How to Look Like an Idiot Trying to Upgrade to First Class

There’s been tremendous coverage of this idiotic Bloomberg piece on how to score an upgrade every time.

It’s a great example of the genre of travel writing ‘how to upgrade’ that contains advice which is 100% completely, patently false (you don’t get a business class seat just by pretending it’s your honeymoon).

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. It doesn’t work, but I have some better suggestions.

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 ugprades 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 United Global Services or American ConciergeKey member buying premium cabin international tickets more than once a month that hasn’t asked and been successful. 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.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. I’ve been flying occasionally for 44 years. I got my very first upgrade last Monday, to help rebalance the plane. I had a lovely time. But would I have paid several hundred dollars extra for a bigger seat and 2 drinks for a 1 hour trip? Of course not. I want to spend my travel dollars for experiences when I get to the destination, and want to spend as little as possible for traveling there.

    I should also add – I have almost never seen so many empty seats in first class in my life as I’d seen last Monday before the flight attendances rebalanced the flight.

  2. So much of that Bloomberg article is so irritating. For instance: “We have never bought an upper-class seat; if ever we’ve flown anywhere up front, we’ve used miles to upgrade from economy.” Well, to go from Economy to Upper Class (in this example) bypassing Premium Economy requires a huge number of miles. Not to mention, is fare class restricted. For multiple people, this would require huge amounts of miles, if you could even pull it off. Though, the author states rather emphatically, I might add: “We have never bought an upper-class seat.” I really would love to see the REAL data-points on the calls to revenue management and the outcomes. Now, VS is very good about purchased upgrades at the airport. But, if space is available, these tend to run £700 to £1100 (each way). While I have no way of knowing if one never purchased an Upper-Class seat, but always sits in Upper Class, I believe it’s selective memory. I’m certain there are some paid upgrades in there somewhere (paid, meaning buy-ups at the airport). Oh, and her main routing is LAX. That makes it all seem even more improbable.

  3. Sorry if I am leaking a secret strategy, but the gate desk is not a singles bar! Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen the desperate use their sexy-voiced “Hey baby, got any seats up front for me?” (Wink wink) strategy, where the only thing missing was the squirt of Binaca…

  4. Evertime I look at the upgrade list at the airport, and it’s so long it scrolls off the screen, I’m glad I booked revenue first

  5. 100% true. Since I started reading travel blogs, like Gary’s, I have been flying 70% to 80% in Domestic First, International First, and International Business. Maybe reading Gary’s blog is the secret.

  6. For the second year in a row I’ve bought First on Alaska. It is ~$70 more than economy. For that I get two checked suitcases @ 25 each for a real $50 value. I get a meal which I value at $10, lounge access and priority boarding as well as the larger seat. It’s a no brainer!

  7. Funny responses. I decided long ago to stop with all the silliness.
    I like the legroom so I just pay for it. Better class of people……

  8. Years ago I did have a phone agent open a seat up. The conversation was more along the lines of – “hey, there’s never any availability on this one leg XXX-YYY. can you find any from date xx/xx to end of schedule?”

    Mind you I’ve had that conversation probably tens or into hundreds of time before and only one occasion did an agent open up availability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *