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How to score a first class upgrade for (almost) nothing

Clever travelers know you needn’t be a big spender to travel first class. Sometimes scoring a free (or at least dirt cheap) first class upgrade comes down to flexibility, dumb luck, and being willing to ask for what you want. Here are five of our favorite tips for securing a seat with the high rollers.

Prove Your Loyalty

Every tip below applies ten-fold if you’re already a member of the airline’s frequent flier program. They typically provide upgrades, deals, and exclusive perks to their most loyal customers. If you make an effort to at least appear to be a loyal customer, you’re far more likely to score the upgrade. Even for infrequent fliers, it’s worth signing up to the loyalty programs of every airline you potentially fly.

Related: Best in Class: The World’s Best Business Class Cabins

Make an Effort to Blend In

Like it or not, human beings are superficial creatures and appearances matter. If you roll up to the gate looking like you just survived a three-week backpacking trip (even if you did just survive a three-week backpacking trip), the agents won’t give you the time of day. You needn’t don a three-piece suit (although that would help), but you need to at least look the part. A sport coat and decent pair of shoes go a long way toward making you first-class-worthy.

Just … Ask

The first rule of getting what you want (in life, business, and travel) is: ask. Believe it or not, sometimes you can score a free upgrade — or at least a discounted one — simply by asking the gate agent. If there’s room in the Business or First Class cabins, and the agent is having a particularly good day, you may just get lucky. Playing the emotion card can help here too: it’s easier on your birthday; let them know you’re flying to Dallas to spend time with your mom on her birthday; etc.

Play the Victim

Above all else, the one thing that virtually guarantees the best upgrades and deals is being flexible. If your flight is overbooked and you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination, volunteer to take the bump. But, in addition to any vouchers the airline may be offering, confidently ask to be placed on the next flight with an upgrade. If you’re forced to wait a few hours or more in the terminal, the least they can do is offer to place you in the Caviar Cabin. If there’s space available, they’ll typically bend over backward to keep you happy.

Fly Solo

Speaking of flexibility, it’s unlikely that a group of people will collectively score a full class upgrade. Whenever you can, it helps to fly solo as airlines are far more willing to upgrade a single passenger than an entire family of four.

Related: PSA: Don’t Be Annoying on a Plane

Mike Richard
Mike Richard has traveled the world since 2008. He's kayaked in Antarctica, tracked endangered African wild dogs in South…
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