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How to Hack Your Way Into Business Class Without Top-Tier Loyalty Status

Airports + Flying
by Eben Diskin Mar 12, 2024

Most travelers are living in a tough reality: They don’t have top-tier airline loyalty status but long for all the benefits it provides – namely, business class upgrades. For the majority of us, business class is a word associated with privilege, reserved for those wealthy enough to afford it, or with business travelers who spend more time in the air than they do at home. As we hear the announcement boarding business class passengers and watch the lucky few strut onto the plane early, we think, “if only there was a shortcut to paradise.” Well, turns out there is.

But first, let’s start with some popular myths that people believe will get them upgraded but which will actually just get them laughed at behind closed doors by airline personnel.

How NOT to get into business class

There are all kinds of misconceptions swirling around how to snag a business class upgrade, ranging from dressing to the nines and charming a flight attendant to simply walking in like you own the place and requesting one. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy (or fun) as all that.

“The biggest misconception is that you can sweet-talk your way into a free upgrade at the gate, especially if it’s a special occasion like a honeymoon,” Nate LaFerle, a travel consultant with top airline status on multiple US airlines, tells Matador Network. “It’s very rare that gate agents have that kind of authority.”

He’s also heard of people simply moving into an empty business class seat mid-flight, as they would in economy, which is also a big no-no.

“There have been so many things posted on social media that are just laughable,” Dave Grossman, CEO and Founder of MilesTalk and Your Best Credit Cards, tells Matador Network. “Things that absolutely will not work include dressing up in your fanciest clothes or telling the gate agent that it’s your birthday or honeymoon (it’s especially funny when honeymooners try this on Hawai’i-bound flights where that is essentially half the plane). My absolute favorite is that if you just call up in advance and ask them to open a seat for you, they magically will just go ahead and do so.”

This woman on TikTok tried a version of that strategy, simply strolling up to the check-in counter and asking for a free upgrade. Needless to say it didn’t work, despite her admirable boldness.

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Staff can’t just give away free upgrades with no reason behind it. “Airlines aim to maximize profits, the majority of which are generated by premium seating,” Robert Antolin, Head of Operations at App in the Air, a frequent flier travel app, tells Matador Network. “Airlines will only give up those seats to select passengers under specific circumstances – usually those who are loyal to the airline.”

There’s all kinds of misinformation out there promising “guaranteed” ways to score an upgrade. Unfortunately, they’re almost always not actually based in reality.


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♬ original sound – Cheap Holiday Expert

There’s no such thing as a guarantee in the world of airline upgrades, but you can give yourself better odds – or at least reduce the price a little – by following a few proven strategies.

Getting an upgrade without the status

Scoring an upgrade is mostly about reducing the cost however you can, rather than simply being gifted a business class seat for free. That means timing your ticket purchase, asking for discounted pricing, and knowing how to play within the airlines’ bidding systems.

“Many airlines offer the opportunity to bid on upgrades, and if premium seating remains available close to the flight date, airlines may offer the seats at a discounted rate due to dynamic pricing,” Antolin says.

Grossman echoes this idea. “More than 25 airlines offer a bid-in-advance system for international flights, while others will accept a stated price at the gate,” he tells Matador Network. “For some, you just have to ask. Obviously, some airlines have much stronger business class products than others, and those are going to be more in demand.”

Bidding on seats is like bidding on art at a silent auction. You may score a masterpiece for relatively cheap or you may come up completely empty, but you can’t win if you don’t play.

Also pay attention to “buy-up” options when you make the reservation.

“Most domestic airlines will offer ‘buy-up’ offers within your reservation based on unsold seats,” Grossman says. “So, perhaps that business class seat was $700, and you paid $199 for your economy seat. If the airline doesn’t expect to sell the seats, you may find an offer to upgrade for $200.”

Indeed, airlines want to sell their seats, meaning travelers can benefit from any business class seats still left unsold at the time of boarding. Grossman advises asking for discounted (not free) upgrades at the gate.

“Some airlines will offer upgrades at the gate for unsold business class seats,” he says. “This could be several hundred or over a thousand dollars based on the airline and route but always significantly less than if you purchased the ticket outright.”

Instead of asking for a free upgrade at the gate (per the failed attempt in the above video), ask for upgrade pricing. Worst case scenario: you get a somewhat discounted rate that you politely decline. Best case (yet extremely unlikely) scenario: you strike gold.

“I’ve never seen anybody ask for a free upgrade and get one, but you can ask for upgrade pricing at the gate, particularly for non-US airlines or ultra-low-cost carriers,” LaFerle says. “On several occasions the agent simply handed me a business-class ticket with a smile, but those flights tended to be empty, and this is always going to be the exception, and never the rule.”

If you have a truly flexible schedule, one of the best strategies to secure an upgrade is by volunteering to switch your flight.

“If your plane is overbooked and the airline is asking for volunteers to take a different flight, you can try to negotiate with the gate agent for premium perks,” Antolin recommends.

It might not be the most convenient option, but if the airline really needs people to volunteer, you’re in a great position for bargaining your way into business class.

Some airlines are easier than others

Not all airlines are created equal. Some have much steeper barriers to entry for business class upgrades while others make those upgrades a little more accessible.

“For domestic airlines, you pretty much have to buy it in advance if you don’t have elite status,” Grossman says. “Internationally, there are just so many ways to try and upgrade, but many flights won’t have any empty seats to even bid on.”

Domestic airlines seem to place a particularly high value on status, with upgrades to business class more difficult to come by for economy passengers who aren’t frequent flyers who have reached the upper tiers of airline loyalty.

“Delta is known for having more first-class seats per plane than others, so upgrades are relatively easier if you have high status,” LaFerle says. “Other airlines, like American, don’t sell upgrades during check-in, so even mid-tier status is more likely to result in an upgrade. United is known for both heavily monetizing its first-class seats through paid upgrades at check-in, as well as having a huge number of invitation-only Global Services and business travelers with top-tier 1K status. For this reason, if you don’t have the highest tier of status, you’re almost guaranteed to never see an upgrade.”

Internationally, things are a little different. The strategic use of miles and points can more reliably be used to snag yourself an affordable upgrade, with airlines like British Airways and Emirates putting business class within more tangible reach.

“On British Airways, it’s often possible to buy a Premium Economy seat and use Avios points to upgrade to Business,” Grossman says. “And on Emirates, if you have used miles to book into Business Class and there is a First Class seat (with use of an onboard shower!) available at the check in desk, you can snag it for just 39,000 miles from NY to Dubai. They will even wait while you transfer your credit card points in.”

What about all those unsold business class seats?

We’ve all walked through the plane, after the premium classes have already boarded, and noticed plenty of empty first and business class seats just waiting to be used. Why let them go to waste? Why doesn’t the airline give them away, or at least announce a discounted rate at the gate? According to LaFerle, there are two reasons this happens.

“The most common reason is to preserve the perception of premium value,” he says. “If travelers know seats are likely to be available for bargain prices, they’re less likely to pay for premium seats when they buy tickets. The other can be a surprise for travelers: sometimes it’s a matter of IT. Many large airlines run their operations off large, ancient mainframe systems that simply don’t have the capability to handle the cabin monetization at scale.”

The exclusivity explanation might sound infuriating, but it’s true. After all, if people knew they had a reasonably good shot of simply sliding into a free, unused business class seat, who would actually pay for a ticket? Like it or not, part of the mystique and allure of business class is its exclusivity.

“Airlines need to maintain exclusivity to some degree, for the integrity of the product itself,” Grosman says. “Also, if everyone assumes that they can snag a cheap upgrade every time, they’ll never actually pay for first or business.”

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