Certainly it wasn't all chance that brought first-class upgrades floating one's way, and a heavy battery of hard and soft tactics arose to increase your chances. Dress neatly, speak politely, fly the same airline regularly, inquire when offering your frequent flier number to the telephone booking person, stand a little tall at check-in if you can (for the tall-person sympathy upgrade), volunteer to give up your economy seat so a family might sit together, volunteer to be bumped on an overbooked flight.
But these days, when everything flight-related has a price tag, you'll pay $99 for an "upgrade" to the front section of coach, just for the right to get off the plane more quickly (although in some cases it does admittedly buy you an inch or so of extra legroom -- check out our article on Airline Perks Worth Paying For).
Many factors have created the present "zero upgrade" environment -- like the airlines' love of fees and surcharges, computerized seat assignments (which make it much easier to know where everyone is well before flight time), very full flights, and increased competition for upgrades due to the degraded state of flying coach.
Just because your chances of getting an upgrade have gone down, you don't necessarily have to give up. But first, let's realize that, for many domestic flights...
First Class Ain't What It Used to Be
Don't get me wrong -- when I am filing past the first few rows of seats on my way to the back of the plane, those big leather seats with folks already drinking wine in them have a strong allure. But those seats come with a cost, whether in cash or in miles, and you don't get all that much more than the folks in coach -- it's usually the same meals, albeit for "free," the same headphones with the same movies or DirecTV, and the same limited seat incline.
(On the plus side, one big difference these days that must be mentioned is that first-class passengers often avoid some parts of the slog through security and check-in; the way airports are run these days, shorter lines could well be worth more than bigger seats.)
10 Ways to Get a Better Airplane Seat
For international flights, you are talking about an entirely different situation. Much more critically than better food and drinks, first- and business-class seats in most international aircraft convert into beds that are actually pretty darn comfortable. On a flight back from Tokyo in first class a few years ago, I was actually disappointed when we began our final descent; when is the last time that happened in coach?
Okay, that's out of the way; let's move on to maximizing your (still slim) chances of an upgrade these days.
It Ain't Easy Getting Upgraded
David Rowell, who writes The Travel Insider, notes that "it is enormously harder to get upgrades these days than it used to be. Well, correction, it is harder to get undeserved upgrades these days. The procedure for getting upgrades that one is entitled to has become almost 100 percent automatic and hands-off, and with all flights being full in both cabins, there isn't much 'wiggle room' for people to exploit."
And it is not just a combination of luck and automation that will shut you out of upgrades -- at some airlines, it may be a matter of policy. "Most airlines state, in no uncertain terms, that their policies prohibit arbitrary upgrading, both at check-in and onboard," says Randy Petersen of InsideFlyer. "It's a firm rule, with no room for negotiation or interpretation." Petersen agrees about the root cause: "This becomes understandable when you consider that upgrading is now often done electronically, rather than by queuing up at the check-in counter."
These electronically issued upgrades are doled out by a number of metrics, whether to the highest-ranking elite flier, or the person who purchased an upgrade-eligible coach fare, or the person who cashed in her miles.
That said, since stories and rumors of free upgrades persist, here are some tactics to get you into that privileged group that seems to snag upgrades -- or at least says they do.
What Not to Do at the Airport
Tactics for Getting the Elusive "Free" Upgrade
Some ground rules to follow if you are serious about getting an upgrade:
- Dress neatly. Dressing well is not the ticket to ride some hope it is, but even so you are not getting an escort to the front of the plane if you are wearing cargo shorts, a tank top and flip-flops. Most people don't even want to sit next to you in this case, let alone upgrade you. (See Five Things You Should Never Wear on a Plane.)
- Ask politely and directly. Randy Petersen recommends something as simple as "If you are upgrading passengers on this flight, I would like to be considered." Inserting the word "please" won't hurt you either.
- Be on time; have good timing. Showing up late to request an upgrade when an agent is just trying to get everyone checked in and in the air isn't going to work. Do agents the courtesy of making your request with plenty of time to spare before the flight, and when no one else is competing for their attention.
- Be reasonable. Being overly demanding or demeaning just inspires agents to pick someone else to upgrade if the opportunity arises. And don't waste everyone's time and good will if you know that you are a poor candidate; if you are traveling with your whole family, have a pet lobster in a cage as your carry-on or purchased a ticket for an extremely low fare, you probably don't want to spend your energy demanding upgrades.