How to fly first class for (almost) free

first class

Be honest – you stopped playing the first class upgrade game a long time ago.

And for good reason. Airlines demanded way too much in exchange for a slightly more comfortable seat: unquestioning brand loyalty, an encyclopedic knowledge of their arcane and constantly changing loyalty program rules, or a briefcase full of cash.

So you said: “Enough! Let the super-elites have their lie-flat seats. I’ll suffer quietly in the back of steerage.”

But that may be the wrong strategy. There are ways to get into a better seat without having to sell your soul to the airline or take out a second mortgage. They include booking certain flights, becoming a savvy bidder for first-class seats, and waiting for the right time to ask.

Find a flight with empty seats

If you have your eye on a first class seat, try selecting a less-popular flight. Generally, the more popular the flight, the more scarce and expensive the upgrade. Certain flights, like the first flight of the morning, or the red-eye (overnight flight), tend to be emptier.

“I watch the seat maps and wait until the end to board,” says Shawn Crowley, a college recruiter based in Washington, D.C. If there’s still an open exit row, he asks the flight attendant if he can sit in one of the premium seats without paying extra. “I’ve had it work every time the seat has shown open.”

Of course, the definition of a “better” seat has changed in the last few years. A decade ago, that would have meant a “premium” economy or business-class seat. Now, with all the seat assignment games airlines play, a better seat can mean anything that’s not a middle seat.

Learn how to bid for an airline upgrade

The hours and minutes before your flight leaves are the best time to find an upgrade. That’s because empty first-class seats are worthless to an airline, which means the company will do everything it can to monetize them. Many carriers allow you to bid for a first-class seat online, but you need to know a few things before you jump in and name your price.

How do you know if your seat is eligible for a bid? After you’ve made your economy-class reservation, log in to the airline site to see if you’re eligible. Often, the airline also sends you a notification. It’s a blind auction, so you won’t see what other passengers are bidding for the same seat. You’ll get notified 24 to 72 hours before takeoff.

“The key to success, of course, is knowing how many seats are still available, and, more importantly, how much to bid,” says travel writer David Yeskel, who has successfully bid on dozens of upgrades.

You can check available seats on your airline website or a site like Expertflyer. Yeskel says you should never bid the minimum. Instead, bid somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the difference between the cost of your original seat and the cost of your desired seat. Rates vary based on the length of the flight.

“Then pray,” he says.

Unconventional times demand unconventional upgrade strategies

Air travelers share their upgrade stories with me almost every day. They say that airlines, in their mad dash to monetize every seat, have created a lot of upgrade opportunities beyond bidding.

A polite, direct appeal to a gate agent still can work, although believe me, they’ve probably heard it all already. But bizarrely, in their efforts to cash in, airlines sometimes will upgrade you even if you haven’t asked.

Actually, sometimes they’ll upgrade you – and charge you – without asking. That’s what happened to Robert Ryan, a marketing consultant from Chicago, who was flying from Copenhagen to Chicago recently. SAS decided to upgrade Ryan and his wife, even though they hadn’t bid on an upgrade.

“No airline should be able to force a customer to accept an unrequested upgrade,” says Ryan.

He’s right. I contacted SAS on his behalf and it refunded the $1,609 it charged for his business-class seat.

More tips for getting a first class upgrade

• Be selfless. That’s what Meera Sundram did on a flight from New York to Phoenix. “I gave my exit row seat to a really tall man who was about to be squished into an economy seat,” says Sundram, a retired health care executive who lives in Amman, Jordan. “The flight attendant saw that and offered me a first-class seat.” Instead, Sundram gave it to the tall guy invading her space. There’s a special place in airline passenger heaven for folks like Sundram.

• Don’t be afraid to let the flight attendants know about any issues. Maybe your seatback TV or overhead light isn’t working properly, or a nearby passenger is rude or excessively loud. “Try politely telling a flight attendant and asking if there are any other seat options,” says Molly Cowen, travel expert at the travel site TravelPirates. “If you’re lucky, you might be moved to a more premium seat.”

• Just move to a better seat. Nathan Segal, a professional speaker from Calgary, Canada, waits until the flight reaches cruising altitude and then moves. “I have been able to move within coach to a window seat this way,” he says. It never hurts to ask (Segal does), but flight attendants can’t police every seat in economy class, so if you see an empty seat within your class of service, you have my permission to claim it.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook
Posted in On Travel

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Enterprise

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.