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Travel Tips

8 Effective Tips for Getting a Free Airline Upgrade

It’s a tale as old as time: you arrive at the departures gate, hoping to secure that all-empowering first-class seat, only to learn that your miles are no good here. Or you’re preparing to cash in some credit card points when the telephone agent tells you that you’re waist-deep in a blackout period. But what if we told you there are tried-and-true ways to get the airline upgrade you’ve always dreamed of without all the hassle—at least in instances when strictly automated, electronic upgrades aren’t the rule? Read on for eight tips to increase your chances for a free airline upgrade.

Jen has been a staff editor at Architectural Digest, Travel + Leisure, and Martha Stewart Weddings, and her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Afar, and Elle Decor. When she's not snowmobiling in the French Alps or tasting scotch straight from the barrel in Scotland, she's at home in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.

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Look the part

Want to fly like a high roller without dropping a dime? Start by looking like one. We’re not saying you have to don a suit, and chances are slim that your outfit alone will score you an upgrade, but common sense dictates that you ditch the yoga pants and flip-flops and opt instead for something tidy.

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Get the timing right

You know what they say about the early bird—it applies here, too. Gate agents are more likely to reward someone who arrives before the masses, when things are quiet, rather than when they’re trying to get everyone boarded and off the runway on time. That said, on very rare occasions it’s sometimes the straggler who gets the worm, but we wouldn’t advise you take up that strategy.

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Choose your flight wisely

Though it seems counterintuitive, a full flight ensures your greatest chances for upgrade success. That’s because airlines rarely award first-class status on an empty vessel—what’s the point? If your flight is full, odds are good that it may also be oversold, and oversold trips sometimes force flight attendants into upgrades to accommodate everyone.

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Speak up, especially if you have a story worth telling

It never hurts to ask nicely. If you were bumped from a flight, held on the tarmac during an hours-long delay, or inconvenienced in any way, now’s the time to air your grievances—directly but as politely as possible. Just don’t spin a yarn about an incident that never happened. Gate agents are like human lie detectors. Likewise, don’t be shy if you’re celebrating a special occasion, like a honeymoon or anniversary.

Be a big spender

An old adage holds that you can’t get something for nothing. That’s especially true when it comes to airline upgrades. In fact, the more you pay for your ticket, the better your chances are of scoring a business-class seat. So instead of opting for the cheapest booking, spend a little more to show that you’re not just looking for a handout.

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Travel light

When it comes to upgrades, it’s better to be a lone wolf than to roll with an entourage. Smaller parties (read no more than two people, and more often just one) usually find more success than large families or people with special carry-on requests (we’re looking at you, support-animal faker).

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Do your research

Leisure travelers might blink and miss advertised business-class sales, but there’s a good reason to pay them more attention. In admittedly rare instances, you can nab a ticket on an expensive flight for slightly less than the non-discounted economy fare. If you’re really lucky and spot a two-for-one business-class set deal, scoop it up. They absolutely exist but are increasingly harder to come by.

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Work the system

Anyone with elite status will tell you that it pays to be a loyal customer who travels frequently with one airline, but owning a mileage rewards credit card can also help boost your standing in the upgrade pool. Consider enrolling in one affiliated with a specific airline rather than something more generic to not only jump the line but also gain access to perks like free checked bags and priority boarding.

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