Let's face it: The whole process is just painfully comical! Packed flights, tiny seats, cramped legs, crabby passengers, screaming kids…Need I go on?
While airlines continue to offer economic flight tickets to stressed-out passengers, the truth is all luxuries and amenities go out the window with that cheaper coach ticket.
Lucky for us, there are several easy (and legal!) ways to upgrade our flights at little or no cost.
Knowledge Is Power
Sign up to receive emails and promotions from the airlines you use most. In an attempt to woo passengers and accumulate business, airlines frequently offer specials throughout the year. It’s possible to encounter a special that includes instant status in their frequent flyer program! This refers to a higher level than just basic frequent flyer membership. For example, if you fly American Airlines as a standard member, you may be able to grab tickets at “Platinum” status.
Upgrade Using Frequent Flyer Points
Frequent flyers can certainly use their miles to upgrade, as long as allocated seats are available for upgrade. Keep in mind, the airlines want to hold a certain block of seats for fully-paid customers to earn as much as possible for each flight. Using the right miles at the right time is important (short flights are typically not worth the upgrade). Having frequent flyer status helps get free upgrades on many airlines, and the higher the status, the better chance of getting a free upgrade confirmed days before the flight.
Take the Bump
Keep your ears and eyes open and be ready and willing to volunteer to get “bumped” from an overbooked flight. Bumped passengers usually get a free flight to use within a year (and sometimes even extra spending cash). If you volunteer but don’t end up getting bumped to a later flight, they may upgrade you for your willingness to get bumped! I can recommend this tip from experience. Stay close to the check-in counter, and when you notice the whispers about an overbooked flight, act fast!
Chat It up with Flight Attendants
Typically, flight attendants never upgrade passengers, and simply asking for an upgrade is NOT going to work. However, there are legitimate reasons why a flight attendant will upgrade passengers. Don’t be afraid to speak up in that situation (for example, if you have an allergy that will be triggered because of a nearby passenger, or there is a problem with the mechanics of your seat). In those situations the flight attendant will make an attempt to find you another seat, and if seats are not available in coach and space is available in first class, you will be moved to that section. Also consider choosing seats at the bulkhead, where families with children get seated. This leads to upgrades if they need your seat (they often do).
Late? Work It!
If you were late because of a partner airline and they were at fault, be sure to tell the airline when you arrive. If there was another issue from a connecting flight, be sure to share that as well. Airlines are often eager to please unsatisfied customers, and this could lead to an upgrade to first class.
It Never Hurts to Ask
Why not buy a full fare coach ticket and ask for a first class seat? Many airlines have a fare code that automatically grants first class privileges, but the trick is you have to ask. Call the airline directly and ask them how much a coach class ticket with first class seating privilege will cost. This will be much less than a first class ticket. But be careful though, as most coach tickets it will probably be non-refundable.
Another option is to request a Y-Up fare (sometimes called Q-Up fares). As in the case above, this upgrade is only available when the buyer asks for it specifically. Y-Up fares must be booked through a travel agent or directly through the airline. The cost can vary, but can occasionally be less than the price for a coach ticket, or can cost $25 more than coach.
Dress (and Act) for Success
While I am not suggesting you travel in Prada pumps and a Dior suit in order to get an upgrade, I am suggesting an appearance that is neat, clean and professional. Flight crews won't want to be scolded for seating someone in first class who did not pay the hefty price, so they won't place someone who does not look the part (a flight attendant actually shared this with me). For the best chance at an upgrade, professional dress is best.
Make sure your behavior is first class-worthy, too. Being demanding or demeaning just inspires agents to pick someone else to upgrade if the opportunity arises.