How I Almost Always Get a Flight Upgrade

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!

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.

Jonathan Tokyo

Everyone likes getting something for nothing but it’s even sweeter when you’re surrounded by people who’ve paid full whack or haven’t quite made it as one of the chosen few.

Perhaps this seems tad mean, a little mercenary.. but let’s be honest, deep down we know it’s true.

So now that we’ve agreed we’re more than happy to leave our colleagues/friends/partners languishing behind in couch class, here are my tried and tested methods for securing that elusive flight upgrade:

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.

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.

There is then every chance you’ll find a nice surprise waiting for you when you go to board the plane.

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.

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!

So there you have it, 8 precious pieces of advice that have worked well for me. Go forth and enjoy the fruits of first class, good luck!

Enjoyed this post? You might also like How to Get Stuff for Free Wherever You go!

Been upgraded recently? got more tips? Post up your comments below and let us know!

Photo: Jonathan on a recent trip to Japan.

33 thoughts on “How I Almost Always Get a Flight Upgrade”

  1. I’ve seen these tips a thousand times from “upgrade” experts…I’ve yet to see them work and I’ve pretty much tried them all!

  2. Yes Amy, I saw Gary’s article on View from the Wing.

    It’s great to hear his point of view.

    Just to clarify, I’m not offering fool-proof methods, just sharing some of the things I’ve learnt 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.

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

    I certainly agree with him, however, that none of the tips are by any means fool-proof or guaranteed.

    Happy Travels (first class or coach)!

  3. One thing that’s mentioned here which is really helpful: Fly on New Year’s Eve. Especially if you’re booking business/first in advance with points. NOBODY flies on this night and the planes are generally open. I’ve done it successfully for the past three years. Also, it’s a bit of a party up there.

  4. @ tom gates:

    Dude, there’s a reason that the planes “are generally open” on New Year’s eve and that’s because people have BETTER THINGS TO DO then think to themselves “oh lawdy, I better get me in on some o’ dat sweet empty plane action” on one of the biggest party/social holiday events of the year.

    “Also, it’s a bit of a party up there”…Seriously? Or maybe it’s that you’re so hilariously deluded that you’re having a “fabulous time, darling” that you fail to notice the sullen faces of your fellow “partygoers” as the slow realisation that they are UTTERLY ALONE and ON A PLANE FOR NEW YEAR’S dawns on them. That isn’t a look of ecstatic pleasure on that man’s face Tom, it’s total despair. Those aren’t wrinkles Tom, they’re eroded tear tracks, carved into his skin from his sorrow.

    Anyways, on a related note, most of what has been suggested can be found on any site after you Google “flight upgrades”. Nothing new here, bro.

  5. I have a pretty good way of securing upgrades, especially for international long haul flights (say… Tokyo to Vancouver). Keep in mind it only works in peak seasons though but I’ve intentionally done this some… 10 or so times and it worked every time.

    It’s pretty simple.

    Check in about 5 minutes before the check in counter closes. It plays to the point of over-booking but the chances are that at that point, everyone who’s supposed to have checked in should have checked in already. As the odd one out, they have to throw you in the flight somehow (since the next flight is probably overbooked too and will have the same problem. Remember that to the plane company, there’s no difference between offeirng you a free upgrade and offering someone else on the next flight a free upgrade because you have to take his seat.)

    I usually get free meal tickets too, while they wait to process my check in and deal with the upgrade. Remember, you’re not losing anything or in the wrong when checking in before the counter closes. They more or less have to give you your flight.

  6. As a very frequent flier (US Air Chairman – 120 flites+ a year) I have to say that I have seen/heard LOTS of people try these tips and many others, and 98% of the time they DO NOT work. First and Foremost, upgrades go to Frequent Flyers. At my level, me and one companion get upgraded 7 days before the flight if a 1st class seat is not sold. About 40% of the people on a plane are registered FF so we automatically get 1st shot by FF level, ticket price paid, how far in advance the ticket was booked, etc. The rules are in the computer system and the upgrades happen automatically. On most flights there are more FFs aboard than available 1st class seats. On a recent flight there were 24 FFs waiting for 3 seats. As Chairman I got one of them :) Only after that if seats are available in First Class might a non FF have a chance, and it depends on the airline. Some airlines have strict policies that nobody other than FF get upgrades.

    There is a nonsense comment above regarding oversold flights. They NEVER take more volunteers than the exact number of seats oversold. That is, a fist class seat is not going to “Magically Appear” if they are looking for volunteers. Common sense rules here – who is going to be dumb/greedy enough to volunteer up a first class seat to be bumped to a LATER flight and take the probability that they will wind up in coach? I can tell you NOBODY does that!

  7. Great Topic…..!!

    Point well taken from all of you. There are some good and maybe perhaps bad advice here…..but for one thing it does not hurt to try them all, specially if you want to save a few bucks…!

    I don’t flight as much as some of you but when I do I would like to do it first class.

    I have been in first class a few times when bump to first class when I made an upgrade (flying solo).

    Now, that I am married I would like to flight with my wife first class where ever we choose to go.

    I will consider any tips when flying to Oahu, Hawaii on the month of September of 2010 (First Anniversary).

    Thank You All for all your flying tips. :-D

  8. @ Jack Johnson your r hilarious! I totally second everything u said, cannot imagine anything more tragic than getting excited about traveling alone on NY & getting excited because I have a nice cushy 1st class seat. Much prefer to be on a public bus en route to an awesome party instead of taking selfies with the bored hosties!

  9. Some great tips! I agree that being a FF with the airline is a massive factor. An airline will never allow an upgrade to a newly wed couple or charming banker over a FF that has a high status with the airline. Not sure about flying on New Years Eve though… LOL

    I found some crazy tips about ways to get upgraded here:

    If you are willing to make the effort then who knows what may happen! Happy Flying.

  10. Some sites say ask some say do not ask under any circumstances….Im confused but ready to kiss arse on 21st march when I fly!! Anything is worth a try I guess!

  11. Frequent flyer membership is the way to get an up-grade. The higher your status, the better the chance.

  12. It wasn’t mentioned in this piece but I’ve read elsewhere that you should dress for the part – they won’t be putting a slouch in old jeans up there will they!

  13. Marian Hara has it. Dress well always!
    But I suppose Jonathan, an Investment Banker, would probably afford Business Class ticket. An upgrade from Business to First Class is no big deal.

  14. Upgrade or no upgrade, what difference does it make in the long haul? I only expect to get from point A to point B. If an upgrade is offered to me along the way, I see it as a roll of the dice…nothing more.

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