How to get upgraded on a flight

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Dishing on strategies to get bumped to business class and beyond

As I was transitioning my business class seat from upright to flat, an Emirates flight attendant on my flight to Dubai hurried over and asked me if I would like a mattress.

“Yes, please,” I responded in an octave higher than my normal tone of voice.

Sitting in upper class is not—and will never be—something I take for granted. Once you score a taste of seat 1D, you quickly realize it’s heavenly, and worth planning ahead to try and secure.

Having partaken in front-of-the-curtain perks such as personal pods, seats that double as massage chairs, and carts of sommelier-selected wines, it’s always my goal—especially for long-haul flights—to get bumped to biz. Here are my well-traveled tricks for pursuing flight upgrades.

Dress nicely

Unless you have elite status or you’re a million-mile flier such as George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, you need to look the part if you want to be considered for an upgrade. This doesn’t have to mean designer labels only. It does, however, mean no ballcaps.

Fly airlines offering cost-effective upgrades

If you’re hoping for an upgrade and don’t have the points or the status to make it happen, find an airline offering cheap upgrades. Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Virgin America—to name a few—offer reasonable, last-minute econo-to-biz fares. For example, Alaska Airlines releases unsold business class seats on its domestic flights for as low as $50 at the gate (and yes, I have taken advantage of this perk).

Emirates first class suite

Focus on B routes at B times

Flying from LAX to JFK on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon will net nearly zero upgrade potential. The route is too popular and too busy with frequent fliers who will end up in any unpurchased upper-class seats. To thrust your chances of an upgrade into a better lift-off position: A) seek off-peak flight times, and B) find a similar flight path using a nearby regional airport (for example, Long Beach Airport or John Wayne Airport versus LAX).

Be nice

One of my favorite books is The Power of Nice, which was written by two ad agency execs in NYC. In it, they talk about how treating people with grace (rather than a cog in the wheel) has revolutionized their business. Apply this same approach to travel and think about how practicing “polite” could alter your airport experience. While it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself perched at the 25-seat, Carrara marble Long Bar at Cathay Pacific’s flagship lounge in Hong Kong because you’re a nice person, you might get bumped to the front of the plane for being courteous and understanding. I’ve seen it happen on a few occasions, and experienced this up-up-and-away moment myself.

Viewfinder Tip: Don’t underestimate the power of asking for an upgrade. If the seating stars align and the gate agent is feeling generous, there’s a chance you’ll get what you want.

Get Serious

Looking ahead, if you’re serious about launching yourself into the world of airline upgrades, I recommend two tried-and-true methods: Building points with an airline alliance (for example, Oneworld or Star Alliance), and charging purchases on a travel credit card. Five years ago, I deployed both strategies. This year, my husband and I have just about enough points to fly to the Maldives in business class for free. Thanks to flights here and there, and mundane stops for gas and groceries, I see a set of Champagne-class seats and an over-water hut in our future.

What flight upgrade methods have worked well for you?

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Trip Styler

Trish Friesen chose an unlikely profession given her fear of flying and propensity toward car, air, boat, train, and chairlift sickness. Thanks to Gravol, Sea-Bands, and cruise ship stabilizers, the reluctant—yet enthusiastic—jetsetter packs her bag once every two weeks to swim with sharks in the Great Barrier Reef or to sample the latest libation in Portland. Trish unpacks her suitcase in Vancouver, Canada, Eh! where she’s the editor-in-chief of TripStyler.com, a travel lifestyle website for aspiring jetsetters. Find her moonlighting on Expedia, Fodor's, Jetsetter, and as a travel expert on TV while circumventing the globe with her entourage: a MacBook Air, an Olympus camera, and the biggest carry-on she can fit on the plane.

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