5 Secret Trips To Upgrade To First Class. You’ll Look Like An Idiot Trying Them, Though.

There’s a certain genre of travel article that gives advice on how to upgrade your flight, with advice that’s nearly always wrong or at least highly misleading.

The Huffington Post carries a piece on how to “blag” a free upgrade to first class “because you deserve to travel like Beyonce’.” And they’ve consulted “travel insiders and airline experts” to show you how to do it. You’ll know what your fellow passengers are reading when they look like an idiot at the airport.

  1. Dress to impress. This is just wrong. In almost all cases upgrades are determined by rank order on a list – someone willing to pay for the upgrade with a certificate, miles or cash; frequent flyer status. And when an upgrade needs to happen for operational reasons (weight and balance, coach oversold) it isn’t usually attire that makes the difference. And yet,

    An easy way to try and get an upgrade is to dress nicely! Believe it or not, attire plays a huge role in how passengers will be perceived by gate agents when it comes to giving out complimentary upgrades, with those seen as “worthy” candidates often the ones that are well dressed (think elegant suits) versus those wearing casual clothes (jeans and t-shirts) though this will also depend on your general demeanour, so make sure your attitude is elegant too!

  2. Travel solo. This is true, it’s easier to get one upgrade than two! And it’s easy to get two than four! If you’re on the same reservation, and you’re offering miles or certificates, an airline will only upgrade you in advance if there’s enough upgrade inventory for everyone in your party. Everyone on a reservation has to be in the same cabin.

    That’s why it can make sense to split up into separate reservations if you’re trying to get an upgrade. The airline might make one seat available, and then a second one later, and you’d be skipped over both times if you had two passengers in the booking. That is, of course, if you’re willing to split up if it comes to it.

    Meanwhile at the airport you might let the gate agent know if you’re on the waitlist and willing to take a single seat and split up if you’re in a traveling party together.

  3. Claim it’s your birthday. The special occasion ‘trick’ first requires the agent to have discretion – for instance, everyone looking for an upgrade has already cleared, and there are still leftover seats. In general an agent can get in trouble for processing upgrades out of order, and can only then make adjustments if it helps them get a flight out on time.

    Seriously, claiming it’s your birthday or you’re on your honeymoon isn’t on its own going to get you an upgrade. People travel during special occasions all the time! There are probably others on your flight with special occasions also. And yet, maybe the experts just watched too many episodes of Friends?

    “Don’t ask for a free upgrade but do mention a special occasion if it comes up naturally,” says Jessie Moore, luxury travel expert and founder of luxury travel website Pocket Wanderings.

    “If you’re travelling for a special occasion – for example, a honeymoon or a milestone birthday – then drop it into the conversation. Remember that if you’re saying it’s your birthday, don’t make it up, as they’ll be able to see your date of birth on your passport!

  4. Sign up for frequent flyer programs. This is close to helpful. Just being a member doesn’t get you an upgrade, but accumulating points and using them to pay for upgrades does.

  5. U.S. airlines are more likely to give away their premium product than British ones. Good luck with that.

Upgrades are harder to get than ever because more people are paying for premium cabin seats than ever before. Twenty years ago maybe 10% of a domestic plane would fill up front with people actually buying a ticket for that cabin (with the rest employees and upgrades), now it’s closer to 80%.

‘Dress well’ reminds me of this classically idiotic Bloomberg piece on how to score an upgrade every time.

The claim in the Bloomberg article is that two magic words work like a shibboleth or password for perfect upgrade success. Those words are ‘revenue management’ and if you say them you sound like someone who knows what they’re talking who should be in first class, or something. Here’s how the magic words supposedly work,

We have never bought an upper-class seat; if ever we’ve flown anywhere up front, we’ve used miles to upgrade from economy. If you want to do that, call reservations and drop the name “revenue management.”

The reason is that revenue management’s job is to make sure a flight is profitable, so they’re the ones telling [reservation agents] what they can say; they’re like Flying Club’s boss. Not everyone knows that this department exists, and by mentioning it you reveal yourself as someone who knows how things work and understands how seats are released.

Say to the agent: ‘Have revenue management released any first-class seats for miles upgrades yet?’ When they say no, ask them to check or just be put through to revenue management so you can ask when they will release some, as well as how many seats are left.

Politely respond like this: ‘You have 20 seats unsold? Why aren’t you releasing them?’ Often by the end of the conversation they say, ‘OK, we’ll release one for you,’ or they might tell you to call back tomorrow. Doing that, we’ve had a pretty much 100 percent success rate.

Since revenue management’s job is to make a flight profitable, they’re going to give out first class seats to anyone that asks for them. Alright then.

The goal is to make sure that (1) no seats go to upgraders that might have been sold, and (2) even if there are empty premium cabin seats on the plane, that no one upgrades instead of buying the premium seat. They don’t want upgrades to be gimmes, though programs that offer upgrades want that to be a real benefit too because it encourages loyalty and drives revenue through that channel.

Simply asking over the phone to get a seat released doesn’t work most of the time. It doesn’t mean that there’s never been a request to revenue management to open space to complete an award itinerary, American Airlines used to have a process for making space available on their connecting flights (“QMAX”). But the idea that this is a technique for the general public to use is silly.

I prefer equally silly — and equally effective — suggestions that might be a little more fun. If you’re not going to read actual true advice on how to upgrade, then you might as well follow this advice: “7 Ways To Get Bumped Up To First Class On Your Next Flight”

It won’t work. Ever. But you’ll look like the biggest idiot ever have fun trying.

Here are the two best tips:

1. Present the pilot with a good, dependable work mule: Everyone loves a gift. If you give the pilot the gift of a strong, healthy work mule as you board the aircraft, it is customary for the pilot to immediately bump you up to first class.

…3. Disguise yourself as a mimosa: Alcoholic beverages are complimentary in first class, so if you dress up as a cocktail, you can sit down without anyone realizing you’re actually a human who belongs in coach.

They’re all kind of awesome.

(HT: Live and Let’s Fly)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The “revenue management” one is funny, not least as there is no way that a front-line reservations associate would ever have direct access to revenue management. Try that with Delta. Had an issue that went on for months caused by revenue management. Was Delta Diamond. Never once could customer service speak directly with them; all had to be through Delta’s systems.

  2. Airlines will often release an award seat if they have made a schedule change to your trip. But if they have canceled your flight you might learn that there are no flights left on that airline to take you where and when you want to go. You will virtually never be able to open an award seat on a partner airline, even if that partner airline canceled your award flight.

    If cancellation is at all likely, double book your award travel using two different airlines. A sure sign of impending cancellation is zero inventory for paid tickets on your flight more than a month out.

  3. I’ve literally only had an agent open an F seat over the phone one time in my life, and that was when I purchased an upgrade and they charged my card, then got moved back to economy. Calling in, they found that someone else had snagged the last seat at that price a fraction of a second before me – but not fast enough to keep the airline from charging me. Fortunately, they did open another seat at that price and put me back in F. But I did not say “revenue management “! I was an elite, which probably helped, but I also think it was obvious to them that having charged me X dollars for an F seat, they could not legally make me pay more.

  4. None of these is likely to work unless you have executive level platinum type status

    Dress for success. Come on that’s an old wives tale that went out window 40 years ago. Birthday? Please. Frequent Flyer? When everyone and their brother is Executive Platinum only CK get upgraded and there is MAYBE 1 seat

    It’s all about status. If you’re not concierge key your odds of getting upgraded aren’t very good especially in a hub city.

  5. Super Bestest Tip for Getting an Upgrade Ever? First have elite status. Then schlep to some out-of-the-way non-hub city and fly to another out-of-the-way non-hub city. Might not make for much of a trip but…?

    Or…totally dress to impress because they’ll absolutely notice your new shoes! But only on your birthday.

    On the serious side…the solo thing does work a bit. My wife and I always travel on separate itineraries. We’re both elite and we’ve done pretty good with upgrades (+50%). If it means we sit apart…so what? It’s not like we just met…

  6. Some of these actually worked 23 years ago prior to 9-11.I would watch really attractive people flirt with the gate agents and get upgraded even on Int journeys.Some would bring gifts in influencing their outcomes.
    I scored it twice ever complimentary.Was shocked when they called me up to the gate and tore up my coach boarding pass on a cheap fare and replaced it with business class to London.
    Some would do it with being charming.But that all changed as the airlines took away the freedom to do so policing their inventory.and firing those who did it without reasons in their guidelines of what was allowed.
    Today not a chance I believe its pay up or shut up one way or the other pretty much

  7. If I have high status on an airline and they are oversold in coach but have seats available up front, I politely ask the gate agent for the upgrade. This only happens on int’l flights, because it’s almost mathematically impossible for it to happen on a domestic flight given the free upgrade possibilities. I have been upgraded this way, but it is EXTREMELY rare. I think they’d give the seat to a nonrev first! I’ve actually been upgraded randomly with no status more often!

  8. Flying solo definitely helps. Wife and I were recently on a flight where we were 3 and 4 on the list. 1 and 2 were also a couple. One seat was open. We denied a single seat as did 1/2, so 5 got the seat.

  9. Try these magic phrases to get a free upgrade to First:
    “Give me my reparations”
    “Want to join the mile high club?”
    “If you don’t, you’re a Karen”
    “I won’t tell if you won’t tell”

  10. On a BA flight from Houston to London, we were already in Club World and there’s no 1st on that flight, I mentioned it was me and my wife’s 50 anniversary and the crew presented us with a bottle of champagne as we departed. That was a very nice gesture

  11. Gary- how dumb are you? NONE of these tricks work.
    “claim its your birthday”? Oh gee, let me just look at your docs line in your reservation and see that it’s not today…

    Dress to impress? nah, those days are done

    claim it’ll help oversales? nah, Revenue management will cabin roll elites.

    Who are you? Oh, some basic economy fuck? Nah, stay in the back.

    quit with your nonsense.

  12. I’ve only ever talked to a gate agent once about an upgrade. Due to IROP, I switched flights to avoid a misconnect. The only seat available was in the back of coach, even though I was flying on a first class ticket, and I took it. As I got to the new gate, a seat freed up front, but I was #2 on the upgrade. I asked the agent if I could take that seat since I was originally on a first class ticket, he said it depended on why I was in coach, did his magic, and I was back in first.

  13. Um, this article is by Adrianne Webster, who has been contributing to HuffPo for literally less than a week. Look at her bio and see that her last article was titled “Twitter Is In Meltdown Over This Nipple Concealing Tank Top.”


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