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How to Get a First Class Upgrade Every Time

Even if you’re a frequent flier, you can no longer rely on a free first class upgrade. But you can beat the system. Here’s how.

Until recently, if you had even mid-tier elite status with an airline, you could bet on getting upgraded from economy to business or first class on many, if not most, of your flights. Not anymore. These days, scoring a free upgrade has become the exception rather than the rule of frequent flying. Here’s why—and what you can do about it.

If You’re Stuck in Coach, You’ve Got Elite Company

Travelers wait to board a Delta flight—not in the business class lounge
Travelers wait to board a Delta flight—not in the business class lounge
Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Upgrades are getting harder to come by,” explains Gary Leff, founder of the points-and-miles blog View from the Wing, “because airlines are monetizing first-class seats in a way they didn't used to.”

A healthy economy in the United States and other countries means there are more premium fliers—and more people with cash to lay out on paid upgrades. Plus, says Leff, first-class fares aren’t as expensive as they used to be, so it’s easier to lure travelers into buying. 

Some forty airlines, including Singapore, Etihad, and Virgin Atlantic, are now offering up premium seats for auction through a bidding platform called Plusgrade. Most of them let you make a bid a week before the departure date and notify you within a few days if you've won. And unsurprisingly, each successful bidder claims a seat that might have once gone to a frequent flier—for free. 

Delta in the 1970s, during the glory days of first class
Delta in the 1970s, during the glory days of first class
Source: Courtesy Delta Air Lines/Assouline

American legacy carriers have thus far resisted the auction trend, but upgrade availability has thinned for other reasons.

For one thing, major airline mergers—like those of Delta and Northwest, United and Continental and, most recently, American Airlines and US Airways—have concentrated the number of elite fliers into fewer programs. While the number of elites vying for upgrade spaces has ballooned, the number of premium airplane seats has remained constant.

All of this changes the dynamics of supply and demand. Says Leff, “Given how difficult it is to get upgraded, it incentivizes passengers to confirm their upgrades, for instance by redeeming miles, in advance. There are more miles in circulation now, too, so that's become easier as well.” The more fliers who redeem those miles for upgrades ahead of time, the more elite fliers there are commiserating in the back of the plane.

How to Become a VIP in the New Era of Upgrades

Inside a Delta One cabin, the company's newly-launched premium product
Inside a Delta One cabin, the company's newly-launched premium product
Photographer: Pouya Dianat/Pouya Creative for Delta Air Lines

Even with the dwindling upgrade space and fiercer competition, you can still try your hand at an elite upgrade. If you understand how airlines dole them out, the system is yours to play, although by and large, carriers prefer to be cagey about their algorithms.

Each airline makes its own rules and weights various factors such as elite-status tier, specific fare codes, how much you’ve spent on your tickets, and whether you have a co-branded credit card. Parsing the terms and conditions of each carrier on your own could be a full-time job, so we’ve done the legwork for you.

 

Delta 

Graphic: Benjamin Bours/Bloomberg

Delta lays out what is probably the most detailed, and thus complicated, formula of factors for processing upgrades. The airline prioritizes Medallion status as the foremost factor. Then it ranks individual elites by the fare codes of their tickets. Those purchasing higher fare classes (a full-fare economy ticket instead of a discounted one, for example) have a better shot.

Pro tip: to guarantee you’re buying a full-fare ticket, select “refundable” under “fare preference” at the time of booking. You can also ask your corporate travel booker to double check on your behalf.

Assuming multiple passengers on a plane happened to be top-tier elites with full-fare tickets, there are four more tiebreakers that Delta can use. First is whether either flier carries the Delta Reserve credit card. That’s followed by business travelers whose companies are affiliated with Delta’s Corporate Traveler program. Next come Delta co-branded credit cardholders who have spent $25,000 or more on their Delta credit card in the current calendar year. And if there is still a dead heat, the date and time at which the upgrade request was originally submitted is the final decision-maker.

 

United

Graphic: Benjamin Bours/Bloomberg

United’s formula is as convoluted as Delta’s, if not more so.

These days, you’re unlikely to qualify for an upgrade unless you have Premier Platinum status or higher and book full fares—cashing in miles or getting a discounted ticket will almost always take you out of the running.

Priority goes to top-tier Premier 1K elites, who have flown 100,000 miles or 120 segments and spent $12,000 on United tickets in a year—assuming they book full-fare tickets in the Y, B, or M fare classes. (Lower-tier elites qualify for upgrades if they book in Y or B fare classes only.)

United offers a sort of upgrade gift certificate when you qualify for the highest two tiers of status, so customers who want to apply those credits are next in line. And factors like time of booking or having a co-branded credit card can break ties in hairy situations.

 

American Airlines

American Airlines passenger planes in Miami.
American Airlines passenger planes in Miami.
Photographer: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Right now, American Airlines prioritizes elite upgrades based on two things: elite status and the time at which the flier is added to the upgrade waitlist. Status trumps upgrade sign-ups, but you can easily increase your chances at scoring an upgrade by booking tickets far in advance and requesting an upgrade immediately.

But along with major changes that recently hit the AAdvantage program—it now prioritizes dollars spent to miles flown—American recently announced that upgrade eligibility will be changing in 2017. While status tier (Gold, Platinum, Executive Platinum, etc.) will still be the first criterion, American will begin prioritizing upgrades based on annual spending. So if two Platinum elites have requested upgrades, the one who has spent more money on American Airlines tickets in the preceding 12 months will be higher up on the waitlist.

Fine text on the airline’s website also indicates that other factors, like the time at which you check in to your flight, can also play a role, albeit a very minor one. It’s vague terms like these that make American the bane of so many frequent fliers’ existence.

 

How to Game the System

Champagne service for premium passengers on Qatar Airways
Champagne service for premium passengers on Qatar Airways
Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Despite swelling elite ranks and increased competition, savvy fliers can bypass coach without submitting themselves to a game of upgrade roulette. A few strategies:

Use miles: If you buy an economy fare, you can still use frequent-flier miles to buy an upgrade, though there can sometimes be cash co-pays. Plus, if you confirm your upgrade in advance, you won’t have to endure the nail-biting wait at the departure gate.

Bid on an upgrade: It’s an especially attractive option for international travelers, given the breadth of carriers that have signed up. Policies and pricing vary from airline to airline and route to route, but you can often score deep discounts on otherwise unaffordable tickets.

Inside Qatar Airway's A380 first class cabin. 
Inside Qatar Airway's A380 first class cabin. 
Photographer: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Pick your plane: Airlines fly a variety of aircraft, even on the same routes, so you can alter your strategy based on the number of premium seats aboard your flight. Think both in terms of absolute numbers as well as the proportion of the plane they take up. High numbers and proportions translate to better odds.

Avoid business routes: Flights with a lot of business travelers tend to have the most elite upgrade competition, so avoid those to improve your chances. “Don’t fly when most business travelers do, such as early flights on Monday mornings and Thursday and Friday afternoons between 5:00-7:30pm," says Leff. "Middle of the day Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are your best bet. Fly during the holidays. There are fewer business travelers on the road.”

Passengers wait to board a Delta flight
Passengers wait to board a Delta flight
Photographer: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Track your flight capacity: Leff suggests using a paid service like ExpertFlyer.com to keep tabs on how quickly premium seats are being snatched up for your particular flight. Depending on how fast they’re flying off the shelf, you can purchase an upgrade, redeem some miles for one, or to take your chances in the elite queue.

Don’t want to deal with the headache? Here’s one last strategy: Buy a discounted premium fare.

Airlines are pushing those premium seats and often prompt economy fliers with the chance to “upgrade” for “just a little more.” The offers continue at check-in and at the airport. Compare those offers to online airfares on the same routes to determine whether they’re worth taking. If you’re getting that business- or first-class seat at a deep discount, you might as well purchase it outright and not worry about the upgrade game.

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