Everyone who has ever flown coach knows what it feels like to walk down the aisle of the plane, past the roomy first-class seats and past the seats with extended leg room, all the way to the back. You envy the people that are going to have a more comfortable flight than you. But, on very rare occasions, airlines will call passengers at the gate and offer them an upgraded seat. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to get upgraded, you know how much nicer it makes your travels. There are a few things you can do to increase your chances of getting picked and don’t worry, you won’t have to pretend that you’re on your honeymoon. These are some other things airlines don’t want to tell you (but every flyer should know).
The travel expert for NerdWallet, Sara Rathner, says that flights are so often overbooked or full that just dressing up and being friendly to the gate agents isn’t going to get you an upgrade despite what some people might say. “You can increase your odds of an upgrade by flying one airline exclusively, and even signing up for that airline’s co-branded credit card because both allow you to rack up the qualifying miles needed to gain elite status.” The higher you move up in status, the more perks you get. Some of those perks include priority boarding, free checked bags, and seat upgrades.
Secrets airline agents won't tell you
Secrets airline agents won't tell you
Pardon us for staring at the computer -- we're really busy
From opening the door of an incoming flight to coordinating assistance for wheelchair passengers and children traveling alone to preparing the same plane to depart again, gate agents have their hands full. They also deal with last-minute seat assignments, upgrades, customer questions, and crew or maintenance issues. When they seem like they're tapping endlessly on archaic computers for no reason, they're actually accomplishing countless tasks in limited time. Delta Air Lines management once required gate agents to make eye contact with anyone within five feet of the desk every five seconds. Delta agents will tell you just how tough that is. Check out the 13 things airlines don't want you to know.
We can't upgrade you for wearing a tie
The myth that dressing well gives you a better chance at a business class upgrade has been around for some time—and perhaps it was once true. Instead of picking the smartly dressed, though, today's agents follow a priority list, starting with elite frequent fliers. Not following that list, especially when customers can view that information on airline apps, is a big no-no. The only time an agent might upgrade someone for free is if economy class is overbooked and there are no more eligible passengers on the upgrade list.
We can get you a better seat -- if you ask nicely
As eligible passengers are upgraded, more (and often better) seats in economy class will free up. Plus, seats that were previously blocked can now be assigned, so you could ask for an upgrade to a seat with more legroom. Try asking politely about half an hour before departure to see if you can move out of that middle seat at the back of the plane. Don't forget these other 10 etiquette rules for flying on an airplane.
Don't panic if you don't have a seat assignment
This doesn't mean that the flight is overbooked or that you are not confirmed. Because many airlines block seats for families or those who need assistance, there may be times when you won't get a seat assignment right away; other seats might be blocked for frequent flier elite members or still open for sale. If you opt not to pay for a seat in advance—or couldn't pick one at check-in—never fear. Gate agents are working hard to get you an assignment before departure. Keep an eye on the standby list for your name.
Occasionally, we can hold a flight for you
Airline computer systems can alert agents to passengers who might miss a flight because of a late connection. In fact, gate agents are monitoring the record of passengers who might be en route to determine if they should give their seat away to someone else (but only if it is clear the passenger won't make it). They even have a term for late passengers who scurry to the gate: "runners."
If a large group of passengers is delayed by a flight—or if the agents are boarding the last flight of the day—they might hold a plane. But they have to weight a lot of factors: For example, will the crew "time out?" (Pilots and flight attendants can only work a limited number of hours.) On the other hand, they don't want to strand any unaccompanied minors or elite frequent fliers. In other words, you could get lucky if you're running late—but don't count on it.
If you're really late we'll give your seat away
If boarding has finished before you breathlessly charge the gate, there's a good chance the agent will have given away your seat. Agents have to print paperwork listing all of the passengers, plus weight and balance information about the plane, which pilots use for flight calculations. To let a late passenger on the plane, the gate agent would need to redo all that paperwork, delaying the flight even more. You're better off getting there early. If you have time to kill, here's how to never be bored at an airport again.
The computer picks the compensation for bumping -- not the agent
When you're angling for more benefits, the agent can't do much—the computer is calculating how badly the seats are needed and how much of a travel delay it would cause you; then it derives your compensation. Most agents don't have access to airline lounge passes or drink vouchers, so attempts to finagle more goodies most likely will prove futile. However, you could politely request that the agent ask a supervisor if it's possible to offer more. Just don't get your hopes up. Airlines from the European Union—and U.S. carriers operating from it—are subject to strict guidelines on what they can offer passengers if a flight is delayed, canceled, or oversold. However, agents won't always offer extra up front, so it helps if you ask. Here are 12 tricks for stress-free air travel.
Misbehaving can go on your permanent record
Seriously: Although each airline is different, agents can and do make comments on a traveler's record. While the agent may have to search for the info, your nasty behavior or comments in the past can haunt you when you travel—you could even be more likely to get bumped from future flights if you've been really disruptive. Don't miss these other 22 things your flight attendant won't tell you.
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Even though you’re more likely to find better deals shopping around different airlines every time you fly, consistently booking with the same airline can save you money in the long run, especially if you’re a frequent flyer. Learn more travel secrets to get the best airfare possible.
Extensive flyer Nick Brennan also agrees that loyalty to one airline has its perks. “If you’re loyal to one airline, then your loyalty is also recognized across that airline alliance when you travel on international flights,” he shares. “If there’s an operational reason to upgrade passengers (i.e. a delayed or canceled flight), then your loyalty will be recognized before others who mix and match their flights and airlines and show no obvious loyalty.”
Another tip Brennan has for scoring an upgrade on a flight is to be flexible. If you’re not in a rush to get anywhere and the weather is bad or your flight is overbooked, ask the gate agent what they can offer you if you’re willing to catch a different flight. With some negotiation, they can typically offer you a seat upgrade as well as cash. For more insider secrets, check out these travel tips only flight attendants know.
Why it's awesome: Hong Kong Airlines has been on an impressive growth streak over the past couple of years. Not only has it rapidly expanded its global network, the carrier has also worked to improve service and product. Hong Kong Airlines is a subsidiary of China's HNA Group.
Why it's awesome: Royal Dutch KLM is considered the oldest continuously operating airline in the world. Based out of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, KLM is famous for its bright blue livery and Dutch house liquor bottle figurines. The airline is one half of the Franco-Dutch conglomerate Air France-KLM.
KLM also took home the prize for Best Business Class Seat in Europe.
Why it's awesome: Turkish Airlines is the flag carrier of Turkey and has its main hub at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. The airline, with its ability to fly to over 100 countries and over 200 cities worldwide, hopes to turn its home base into a global transit hub.
Even though political unrest and security concerns have made life more complicated for Turkish Airlines, the carrier's high-quality service, and product offerings remain unchanged.
Turkish is a member of Star Alliance and had won the Skytrax award for Best Airline in Europe six years in a row before losing the title to Lufthansa last year.
(Photo by Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
17. Air New Zealand
Previous rank: 19
Why it's awesome: In 2018, Air New Zealand reclaimed the titles of World's Best Premium Economy Class and World's Best Premium Economy Seat from Aussie rival Qantas, the Kiwi carrier remains one of the industry's finest long-haul carriers.
In economy class, families can opt for the airlines innovative Skycouch that transforms a bank of three economy seats into a flat activity area.
Why it's awesome: Austrian Airlines has overcome a series of labor disputes in recent years, with its high level of service intact. In 2018, the Lufthansa-owned carrier, once again, took home the prize for Best Airline Staff Service in Europe. The Austrian flag carrier boasts a fleet of newly renovated long-haul Boeing 767-300ER and 777-200 jets flying out of its base in Vienna.
Economy fliers gave the Star Alliance member high marks for its efficient and effective service, as well as for the wealth of onboard dining and entertainment options.
Why it's awesome: Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi, is the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, with its Airbus and Boeing fleet traveling to about 100 destinations. The airline has become famous for its trademark Residence flying apartments as well as its plush first-class and business-class suites.
Why it's awesome: Japan's flag carrier is one of the most respected airlines in the world. Reviewers on Skytrax praised Japan's second-largest airline for its attentive service, well-coordinated ground staff, and comfortable cabin.
For 2018, Japan Airlines once again won the award for Best Economy Class Airline Seat.
(Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
12. Swiss International Air Lines
Previous rank: 14
Why it's awesome: Swiss International Air Lines emerged in 2002 from the remnants of the now defunct Swissair and is now a member of the Lufthansa corporate family. In 2016, the Basel-based carrier became the first in the world to operate the next generation Bombardier C-Series airliner.
Though some fliers found economy seat comfort to be lacking, most praised the cabin crew for its friendly service and the airline for its wide assortment of complimentary adult beverages.
Plus, the complimentary Swiss chocolate is always a fan favorite.
Why it's awesome: Even with strong competition from Virgin Australia, Qantas has been resurgent over the past couple of years. The airline received praise for its strong customer service and in-flight entertainment. And then there's Qantas' calling card — it has a fatality-free safety record in the jet era.
Why it's awesome: Thai Airways has long been an industry leader for quality service, so it's no surprise to find the Thai national carrier high up on the list. Though its most heralded products are its business and first-class services, fliers found its economy seats to be of high quality as well.
Economy fliers on Skytrax also noted the crew's friendly demeanor and delectable dining options.
In 2018, Thai Airways once again took home the award for the World's Best Economy Class, the World's Best Economy Class Onboard Catering, and the World's Best Airline Spa Facilities.
(Photo by C. V. Grinsven/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
9. Garuda Indonesia
Previous rank: 10
Why it's awesome: Garuda Indonesia has experienced a dramatic turnaround in recent years. The Indonesia flag carrier has undertaken extensive fleet renewal and service improvement measures to regain the trust of both fliers and safety regulators.
Economy fliers have raved about the airline's comfortable seats and selection of Southeast Asian cuisine.
In 2018, Garuda's flight attendants took home the award for the World's Best Cabin Crew for the third year in a row.
Why it's awesome: Founded in 1993, Hainan is the only Chinese airline to hold the coveted Skytrax five-star rating. In four short years, the airline surged from 22nd place all the way into the top 10. With a brand-new fleet of more than 160 Boeing and Airbus jets, Hainan is expanding rapidly throughout Asia, Europe, and Australia.
Reviewers on Skytrax praised the airline for its attentive service and quality business class accommodations.
Hainan also won the awards for Best Airline in China and Best Airline Cabin Crew in China.
Why it's awesome: Although Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, fell back one spot from last year, the airline still retains its place as one of the most respected carriers from the Pacific rim. With a fleet of long-range Boeing 777-300ER jets and a business strategy centered on offering a high frequency of flights, Cathay is one of the finest flying experiences in Asia.
Skytrax reviewers gave the airline high marks for seat comfort, service quality, and in-flight entertainment.
Why it's awesome: Taiwan's EVA Air (pronounced ee-vee-ay) was founded in 1989 and is an offshoot of global container-shipping giant Evergreen Group. The Taipei-based carrier has grown immensely in the past two decades and now operates a large fleet of Airbus and Boeing wide-body jets. The airline is credited with pioneering the "premium economy" cabin.
(Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Previous rank: 4
Why it's awesome: Over the past 30 years, Dubai's Emirates has developed into one of the world's premier long-haul carriers. Operating almost exclusively through its palatial hub at Dubai International Airport, the carrier boasts the world's largest fleet of Airbus A380 superjumbos and Boeing 777 wide-body jets.
Emirates' state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment system includes a wide selection of video and music options on demand, and even allows for live television and sporting events on its "ice" entertainment system-equipped aircraft. In fact, Emirates has taken home Skytrax's award for Best In-Flight Entertainment 14 years running.
Why it's awesome: All Nippon Airways continues its march towards the top of the rankings. ANA is the largest international carrier in Japan and home to one of the world's largest fleets of Boeing 787 Dreamliners. ANA drew high praise from Skytrax reviewers across the board for cleanliness, service, and safety. Many of its planes feature slide-forward-style reclining seats that increase overall privacy, as well as power and USB outlets even in economy.
ANA also won Best Airline Staff in Asia and Best Cabin Crew in Japan.
(Photo by Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
2. Qatar Airways
Previous rank: 1
Why it's awesome: Qatar Airways falls back one spot to second.
The Doha-based airline received praise from reviewers for its seat comfort and in-flight entertainment. In fact, the airline boasts the second best in-flight entertainment system and economy class offering in the world The airline links over 150 destinations across the globe and is expanding its fleet to include the latest generation of long-haul airliners including the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350.
Qatar also took home the award for Best Airline in the Middle East, World's Best Business Class, and Best First Class Airline Lounge.
Why it's awesome: Singapore's standout service makes for a famously pleasant journey during which flight attendants are trained to treat customers with extreme care and respect. Personal TVs with plenty of entertainment options and hot towels served before take-off are just some of the economy perks.