Free First Class? 6 Tips for bagging a Flight Upgrade

In the roaring 90’s when business travelers were regarded in awe, flight upgrades were routinely dished out by airlines to ensure passenger loyalty.

These days, a free flight upgrade comes around about as often as a royal baby. So why then are there numerous ‘experts’ in the industry touting the simple rules of “Be polite and ask” and “Dress smartly” as the answer to a golden ticket?

It goes without reason that being polite is a requirement if ever you were to receive an upgrade. No desk agent would upgrade an abusive, complaining customer. In fact, she would probably try to ensure your flight was as miserable as possible by sticking the largest person, or the crying baby, in the seat right next to you. Being rude is a no-brainer way to guarantee you’d never get a free upgrade, but being polite won’t get you in the 180° reclinable seats upfront.

Dress smart – Again, the shabby gent in the Hawaiian shirt and flip flops probably won’t be dining on free caviar mid-flight, but donning your smartest suit with silver cufflinks won’t open the champagne fountain either -thousands of smartly dressed people fly economy every day.

how to get a free flight upgrade


Even the once magical phrase “We’re on our honeymoon” doesn’t even warrant the bat of an eyelash from a desk agent these days.

That being said, unless you’re actually flying the plane, if you hope to be turning left when you board, try these ‘expert’ tips:

1.  Join the airline’s loyalty program – and work your way up

You’ve read it a thousand times: loyalty pays. Whilst being an elite member of an airline’s loyalty scheme may never bring you an upgrade, if one were ever available, the list of elite members on that flight would –without fail – be the pool from which the lucky person would be chosen.

As if to make a point: of the hundreds of flights I’ve taken, I was upgraded, for free, only two times, during which I enjoyed privileged status on the airlines loyalty program.

how to get a free flight upgrade

First Class Dining: Source

2. Agree/ Offer to be bumped

With ever-increasing fuel prices, airlines are more pressed than ever to ensure that their flights are as booked as possible. Poorly-sold routes are routinely being cut, and overselling is at a record high. I once heard an announcement, minutes before boarding a flight from Charles de Gaulle to Heathrow, enquiring for passengers who were willing to be bumped onto the next flight (1h40 later) who would be compensated 300€! For some, that was more than the price of their ticket! No doubt, the desk was swarming with volunteers! Agreeing to be bumped allows you the rare occasion to ask for a free upgrade, better yet, let the desk agent know you’d be willing to be bumped even before they make the announcement.

how to get a free flight upgrade

Suites onboard A380: Source

3. Fly popular routes at busy times

Airlines are nowadays under strict rules not to issue upgrades unless absolutely warranted. Seeing that popular business or holiday routes at peak times are on high demand and likely to be oversold, airlines may give the green light to issue upgrades (usually from their list of frequent fliers, see point 1) or this situation may allow the opportunity for you to agree/offer to be bumped (point 2).

how to get a free flight upgrade

First Class Cuisine: Source Singapore Airlines

4. Pay more

This tip may sound counterintuitive to nabbing a free upgrade, but it makes sense that the most heavily discounted economy fare will probably never be upgraded to a first class ticket. The full fare tickets would most likely benefit from an upgrade if it were available.

how to get a free flight upgrade

The privacy of your own Suite: source Singapore Airlines

5. Seat trouble

The is a good chance of being moved from cattle class to the coveted seats upfront if there is an issue with your seat that would make the flight uncomfortable or unsafe. Of course you could just be moved to an alternate economy class seat, but if none are available, then you’ll probably be upgraded. Some examples would be a non functional TV screen on a long haul flight, or a broken seatbelt. That being said, please don’t try to damage your seat deliberately…that could land you in hot water.

how to get a free flight upgrade

Champagne on Tap: Source Capitolife Magazine

6. Go it solo

Even if you followed all the tips above, it would exceptionally hard for a desk agent, or a crew member to offer an upgrade if you travelled with a group, family, or even a partner. Justifying an upgrade is difficult enough, justifying it for more than one person can be more so. Solo travelers are more likely to receive free upgrades, especially if meeting one or more of the criteria above.

how to get a free flight upgrade

Showers on Board for Emirates First Class Fliers: Source

That being said, using miles to upgrade tickets, or purchasing discounted business/first class seats at the check in desk, although not free, may be the more realistic option to ensure you’re sipping champagne before you even take off.

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