How to Make Sure Your Free Upgrades Clear on Domestic Flights

This morning I’m going to talk about domestic upgrades — how to improve your chances of getting them, how to guarantee you can get upgraded to first class for free.

    free first class upgrade

International Upgrades are Different — and Harder

International upgrades are tough to get and not nearly as good a value as they used to be. One exception is upgrading from premium economy to business class with Virgin Atlantic or British Airways, where there are no cash co-pays and the mileage increment is cheap.

But in general award tickets are a better value than paid travel with upgrades, and a better strategy to pursue for folks that are either chasing elite status or having the underlying ticket purchased by someone else (work reimbursable). So international upgrades are different.

What Upgrades are ‘Domestic’ and ‘Free’?

By ‘domestic’ I mean that term the way the airlines do. Airlines consider Canada and the Caribbean and sometimes Central America to be ‘domestic’ for upgrade purposes. They fly domestic or short haul equipment to these destinations, rather than premium international long haul products. And so they more or less ‘give away’ upgrades either for free or cheap.

It used to be common to require passengers to earn and spend 500 mile upgrade certificates, the standard was 2000 miles worth of upgrades for every 10,000 miles flown and if you wanted more you had to buy them. But United, Delta, US Airways, and Alaska all have ‘complimentary unlimited upgrades’ now so that domestic upgrades awarded within days of departure are free. Only American still has the 500 mile upgrade system, and their top tier elites get their own upgrades ‘unlimited complimentary’.

If you’re an elite frequent flyer, you can sit up front at no cost as long as you request the upgrade and as long as there’s space. That means if there are seats available, and enough seats when it gets to be your turn in line.

Confirming Upgrades Instead of Waiting it Out

You can jump the queue by confirming an upgrade and that’s something you can do even without elite status. If you have miles with the airline you’re flying you can spend miles and a cash co-pay (waived on some airlines – but not American – if you are an elite) to sit up front if confirmable upgrade space is available. (Top elites may also get confirmable domestic and international upgrades they can use on these flights without spending miles or money.)

American tends to have the best domestic confirmable upgrade space open. And I’ll often use pay service Expert Flyer to track how much upgrade space is left. If I really want to upgrade on a domestic flight, like Washington DC – Los Angeles non-stop, I’ll have Expert Flyer email me if there are fewer than three upgrade seats left and I’ll consider confirming the upgrade at that time. I don’t want to sit in back on a 5 hour flight when I have the wherewithal to avoid it.

Of course I would rather get my domestic upgrades completely for free.

The Six Strategies for Making Sure Your Free Domestic Upgrade Clears

When I was just a United Premier about 15 years ago (25,000 mile flyer) I got a taste for flying upfront and went to real lengths to avoid the back of the plane. (Since then I’ve come to actually appreciate coach at least on short flights.)

I would take the noon Boeing 777 on Wednesday, connecting through Denver, to get between Washington Dulles and San Francisco. And it worked every time.

Here are the lessons:

  1. Avoid key business travel days. Business travelers have elite status and are your competition for upgrades. And business travelers fly out mostly on Monday morning. Sunday night can be a busy time, too, positioning for the week. Business travelers fly back on Thursday afternoon, Friday can be a busy time too.
  2. Avoid key business travel times. If you can avoid flying 7am – 9am and 5pm – 8pm you’re going to avoid business travelers.
  3. Pick aircraft with the greatest percentage of premium seats. You want a lot of seats to increase your chances of an upgrade. i find it’s not the absolute number of seats up front that matters most, it’s the percentage. An aircraft with over 10%, and ideally 13% or more, of first class seats suits you well. You don’t have to have the highest status on the plane, you just have to be in the top 10%.
  4. Connect. If you care about upgrades, shorter flights are usually better, there’s less competition from flyers buying the seats or using confirmed upgrade instruments.
  5. Avoid the dominant airline in your town. The major carrier in your home destination will have the heaviest concentration of elites. If you fly on a smaller carrier with less of a presence in the market they’ll usually provide the better chance of upgrade.
  6. Avoid United out of DC Unless You Work for the Government. United, like Delta, prioritizes full fare over status level in the upgrade queue. A bottom-tier elite on a full fare ticket trumps a Delta Platinum or United 1K on a mid-priced fare. (American does not do this, and treats me well as a result.) In the DC market that means government Silvers on YCA fares get upgraded, while top tier elites flying to or from a hub wind up number 20 on the upgrade list. In most markets government travel is noise, in DC it matters.

A Video on How Upgrades Work

Last year I posted a video discussion on upgrades that many may find useful:

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, 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. Did anyone else every notice how expressive Gary’s eyebrows are? He conveys a lot with those bad boys

  2. If you want FC then pay for FC… What I like about the US/AA merger is I can purchase a non refundable FC ticket on US far less then what AA charges for the same route. I then use my AA FF # to have the miles post to AA… The price difference I’m sure will go away once the two airlines merge as one, the prices will go up… Until then I’ll enjoy the lower price FC seats on US..

  3. I’m pretty much Delta only, and Expert Flyer doesn’t cover Delta upgrade. :-9

    What I’d be willing to pay for would be historical information for every Delta domestic flight, giving upgrade percentages for purchased ahead of time tickets in each Medallion class, and the same for “competition at the Gate” upgrades.

    It’s kind of surprising to me that Delta doesn’t provide this information (it’s not like it would hurt them to do it). OTOH, given the (poor) quality of Delta IT (really, Delta, why are you encouraging me to “upgrade” to Economy Comfort when I’m sitting in 1st Class????), I guess it’s not that surprising.

  4. Thanks @EFV. I’ll hopefully never buy a ticket that’s actually upgradable with miles (I’m doing all this on my dime), but when I make DM and get some certs, I’ll be sure to check them out

  5. People usually default their search for economy and never even consider looking for business/ first class tickets. I urge you to try and see what happens.

    I’m doing AUS-BOG-SJC-AUS. $1200 economy. $1600 business class, with flatbed seats. $400 more for business class, no brainer! Plus I get more miles.

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