It was late 2020 when Lauren Mendoza scored what many travelers dream of: a free business class upgrade. As founder and CEO of business loan marketplace Bank Standard, Mendoza was traveling to New York City from San Francisco when she politely asked the gate agent if there was a free business class upgrade available. To her surprise, the agent said yes.
“Being nice to the check-in staff does wonders when asking for an upgrade,” she said.
Since the pandemic, more businesspeople are opting to travel both domestically and internationally. While regulations change regularly depending on the departure location and destination (something to make sure to keep abreast of), one dream many travelers have is getting a business class upgrade.
Even better: getting an upgrade at no charge.
Here, we delve into 10 options that can be considered to try and help you get upgraded to business class.
Ask for an upgrade to business class at check-in
Mendoza’s example is proof that there can be power in kindness. “Ask the person at the counter how their day is going and then actively listen to the answer,” she added. “It really goes a long way.”
Not sure how to ask? The best approach can be to casually walk up to the agent at the counter and start a conversation. From there, ask directly if it would be possible to upgrade your airline seat.
“You can’t beat around the bush when asking for it,” Mendoza said. “You must come out and ask for it politely. If they refuse, no harm done. You can still thank them and wish them a wonderful day ahead.”
Book with a Travel Agent for Miles-Based Upgrades
Utilizing an intermediatory can pay off. Travel agents can be amazing conduits for upgrades, especially if you use mileage points. Try talking to a travel agent during your booking experience and see if it would be possible for them to help you get upgraded to business class.
Check in really early (or really late)
“I’ve found that airlines give free upgrades to the first person who asks for them,” said Ravi Parikh, founder and CEO of RoverPass, a company that facilitates bookings for campgrounds and RV parks.
If upgrading to business class is high on your list of priorities for your next flight, try arriving earlier than you ever have. You never know, you may get lucky and find yourself traveling in more style than you imagined.
Travel agents can be amazing conduits for upgrades, especially if you use mileage points.
While getting there early can help, Mendoza said arriving (very) late can also be to your advantage.
“If you’re trying to be on the later side, be as late as possible so you are the last person to check into the flight,” she recommended. “At that point, the certainty of knowing how many empty business class seats there are will make it easier to get an upgrade.”
Volunteer to get "bumped" from an overbooked flight.
If you’re not in a huge hurry and don’t mind offering to get bumped, you may be able to get an upgrade or another bonus. If you do get pushed to the next flight, you will usually get a free trip to use within a year, and in some cases, spending cash. If you end up getting on your original flight, the airline might upgrade you for your willingness to help out.
Ask a flight attendant for an upgrade if you see a seat available.
Usually just asking a flight attendant for an upgrade won’t work, but there are a couple of cases where your chances largely increase. If economy class has been overbooked and there are seats in business, make sure you’re quick to offer (this helps when you’re sitting in the first couple of rows). You might also get an upgrade if there is a problem with your seat or your neighboring passenger.
David Reid has had success when chatting with flight attendants and getting an upgrade to business class.
“Recently, a flight attendant and I chatted about my interest in visiting Asia,” said Reid, sales director at mold manufacturer VEM Tooling. “To my surprise, they offered me a free upgrade as a gesture of goodwill.”
Become a Loyal Member of Your Airline's Frequent Flyer Program
Being a member of an airline’s loyalty program can go a long way to scoring a business class upgrade. Mendoza swears by being loyal to her favorite airline, and said that being a frequent flyer can help the staff justify giving a free upgrade to business class. Reid agrees.
“Loyalty programs are your golden ticket to success,” he said. “By joining the program and accumulating miles, you can earn your way to business class upgrades without breaking the bank. For instance, on a recent trip to Europe, I redeemed my hard-earned miles for a complimentary upgrade.”
Opt for Midweek or Overnight Flights
Being flexible with your travel dates (hello, red-eye schedules) can really help in figuring out how to get free upgrades on flights.
Reid has utilized this strategy to great success.
“As a sales professional, I often play my trips during off-peak seasons when flights are less crowded,” he said. “This has granted me the opportunity to receive complementary business class upgrades on several occasions, allowing me to arrive at my destination refreshed and ready for important meetings.”
Opt for flights with spacious upper-class sections ideal for solo travel
While there are instances when couples can score free business class upgrades together (something Mendoza has seen one time), you are more likely to be successful in your upgrade quest if you are flying solo.
“I’ve seen solo travelers have greater chances of getting the upgrades,” said Parikh.
Keep an eye out for enticing discount deals to upgrade to Business Class
When booking your flight, look online to see how you can upgrade your airline seat. If you don’t see any, consider calling the airline directly and inquiring into discounts.
Master the Art of Negotiation for a Free Business Class Upgrade
While it may not seem like you can negotiate for a free business class upgrade, many people do. Consider the art of distributive bargaining, which is negotiating on fixed resources. In addition to negotiating, it can also help to share something about yourself. Matt Little, co-owner of Damien McEvoy Plumbing, suggests mentioning special occasions as a negotiating tactic.
“Let your airline known in advance if you are going traveling around a honeymoon, anniversary or other milestone,” he said. “Airlines will occasionally surprise passengers with free business class upgrades to provide a better atmosphere for celebrations.”
A version of this article was originally published April 20, 2010.
Photo: Getty Images