How to Snag an Airline Upgrade
From time-to-time someone does get the mythical bump from economy to business class, but not because they have sweet-talked or bribed check-in staff. Increase your chances of landing an upgrade by checking off every point on the list below.
Join the Club
If you are not part of the airline's frequent flyer club, join it! Airlines prefer to reward regular customers, and even if you don't have as many miles as the travelers at the top of the list, you'll still look better than all the fliers who haven't joined.
Sorry, kids: Unaccompanied travelers are more likely to get upgrades than couples or families. You don't have to ditch your travel companion in hopes of getting an upgrade, but be aware that you will have less chance of getting the mythical bump from economy to business class if you aren't traveling alone.
Book Busy Routes
Plain and simple, upgrades don't happen unless seats are full. The more popular the route, the more of a chance seats will fill up and you'll get bumped up. Of course, there might be more of a chance of you being placed next to an empty seat on a less-traversed route than getting bumped on a busy route, but to each his or her own.
Act & Dress the Part
If you look nice and act nice, there is more of a chance you'll land an upgrade. Airlines are not going to put a scrubby-looking traveler next to a businessperson who spent big bucks for a ticket, nor are they going to go out of their way to accommodate anyone who ticked them off. But don't go overboard on either account: dress business casual, and keep your conversations with check-in staff short but sweet--you may even want to flirt a little if it seems appropriate.
If you don't let the check-in staff know you are flexible about where you sit, they may never notice you in the first place. Even better, you might get tagged SFU (suitable for upgrade) in the seating system. Of course, you might end up over the wing or near the toilets, but it's a gamble some travelers are willing to take.
Arrive Early & Stay Close
If you have all the above marks checked off, but happen to be in line at Burger King when the airline check-in staff decides start calling for upgrades, you'll quickly get passed in favor of someone else. Grab your food before you make your way to the gate in the first place, and stay within eye gaze of the check-in staff. Just try not to be too creepy.
Use All Your Cards
If you are truly desperate for an upgrade, pull out all the stops. If you had a terrible flight in the past, let check-in staff known your concerns--but again, don't make a scene. Tell the staff if you have health issues or are pregnant and you might get bumped or at the very least early boarding privileges. And if it's your birthday, anniversary or first time flying, let it be known. Anything that makes you more memorable is more likely to get you bumped.
When booking your tickets or stopping by the check-in counter, ask about upgrades and prices. Some airlines offer a fare called Y-UP that greatly increases your chances of being upgraded at a cost that isn't much more than regular fares, such as a $20 upgrade to first class. You can easily justify that cost in alcohol consumption alone--not to mention gourmet food and roomier seats. Some international carriers will also sell upgrades at the last minute, so it doesn't hurt to ask.
In the end, the only real way to guarantee an upgrade is to pay for one. Upgrades do happen--when the plane is full and the airline needs to move people around to fill seats--but not as often as you might think. If you know you are going to be miserable in a situation such as a long haul, international flight in a cramped economy seat, than it might be worth it to fork over the extra cash.
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Photo, Soon., flickr.