These strategies may make it more likely you'll have a more comfortable flight without paying more
It's harder than ever to get a free upgrade these days when so many people are flying. More and more people are being packed into more and more planes, and many airlines are reducing the number of first-class and business seats to add more leg room for certain coach seats.
Even so, there are still some strategies you can use to make it more likely that you'll get an upgrade for little—or even free. Next time you fly coach, try these steps:
- Buy a business- or first-class seat from the beginning.
- Don't compete with business travelers.
- Hang around the gate.
- Choose a foreign airline.
- Be helpful.
Only a few years ago, tickets for first-class seats cost around four times more than those for seats in coach. Today, there is sometimes a much smaller price difference.
"Airlines have cut the price of first- and business-class tickets, preferring to fill those sections with people who will at least pay something for them," said George Hobica, who founded travel site Airfarewatchdog.
The result was that there is little difference in the prices of coach and first class tickets on some flights. And in some cases, when you factor in the cost of checking a bag—which you may have to pay when flying coach—as well as the cost of buying food in coach, the price of a business- or first-class ticket may be the same price or even cheaper.
"I recently flew an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Portland and found the first-class seats were just $15 more than coach," said Gary Leff, co-founder of travel website Inside Flyer. First class turned out to be cheaper for his flight when he took into account the $25 for checking a bag and buying a meal in coach.
Though it is rare to find deals like this, it is a good idea to check the prices in all sections of the plane when booking your ticket. Just in case.
Business travelers who make frequent trips may have elite status and are therefore more likely to get a free flight upgrade, according to Leff. To improve your own chances of getting such an upgrade, schedule your trip for times when business travelers are less likely to be flying: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Avoid flights on early Monday mornings and Thursday and Friday evenings.
Though many airlines now use automated upgrade systems, there may still be times when gate agents can upgrade passengers when coach is overbooked. According to Leff, the agents' most important job is getting the plane away on time, so they might upgrade passengers during boarding if there are seats available in the front of the plane.
If you want one of these seats, get to the gate early when agents are not as stressed and politely tell them that you would like to be considered if they upgrade passengers. Then wait at the gate even after your row is called to make sure you're one of the last to board.
"They won't want to take the time to get someone off the plane to upgrade them," said Leff.
He noted that passengers who try this strategy run the risk of having to check their bag if they don't get an upgrade. By the time they board, the overhead compartments close to their seats might be full.
If an airline based in a different country flies your route, there will probably be more space available onboard that flight. On average, foreign carriers' flights were only 62 percent full in 2015.
Are you in a particular airline's frequent flyer program? Not only do people with lots of miles get upgraded more frequently, their airlines may be part of an alliance including foreign carriers, making it even more likely that they'll get an upgrade by flying foreign.
For instance, American Airlines is part of the One World alliance, which also includes British Airways, Air Berlin, Cathay Pacific, Iberia, and Quantas. United Airlines is a member of the Star Alliance, whose other members include Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Swissair, and Singapore Airlines.
Be willing to help out when flights are overbooked by volunteering to give up your seat. Gilbert Ott, who runs air miles site God Save the Points, told Business Insider that "[f]lexible travelers who are happy to take the next flight are more likely to get money back from the airline for the inconvenience" and that "many airlines will also let you fly up-front on the flight you're moved to."