It’s travel’s million-dollar—or thousand-dollar, in most cases—question: how does one get a free airplane upgrade? Here are our resident travel expert Richard Mellor's top tips for blagging your way into first class. 

1. Plan ahead

planning holiday ahead of time

Most upgrades or potential upgrades are, supposedly, decided 24 hours before departure.

So, however you’re going to play your upgrade card, try and do so in advance.

 

2. The special occasion

honeymoon airport upgrade

This old trick certainly requires some forward planning. Upgrades for honeymooners, important wedding anniversaries or big birthdays are much rarer than in the good old days, but not completely unknown.

Asking a check-in attendant or air-steward can work, but, again, your odds improve if you can find a way—via a travel agent, perhaps—to make your wishes known weeks ahead.

 

3. Don’t actually ask

champagne upgrade

It can work to play it subtle, to not seem greedy. Example: email the airline or travel agent ahead of departure saying that you’d like to arrange a surprise glass of champagne for your new spouse of a few hours.

“Oh,” you say, when you’re offered first-class seats upon rocking up at check-in, “that would be even better. Gosh, thank you.”

 

4. Choose your battles

Busy airport upgrade
Image via Tech Insider

Upgrades are most frequently offered when the economy cabin gets overbooked. It stands to reason, then, that reserving seats on a busy flight—a Friday morning service to Barcelona, say—gives you a better bet.

The downside of this high-risk strategy is obviously that, if it doesn’t work out, you’re stuck on a very busy flight with little legroom.

 

5. Stay faithful

business man flying

Most airlines admit that, understandably, regular customers tend to be given priority when upgrades become available.

Meaning that being a frequent flyer or loyalty programme member, clocking up Avios points and sticking monogamously to the same carrier will all make you a likelier recipient of such generosity.

 

6. Moan and groan!

flight attendant

Other than the budget mob, airlines hate bad publicity and dissatisfied customers.

Thus, if you can find an instance of poor service—a spilled drink, a bungled online check-in—complain about it at check-in or on the phone in a passionate but calm manner, and make clear that you’ll be standing your ground until the wrong is righted.

 

7. Problems on-board?

seatbelt faulty upgrade flight

Similarly, if there’s a problem with your seat, from faulty seatbelts to a crackly TV, ask to be moved and act unimpressed (but politely so).

There might just be no more seats in economy, but…

 

8. Know someone

friendly flight attendant upgrade

This is the best hack of them all. Befriend someone in an airline’s PR team or operations department, and then let them know well ahead of departure that you’ll be flying with them. They might just be able to put in a word.

 

9. Ask at the check-in desk

check in asking for an upgrade

File this under ‘you might as well’. Three factors will boost your chances of success: dressing nattily (blazers, linen trousers, smart-casual, etc), smiling and not looking desperate, and arriving early.

If there are two upgrades available, it may be first come, first served. If there’s only one, travelling solo could also be your golden ticket.

 

10. Play the (calculating) hero

getting a free upgrade at the airport

Should a gate attendant ever ask, tail between legs, for people willing to give up their seat due to an overbooked flight, and it’s do-able for you, volunteer—but, ahem, only if you’re guaranteed an upgrade on the next flight.

With few other folks likely to put their hand up, airlines often can’t afford refuse. If the attendant says “probably” or “we can try”, hold firm and make clear that this is take-it-or-leave-it time.

 

Read more holiday advice from Richard Mellor

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