Airline Upgrades: How to Get One Without Blowing Your Budget

When you think of flying in business or first class, the idea that it’s only for the wealthy may come to mind. But did you know that many ordinary people fly in the front of the plane, too?

Of course, some of those people are in business or first class by using airline miles earned from flying, having elite status, or spending on a travel credit card. And with some short-haul routes costing as little as 5,000 miles one-way on airlines like Delta or American, more people than ever before can fly in first or business class, or another premium fare class.

But what if you don’t have a credit card or elite status? Is flying in a premium cabin out of your grasp—and your budget? Not quite. These are a couple of ways to upgrade your airline ticket for your next flight without breaking the bank.

Be strategic

Want an upgrade? You’ll want to put yourself in the best position to score, especially if you aren’t a frequent flier or don’t have an airline’s credit card in your wallet.

One simple way to try for an upgrade: Check how full your flight is, which you can do directly on your airline’s website. Some really savvy travelers go further than that and specifically search for tickets on emptier flights to have a better chance at getting upgraded.

For example, say you wanted to fly United Airlines from Newark to Boston, and the airline operated 10 flights to Boston on the day you wanted to travel. If your travel plans are flexible, you would want to avoid booking the most full flight or ones with United MileagePlus elite members waiting for upgrades, as the likelihood of getting a free upgrade is slim.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll get an upgrade on an emptier flight or one that’s departing late at night or early in the morning, but you have a better shot than on a completely full plane, especially without elite status.

Ask nicely

The myth that dressing nicely can score you an upgrade is just that: a myth. So you can leave your three-piece suit at home, but make sure to pack your manners.

You won’t know unless you ask, and that can also apply to scoring an upgrade. Some seasoned travelers have gotten upgraded during check-in at the airport or at their gate.

There’s no easy way to do this and no guarantee it’ll work. It’s also a lot less likely on uber-popular routes like New York to Los Angeles and on international flights. But if you’re looking for a sample script, here’s one I’ve found has worked for me in the past:

“Hi, I noticed some seats open on today’s flight and wondering if those upgrades have cleared. If they have, and there’s still room, I’d love to be considered for an upgrade.” It’s simple and straight to the point.

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