First Class Upgrades - Fantasy or Fact?
No-one is denying that
it is worth a certain amount of extra effort to attempt to
obtain a free first class upgrade.
But are the odds of
success any better that hoping to win a jackpot prize at Las
Vegas - and is the outcome just as random?
We all know someone who boasts
unusual success at 'always getting upgraded'.
In the past, such
boasts may have even had some underlying truth. But, what about
Is it still possible to smooth-talk your way into first
The Urban Legends of Getting
Some people say that if you
check in very early for your flight you're more likely to get an
upgrade (the logic being that there are more unallocated first
class seats then). But other people say that if you check in
very late you're more likely to get an upgrade (the logic being
that if there are still empty first class seats, the gate agent
may decide to give them to you, for free, rather than leave them
Another common opinion is
that if you dress well for the flight, you're more likely to get
upgraded, the reasoning being that you'll look more appropriate
and blend in better with the other people in the first class
cabin. But increasingly, 'real' first class travelers dress
casually, and only those seeking upgrades wear a suit and tie!
And then there is the story
of how 'if you talk nice' to the gate agent, they'll give you a
free upgrade as a reward. Has that ever happened to you in the
last five years?
It is perhaps true that some
of these techniques worked in the past. But airlines have become
very much more sophisticated in how they handle their first
New First Class Seat Allocation
A major change is that most
airlines now happily sell upgrades to passengers, meaning that
there are fewer empty seats on any given flight available to be
given away for free. This has vastly reduced the number of
complimentary upgrades that they can offer on each flight. And,
it bcomes more ethically difficult for a gate agent to give a
free first class upgrade when, prominently on the counter
alongside them, is a placard inviting all passengers to buy
Additionally, with the great
degree of information now on agents' computer screens about each
individual passenger, the fare they paid, and their frequent
flier status, they have set procedures for who gets upgraded
first and who gets upgraded last (or not at all!). Incredible as
it may seem, until fairly recently, few gate agents had any way
of knowing how much each passenger had paid for their ticket,
and may not have even known who were their elite level frequent
Back then, gate agents truly
could close their eyes and choose passengers, seemingly at
random, for upgrades, but now they are expected to follow set
procedures if/when upgrading for free.
Because of these extra
procedures and extra information, it is much harder for people
to get themselves pushed up the upgrade eligibility list unless
they have a valid entitlement to enhanced status.
What Types of Passengers Get
Your best chance to get a
complimentary upgrade is to get yourself into one of the most
desirable categories of passengers.
The most obvious and, for
most of us, easiest to achieve category of upgrade eligibility
is to become a frequent flier with the airline, and a member of
their highest level of elite membership.
A linked second category of
passenger are those that have paid top dollar for their tickets.
Almost without exception, if
an airline is going to give away empty first class seats, they
will start off with their 'best' frequent fliers and/or the
people that paid the highest fares.
Realistically, these types
of passengers aren't getting 'free' upgrades at all - they're
simply getting what they've fairly earned and are preferentially
entitled to. But what about people that seek upgrades for other
Frequent flier upgrades are
a special case that we'll cover in a future separate feature,
and we do not consider them to be 'free' or unearned upgrades,
which is the focus of this feature.
Friends and Family
The next category of person
that gets upgrades are what I loosely call 'friends and family'
of the airline. This can indeed quite literally mean 'friends
and family' of airline staff, but it can also mean all sorts of
other 'hangers on' as well.
Contrary to what you think,
some airline staff get treated very poorly by their airline
employer and have little or no access to upgrades when they're
flying (even if they're flying on airline business). But other
airline staff (such as pilots!) may get high priority access to
the comfy seats, even if it means displacing passengers that
would happily pay upgrade fees.
Once upon a time travel
agents were also privileged fliers. Indeed, in the 'good old
days' it was sometimes possible for a travel agent to turn up at
an airport gate, simply show a business card, and be waved on a
flight without having paid any money at all. That never happens
now, although travel agents do occasionally still have slight
success at getting complimentary upgrades.
Friends and family
categories also include commercial partners, suppliers, and
customers of the the airline.
Rumor has it that this
category may even extend to travel writers, but I'm still
waiting for a tangible confirmation of that rumor!
Other Special Categories
And now for the interesting
other categories of people that also sometimes get preferential
treatment. Note that these other categories are never 'sure
thing' 100% automatically upgraded, but if all other things are
close to equal, if you qualify in one of these categories, your
chances of being upgraded are better than average.
One such category of people
is politicians (Senators get better access to upgrades than do
Congressmen, and national politicians usually get better access
to upgrades than state or local government politicos).
Another category is judges.
Another is sometimes ministers, and (less commonly) doctors.
Internationally, if you have a title, that enhances your
eligibility, particularly with international carriers from
countries that place importance on titles.
Another category is
celebrities - perhaps movie stars, singers, or major sports
figures. However, in an interesting Catch-22, many of these
types of travelers are likely to be traveling on first class
Of course, you start
breaking laws if you start to impersonate government officials
or judges, so that is probably not a good strategy. But if
you're the judge of your local flower show, or the minister of
your own personal church, and if the airline makes an assumption
based on your title, where's the harm in that!
Who Can Upgrade You
The situation is not
Click on to the
second part of this feature, in
which we discuss the five different places where you
can try to get an upgrade, and how best to approach these
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28 Feb 2003, last update
30 May 2021
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