Even if you’re a frequent flier, you can no longer rely on a free first class upgrade. 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 what you can do about it.

But you can beat the system. Here’s how.

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 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.

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. Middle of the day Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are your best bet. Fly during the holidays. There are fewer business travelers on the road.

Track your flight capacity: Try to use 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.

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.


Grace Grisolia


Carmen Àlvarez



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Diseño: Bernarda Ghio