seat.  

There are a lot of other scenarios where giving up your seat makes sense. If you don’t end up with an upgrade, you’re still a wonderful human being.

Get Bumped off Your Flight

If your flight has been overbooked and you’re willing to wait for the next one, you can ask for an upgrade on the next flight. Television host of “The Jet Set” and former flight attendant Bobby Laurie shared, “I took a bump voluntarily, and in exchange received a refund on my one-way flight, a voucher for a future flight, first-class on the next flight and lounge access.”  

He explains, “When flights are oversold, you can always negotiate a deal with the airline if you notice no one is volunteering. The last thing the airline wants to do is involuntarily deny you boarding.”

Fly a Less Popular Route or Time 

Your chances of getting upgraded on a flight full of business travelers who have status and enough miles for a trip to the moon are very slim. By flying a less popular route and time, you have a greater shot at an upgrade. 

Speaking of flying during less popular times, Keyes has seen the number of deals on business class seats explode during the pandemic. As business travelers stay home, discounted business seats are available like never before. Upgrading to a business-class seat during the pandemic could also help you travel safer. 

And Yes, Be Friendly

Seasoned travelers believe the days of charming the gate agent into a free upgrade are over. However, it doesn’t hurt to be warm, conversational, and open with gate agents and flight attendants. Genuinely. No one wants to feel like they’re being used, but you can also tactfully let them know you’re interested in an upgrade. If nothing else, being kind makes the whole experience more pleasant for everyone. 

All products and services mentioned on Airfarewatchdog are independently selected by our team of expert travelers. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

More Stories You'll Love