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How Frequent Travelers Can Get Cheap Seat Upgrades on Airlines

October 7th, 2016 /

One of my pivotal early-career moments was a flight to Los Angeles. I’d planned to spend it preparing for a meeting but found myself squished next to a snoring passenger, with two bitterly upset children behind me and no room to prop my laptop. It was not a productive six hours. Meanwhile, in business class, everyone was typing away in comfort—they even had outlets, which I started at covetously every time I went to the restroom.

Ever since, I’ve done everything possible to avoid economy.

Business and first-class tickets can be prohibitively expensive, but most airlines do offer upgrades. You just have to know how to get them. When there aren’t enough frequent fliers to fill open seats, spots are typically given to other passengers based on their position in the airline’s “upgrade priority line.“ So, how can you move to the head of the line?

how to get seat upgrades on airlines

Image credit: Flickr user Richard Moross (CC BY 2.0)

General Upgrade Tips

1. Use the Same Airline for All Your Flights

Loyalty goes a long way with airline companies, so first try consolidating your travel onto one carrier or alliance. It can be a little more expensive upfront, but it’s often still worth it based on benefits like priority seating and waived fees. Your chances of being upgraded are also much higher if the airline can see that you’ve booked connecting flights with them.

2. Join the Airline’s Frequent Flier Program

Programs are typically free and provide many ways to earn miles, from air travel to hotel bookings and credit card purchases. But even if you haven’t racked up enough miles to get awarded a seat in first or business class, you can still use your membership as leverage when asking for other upgrades, and you’ll be favored over someone who isn’t a member at all if there are empty seats to fill. The more frequently you use your frequent flier perks, the better your chances of an upgrade.

One caveat: Do your research ahead of time, as some programs are better than others. United’s frequent flier program, MileagePlus, has been consistently recognized as one of the best for international travelers, but I’d suggest Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards programs for frequent domestic travelers, as it doesn’t block off any dates for rewards travel, has cheaper flights than other airlines, and your points never expire. Delta’s SkyMiles program is also popular with American travelers because the airline has so many hubs, but their award chart is pretty complicated. And if you’re interested in earning both domestic and international miles, the AAdvantage program from American Airlines might be your best bet: Miles are easy to earn and redeem, and, like United Airlines, they’ve got multiple international partners you can also earn with.

3. Sign up for Your Airline’s Credit Card

If you fly with a specific airline, signing up for their credit card will also help you earn miles, and upgrades, faster. Most cards give extra points for spending with the airline but also partner with hotels and other forms of transport (cruises, trains, rental cars) for other ways to earn. Look for sign-up bonuses and additional perks, like triple miles on certain spending categories.

4. Know What You Want and Ask Specifically

If you’re not looking for business class but just want a better spot than the one you’re currently assigned, find a map of the aircraft on the airline’s website and locate two or three seats you’re interested in. It’s easier for agents to look up a specific seat change rather than search through multiple options. Don’t just say you want a better seat. Ask for “14C” instead. You’ll be more likely to get what you want, or an acceptable substitute.

5. Look for Operational Upgrades

A great way to get upgraded for free is to help solve a problem for the staff. Arrive early and sit close to the gate so that if your flight’s economy class is oversold (which happens quite often), you’ll be the first to know. When economy is overbooked, someone has to move up to first class. You can also request to give up your economy seat and take a later first-class flight as compensation for the inconvenience.

What Are Fare Codes and Why Do They Matter?

To the average person, trying to decipher airline fare codes can feel like learning a foreign language. Within what we think of as service classes (economy, business, and first), there are also subdivisions. These fare classes are complicated and vary from airline to airline, but having some familiarity with the lingo can help in your search for an upgrade.

There are four fare code factors that determine your standing in the free upgrade priority line: type of upgrade requested, status, fare class, and time of ticketing. All of these are represented by a letter or number combination on your ticket code. You can learn more about what each letter and number means, but for the sake of keeping things simple, here’s how to use each factor to your advantage:

  • Type of Upgrade: It doesn’t hurt to ask for an upgrade to first or business class. But if you don’t succeed, you can also ask for small upgrades within your own class. If you are seated in economy, you can simply ask to be moved to an exit row or a bulkhead row where there is much more legroom. This type of request is easier to process than a transition to a whole new service class—and that little bit of extra legroom goes a long way.
  • Status: Increase your status by signing up for the frequent flier program and using it as often as possible. As I mentioned above, the more elite your status, the higher you are on the priority list.
  • Fare Class: Have you ever checked flight prices only to find that they increased by $20-$200 in a single day’s time? This is usually due to the fact that a particular fare class has sold out. You’ll be more likely to get upgraded if you paid full price for your ticket or purchased a higher “fare class.”
    • If you want to figure out your fare class ahead of time, look for a link on the booking site that says “Fare Class Rules and Regulations,” right before you enter your online payment information. Clicking this link will bring you to a long string of code; the first letter of the code is your fare class.
  • Time of Ticketing: The time you purchase your ticket is usually closely affiliated with fare class—the longer you wait to book, the higher the fare class you’ll probably have to pay for. But getting a higher spot on the priority list can help take the sting out of forking over a lot of money for a last minute ticket
    • The flip side, of course, is that if your flight becomes overbooked and you were one of the first to purchase a ticket, you’re looking at an upgrade waiting to happen. The takeaway? To guarantee a cheaper, better seat, book early. But if you have the flexibility to take a new flight if yours is overbooked, book late.

Of course, if you master the art of the airline upgrade and begin to long for similar treatment on the ground, you can also sign up for a program like JetLux, which allows you to get corporate hotel rates and perks like free suite upgrades and free WiFi. Whether you’re on a plane or in your hotel room, business travel is much more bearable when you can do it in comfort.

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