September 5, 2011 6:00 AM PT

How to Get Airline Upgrades

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Traveling in coach often isn’t a problem; especially if you’re taking a quick domestic flight. But when you’re flying across the country or to an international destination, sitting in coach for hours is less than appealing. Between the cramped leg space and too-close-for-comfort seats, longer flights can be quite uncomfortable.

First class accommodations can make longer flights much more enjoyable. But the price tag that comes with the extra space and luxury accommodations can make many people sweat. That’s why people often try to score free upgrades. Unfortunately, many are unsuccessful with their attempts.

Here are some methods you can use to get airline upgrades, as well as 9 tips to help increase your chances of being successful with your quest of getting the upgrades for free or minimal cost.

How to get upgrades

There are several tactics you can take to get your airline seats upgraded. Here are three methods you can choose from for your next flight.

  1. Pay for upgrades — You don’t necessarily have to pay the full price difference to upgrade from coach to business or first class. When you book your original ticket, inquire about YUP or QUP fares. These fares cost just a bit more (could be as low as $20) but will hugely increase your odds of qualifying for an upgrade at the airport.

  2. Cash in on frequent flyer miles — If you have accumulated frequent flyer miles, you may be able to cash them in to buy an upgraded seat. Many airlines also have rewards credit cards where you can earn points for each dollar you spend on their card. Before you leave for the airport, you may want to check your rewards program to see if you can use those points for ticket upgrades.

  3. Ask — Simple, free, but not guaranteed. It never hurts to ask when you check in or are boarding if there is a seat where you can get “some extra leg room”. The odds are against you with this method but if you use some of the tips from the next section of this article, you may have some luck!

Tips to make upgrades more likely

Follow these suggestions to increase your odds of getting the extra leg room you’re looking for on your next flight.

  1. Be polite. A little kindness goes a long way, so be sure to leave your attitude at home. If you are looking for an upgrade, respectfully ask the agent. Make sure that you don’t make your request a demand, as this is a sure way to get a curt “no” as a reply.

  2. Fly solo. Your chances of getting an upgraded seat are going to decrease dramatically if you are traveling with one or more people; especially if you have a child in tow.

  3. Volunteer to sit out. When flights are overbooked, passengers are often asked if they are willing to be bumped to another flight. After you’ve checked in, let an agent know that you are willing to be bumped if the flight is overbooked. If this becomes unnecessary, you may still score a free upgrade simply for being kind.

  4. Become elite. If you fly regularly, you may want to consider utilizing one airline and enrolling in its frequent flyer program. When you become an elite member of the program, you may qualify for free first class upgrades, as well as other perks like first check-in and special lounge access.

  5. Dress for success. If you don professional clothing for your flight, it will increase your chances of being chosen for an upgrade. First impressions make a difference, even when it comes to flying!

  6. Book the early flights. Early flights, coupled with checking in early, increase your odds of qualifying for an upgrade. This is because you will encounter fewer travelers who are also trying to get upgraded. You will also catch the airline employees early in the day, before their workday has gotten hectic.

  7. Include your profession. If you book your tickets through a travel agent, you can ask them to add an “OSI” message to your passenger record. OSI, which stands for other significant information, can include your profession. If you work for a non-profit such as a church or humanitarian organization, or are an executive of a major company that uses the airline exclusively for their travels, it may increase your chances of getting an upgrade.

  8. Be open to change. If a flight attendant asks you if you are willing to move once you have boarded the plane, be open to the request. They may be asking to move you to the front of the plane (i.e. first class) to help redistribute the weight.

  9. Let issues be known. If this is the second leg of your trip and you experienced issues on the first flight, politely share your experience with the employees at the gate. They may offer to upgrade your seat to help make up for the inconveniences you experienced. This will also ensure the issues are reported to corporate so any appropriate remediation efforts can be made.

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