When the cheap seats just won’t do, here’s how to get an upgrade to the lap of luxury

Businessman working at laptop on airplane
What you need to know about upgrading your seat.
(Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek / Getty Images/Caiaimage)

Question: I am very confused about airplane upgrades and how to get them. Would you please give us a tutorial on how to upgrade to business or first class?

Barbara Busch

Santa Barbara

Answer: Getting an upgrade so you can sit (or sleep) in the not-so-cheap seats depends a bit on who you are, how much you want to spend and who might be flying with you.


Here’s some of what you need to know, thanks to Zach Honig, editor at large and upgrades expert at the Points Guy, a website that teaches you how to maximize your award points, and Chris Lopinto, president and co-founder of Expert Flyer, a subscription service that helps you get upgrades, among other services.

Your status

It’s one thing to have a fleet of Rolls Royces that lets people know you are someone, but that’s not going to get you into the business- or first-class fun zone unless you’re also an elite flier. (And, frankly, if you are that, just use your private jet and leave the upgrades to the rest of us.)

To be an elite flier, you must fly a certain number of qualifying segments, points, dollars or miles, depending on the airline. (This is altogether different from earning awards miles.)

Unless you are an unusually vigorous leisure traveler, this is not going to be you. Instead, it is more often the business traveler/road warrior whose job has him or her on a plane many times a month.


How do you become an elite? Let’s say you have given your loyalty to American. Gold, the bottom rung of status, means you have reached markers of achievement in certain categories—miles flown, dollars spent, segments completed— on the airline or one of its Oneworld alliance partners. (See which airlines are members of which alliance)

The top rung is Executive Platinum, and that’s where they love you the most. Upgrades are nearly automatic. You often don’t have to ask; just show up and you’ll be put in the lap of quasi-luxury.

How much will it cost and what are my chances?

Getting a first-class upgrade on a domestic or international flight is possible if you have the miles; they also may cost you a bit. On American, you need 15,000 miles for a domestic flight and $75; on United, miles and money can vary, especially if you’re on a “premium” flight (LAX to Newark, N.J., for example).

Your best bet is to call the airline before you book your ticket to ask about the particulars because there are certain fare classes that may be required for an upgrade. Put yourself in the hands of a pro. Find phone numbers, including the frequent-flier numbers.

Here’s the bad news: If you’re wait-listed for an upgrade — that is someone (or several someones) got the good seats and now you’re hoping they won’t show — know that not all people seeking upgrades are created equal.

If you’re an elite flier, you’ll go to the head of the wait-list class, Honig said. If you’re just a regular person and didn’t pay top dollar for your ticket, you’ll be way down on the list.

On my recent round-trip flight to Washington, D.C., I had plenty of company in the upgrade derby for first-class seats on the red-eye going east. Six people were wait-listed for an upgrade. I was No. 6. It was a long night.

Two other suggestions have nothing to do with miles:


You may be able to bid on an upgrade paid for with money, Honig said, noting that this happens more often with international airlines. (It’s a last-ditch effort to wring every bit of revenue out of every seat. If you get a seat, that frees up a last-minute coach seat that can be sold for top dollar.) It’s like bidding on EBay: “You can decide how much to pay,” Honig said. “You choose what you can afford.”

Lopinto suggested comparing the fare for coach and the fare for a business- or first-class ticket, especially for international flights during the comparatively pricey high seasons. The difference may be very little.

If the premium seats aren’t selling, airlines may say, “give us an extra $300 now and we will put you in a business-class seat,” Lopinto said. Again, that frees up a last-minute coach seat. The best way to find out? Ask.

Who’s flying with you?

If it’s business travelers, you are going to have a tougher time getting an upgrade, both Honig and Lopinto said. That’s partly because they’re more apt to be elite fliers who almost automatically get the upgrade you want and partly because they probably paid more for their ticket than you did, all of which works against you.

Your chances are better if you’re flying a route that’s not usually filled with business fliers and not on a heavy business travel day (Mondays and Fridays). “Think about the time of day and day of week,” Honig said, if that upgrade means a lot to you.

On a different note, also know that if you’re flying solo, your chances are better. If there’s only one of something — like a first-class seat — you may be in the winner’s circle.

Failing that, you’ll have to embrace your inner airline egalitarian.

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