By Trip Styler, on July 27, 2016

6 realistic ways to get upgraded on a flight

In 2014, I published an article on the Expedia Viewfinder about my sky-tested tricks and tips for getting upgraded on a flight. Since then, it has become one of this blog’s most popular posts, and I get it—who doesn’t want an airline upgrade? (Especially when you’ve tasted the fruits of a front-of-flight experience!)

On international jaunts, economy and business classes are about as comparable as a campsite and the Four Seasons. When you’ve sampled French wine, Swiss chocolates, Egyptian cotton, and a massage module in your lie-flat seat, your motivation to move from chair to pod borders on fanatic.

As the airline industry evolves at a supersonic pace—according to a 2016 Phocuswright report on aviation, the U.S. travel market is expected to reach US$381 billion in 2017—travelers need to keep up and be open to all types of upgrades. Here are the newest, most realistic, and pocketbook-friendly ways to “jet-set” from seat 60D to 1A.

Viewfinder Tip: Scoring an upgrade is both an art and a science. By combining strategy and a willingness to creatively customize your air travel, you’ll have more than a wing and a prayer’s chance of flight enhancements. 

1. Fly a new route

Earlier this year, I purchased air tickets on a new route between Los Angeles and Stockholm. Because the flight was offered daily, there was a sudden uptick in inventory, meaning tickets (and upgrades) were very reasonable. I paid the bargain-basement price of US$240 (return!) for my nonstop fare, and when I got to the airport, I inquired about an upgrade. For an extra US$130 (one way), I was able to sit in a cushy and extra-wide premium economy seat; a small price to pay for 10 hours at cruising altitude. The premier cabin also had seats available for an extra US$300 (one way).

Upgrade intel: Three million travelers take to the skies every day, so take advantage of new or less popular routes for the highest upgrade potential.

2. Customize

Nowadays, upgrades are as much—if not more—about personal air travel enhancements as they are about cabin class changes. Since we all want to travel smart, it helps to view flying through a customization lens.

Gone are the days of two airline seat classes; now there are many, and on top of this, a range of ticket customization options exist to suit the needs of individual fliers. For example, if you’re traveling as a family, you might want to book a “bundled fare”—an upgrade of sorts—that includes extras such as checked bags and in-flight entertainment. Alternatively, if you’re traveling for business you probably value speed, so your bundling sweet-spot would potentially include Wi-Fi and priority seating add-ons for airborne efficiency. Similar to bundled cable and internet packages, or prix-fixe meals versus à la carte, bundled airfare is a smart booking hack.

Customization isn’t limited to 37,000 feet; it extends to your airport experience as well. For example, if you have a lengthy layover and want a slice of the high life, inquire at nearby lounges about the cost of day access. Many airport lounges offer this perk to economy ticket holders for a small fee. A few weeks ago, I decided to treat myself to lounge access during a five-hour layover. I spent US$45 for peace, Wi-Fi, food, and bottomless cappuccinos. Cin cin!

3. Use your points wisely

It’s no secret that all jet-setters should collect airline miles with a major airline alliance, Expedia+, and a travel rewards credit card. With this double- or triple-it-up method, you can rack up points quickly, meaning that access to upgrades is not a sky-high ambition.

Don’t stop at collecting! As you amass points and miles, have a goal. Whether you want to visit family in Asia or stay in an over-water bungalow in the Seychelles, focus your points accrual on a long-haul upgrade redemption to make the most of your time on cloud nine.

Upgrade intel: You can often use your points/miles for a seat on an affiliated carrier based on either route or service preferences.

4. Consider the greater good

In the increasingly confusing world of computer-generated seat assignments, families often get separated, causing confusion and angst during boarding. But if you’re willing to move seats, you may be rewarded.

I watched this happen on a recent flight between Seattle and Orlando. A gentlemen and his elderly father—who needed to sit near the lavatory—realized their seats were too far apart from each other and the bathroom. The flight attendants did everything in their power to fix the error before takeoff. Eventually, seat-Tetris was achieved thanks to a nice man who was willing to move for the greater good. The purser wasn’t able to put this kind soul in business class (it was already full), but she rewarded him with enhancements such as complimentary food and beverages, and did everything to ensure his flight was as pleasant as possible. 

5. Cozy up to the last-minute upgrade

Cozy up to spontaneity and a touch more spending! Last-minute upgrades are often available for a discounted rate, whether they’re offered through online check-in, at the airport kiosk, or via a gate announcement. As a frequent flier I see them all the time, and often take advantage. 

Didn’t see or hear about an upgrade at check-in? It’s worth asking a gate agent about the flight’s inventory—there might be one seat available!

Upgrade intel: Last-minute upgrades favor the prepared—the road warriors who know to check-in the full 24 hours before departure, or those seated near the gate’s counter and ready to pounce.

6. Search well

Finally, it’s still possible to find a Champagne seat for a beer fare. Let me explain: Recently, I was researching flights to Southeast Asia and noticed a business class ticket that was only US$400 more than an economy seat. Booking “the upgrade” was a no-brainer for the 24-hour journey (yes to shorter security lines, yes to lounge access, yes to plane perks).

Upgrade intel: Look at all fare classes when researching a flight—sometimes the price differential will shock you (in a good way).

See our other upgrade articles:
How to get upgraded on a flight
How to get upgraded at hotel check-in 

What methods do you use to score an airline upgrade?