If you’re one of the many people who travel by airplane each year, chances are you’re sitting in economy. A 2016 study conducted on behalf of the trade association Airlines for America found that only 17% of travelers flying for personal travel flew business or first class. The rest flew in basic economy or its slightly more luxurious cousin, premium economy.
If you’ve ever walked to the back of the plane past those business and first class seats, complete with extra legroom, pillows and gourmet menus, you may have wondered: How do I get upgraded to a better class?
The answer? It's pretty hard to get bumped-up. One option is to pay. The same 2016 Airlines for America study found 23% of travelers in 2015 had purchased a seat upgrade using either money, points or miles. But that included travelers who purchased upgrades from basic economy up to premium economy — and even paid upgrades aren’t available to every traveler.
The price for moving up to business or first class can also be astronomical. In 2011, the New York Times reported “business class is five to 10 times the price of an economy ticket, while first class is usually twice the price of business.” Even though 20% of all seats on long haul flights are business or first class, those tickets can account for 40-50% of airline revenue.
If paying for an upgrade to business or first class isn’t in your price range, is it ever possible to earn a free upgrade? We asked some airline experts to find out.
What it takes to get a free upgrade
According to Jane Mullins*, who’s spent 15 years as a gate agent for an international airline, free upgrades are few and far between. According to Mullins, who spoke to us through a translator, first class on her airline meant the “royal treatment.” A round-trip ticket for a first class seat on any given flight could be as much as $20,000. A round-trip business class seat ran around $10,000.
Free upgrades to a business or first class seat were “rare,” Mullins said. “People were only upgraded if the lower class seats were oversold.”
Typically upgrades went to the highest priority travelers: Frequent fliers who were members of the airline’s rewards programs.
Seth Kaplan, a transportation analyst for NPR’s ‘Here & Now’ and an airline expert who co-hosts the podcast ‘Airlines Confidential,’ said airlines typically have a long list of rewards customers who are entitled to upgrades before non-rewards members even get a chance — especially on short-haul flights where business and first class seats are more reasonably priced.
“Almost always, there’s a very long list of people competing for very few upgrades,” Kaplan said. “The people who are basically the best customers, from the airline’s perspective, get them.”
On long-haul flights, even those frequent fliers don’t always get upgrades, Kaplan said.
“People who are at high tiers within those frequent flier programs might have a certain number each year of upgrades available to them,” he said. “Even many people who are entitled [to upgrades] rarely get it anymore.”
The chances of an infrequent flier getting an upgrade are slim.
According to Mullins, non-rewards members have a small chance at getting a free upgrade on an oversold flight, but only “if they paid full fare, meaning they bought the tickets at no discount” and “not a special seasonal sale fare.”
Even then, Mullins said it would be especially hard for groups to be upgraded together, “like families of four.”
The airline also won’t bump just anyone up to first class. Mullins said the airline will even consider how the passenger is dressed before bumping someone up.
“They look at their attire, shoes,” she said. “[They] need to have an overall professional look.”
Kaplan agreed that how you present yourself can make a difference in getting an upgrade — “I always dress respectably to fly, I don’t mean wearing a suit but just look neat. It’s not just the chance of getting an upgrade, which is unlikely, but I just think it always helps to look presentable.”
Making yourself useful
Besides showing up to the airport in your fanciest shoes, how do you up your chances at getting a free upgrade? According to Mullins, it’s not by sweet-talking the gate agent. She said she has never seen someone get a free upgrade just for being nice. Kaplan agreed, saying that “the days when you can sweet talk a gate agent into giving you an upgrade are largely gone, just because there aren’t any seats left.”
One way you might be able to earn that upgrade is by making yourself helpful. If you’re on an overbooked flight and you volunteer to be rebooked, you may be able to get a better seat, if the change to your plans was “inconvenient,” Mullins said.
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“The person would be put on the flight the next day, or the next available flight,” she said. “They’ll be compensated with cash, around $400, and could maybe be upgraded. It’s usually both cash compensation and an upgrade, not just an upgrade.”
You might also be able to get an upgrade if, as Kaplan put it, “you’ve been through hell with the airline,” but even then, the airline won’t necessarily apologize in the form of an upgrade.
“Don’t demand an upgrade from the gate agent,” he said. “But if you can say to them, ‘Listen, I know this isn’t your fault, but here’s what happened to me. If there’s any way you can do something for me I would really appreciate it.’”
There’s also a chance for an upgrade if the airline has made a mistake with your booking, but that’s rare too.
Mullins said she had seen this happen once: “One of the check-in agents accidentally gave a duplicate seat assignment, and no one noticed till they got to the seat. To avoid any further delays they upgraded them to business class because there was only one available seat.”
If you do get bumped up to a higher class seat, there’s one more thing you should know — if it’s a last minute change, you won’t be able to make a special meal request.
“They will not be able to accommodate the last minute change,” Mullins said, “because the meals are prepared way in advance.”
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*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the employee, who is still employed by the airline.
Image: Nastia Kobzarenko