Want a free upgrade to first class? The only hack is your wallet. | Cruising Altitude

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and no matter what the internet may try to tell you, there’s also basically no such thing as a free upgrade on a plane anymore.

You can’t “hack” your way into the pointy end of the plane by wearing a collared shirt or flirting with your flight attendant. You’re not going to get a lie-flat bed by asking nicely at the gate, and no one is popping Dom Perignon as a predeparture beverage for you just because you think you have a strategic check-in time.

“It’s just not going to happen,” Brett Snyder, author of the blog Cranky Flier and owner of the travel agency Cranky Concierge, told me.

Part of the problem is airplanes are just fuller now than they used to be, and airlines have gotten smarter about pricing their seats.

“First class fares used to be so high that people wouldn’t buy them, and instead you just had massive numbers of elite upgrades and all different sorts of people sitting up there that weren’t paying for it, they were just getting it as a perk,” Snyder said. “At some point, the airlines realized, if we start pricing this as a fare upsell, we can get people to actually pay for these seats. Now you have a lot fewer seats that are available for an upgrade because people are buying.”

As someone who has paid cash more than once to upgrade, I can vouch for this. Suppose the price is reasonable and I’m feeling generous to myself at the check-in counter. In that case, I’ll happily spend the extra money to guarantee myself a more comfortable seat, especially on a long flight.

It cuts the other way, too. I once flew overnight from New York to Paris and was willing to spend a few hundred dollars to upgrade myself to a lie-flat seat at the gate if the option was available. The airline quoted me almost $1,000 to upgrade, and the seats wound up occupied by non-paying passengers who worked for the airline instead. From the perspective of the airline’s bottom line and my own comfort, that was a bad pricing decision.

“If people had too much ability to upgrade travelers at the gate (for free) or whatever it was, that was likely something that was leaving money on the table for them,” Snyder said.

So, how can you get upgraded? There are no hacks, but here’s my advice.

Stop trying to make free upgrades happen.
Stop trying to make free upgrades happen.


“The best way to get a premium seat is to pay for it. This is not rocket science, this is kind of basic,” Snyder told me. “That’s what it comes down to. The majority of seats and the majority of people who sit in the front cabins are paying for it. That’s the most surefire way to make sure you’re going to get it.”

You just can’t count on getting an upgrade when so many people are willing and able to pay for the luxury. Airlines are also pricing their premium cabins more liberally now. Business travel still has not fully bounced back to its pre-pandemic levels, but there’s been strong and steady demand in the premium leisure segment, and airlines have taken note. They’ve priced things to entice people to buy up during their personal travel, even when their company isn’t footing the bill.

You can, of course, pay right at the beginning of your booking by buying a premium ticket when you first get your flights, but you should also keep an eye on cash upgrade offers right up until departure time. You never know what the airline revenue management gods will make available.

Pay (but differently)

“But Zach,” I hear you saying, “I’m an ultra-elite frequent flyer, and I get free upgrades all the time.”

To which I say: No, you don’t.

You may not be paying out of pocket for those upgrade perks at the gate, but that doesn’t mean you’re not paying for them at all. To get frequent flyer status, you need to spend a bunch of money with the airline or an even bigger bunch of money on one of its co-branded credit cards, which likely also has a hefty annual fee.

Cruising Altitude: Don't bother with an airline loyalty program if you're this traveler.

One way or the other, you’re paying for that upgrade, even if it’s not directly.

Frequent flyers also usually have lots of loyalty points, which, again, they have to pay to earn, but those points or miles can be useful for securing upgrades.

“You can also use miles to upgrade, even if you don’t have status,” Snyder said. In addition to cash upgrades, airlines often let you redeem miles for buy-ups to premium cabins.

Pay (but less)

Maybe you’ve decided it’s just too much effort or too financially taxing to upgrade yourself to business class, and that’s OK. You have other options.

“You can always pay for extra legroom seating, but depending on the airline, that can be a very modest upsell,” Snyder said.

It’s usually not as expensive to upgrade from a regular economy seat to an extra-legroom economy seat, and if all you care about is a little more knee space, this can be a good option.

Have hope

“Don’t expect that you’re going to be able to game the system and find this magical loophole. It’s just not going to happen. So figure out what you’re OK with and make sure you have that arrangement before you get to the airport,” Snyder said. “If you’re booking something you absolutely cannot tolerate – you’re 7 feet tall and book coach on Spirit, don’t do that.”

If you’re determined not to pay for anything above the lowest economy fare, you can always pray for an empty adjacent seat.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Money is the hack to get an upgrade on your flight | Cruising Altitude