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Best Ways to Score a Cheap Flight Upgrade for Your Next International Trip

Airports + Flying
by Maren Engh Sep 9, 2021

Looking to fly business but not take a second mortgage out on your home? Lucky for you, there are plenty of ways to upgrade a flight.

And no, despite how popular this theme tends to be, dressing well is not one of them. Maybe at one time, dressing the part when you were talking to the gate agent helped, but now thanks to the thousand-and-one ways to acquire elite status on airlines, the airlines are far less interested in your designer bag and way more interested in whether that bag has their branded credit card in it.

Unless you’re an elite with the airline, the chances of getting a free upgrade are slim to none these days. Just recently, my husband and I were upgraded on a cross-country flight from San Francisco to New York, thanks to a plane swap. While this situation is rare, it’s not luck. It was great planning.

Relying on a free upgrade is not a reliable way to secure a seat in the point end of the plane, but thankfully, there are a number of ways to snag a lay flat in an economical way.

From flying at off-peak times or days, avoiding basic economy tickets and regularly checking your “manage booking” tab for your flight you can secure incredible deals on your next flight.

Follow the steps below for your best shot to upgrade a flight.

Step 1: How to upgrade a flight — Find the right flight

Finding the right flight is critical. Booking a flight on a Friday night to Las Vegas is not going to land you any sort of upgrade. The biggest chances at an upgrade on any flight will be during off-peak travel times. In the Las Vegas example, a flight on a Wednesday morning is going to be a lot more likely.

Similarly, assess how many seats there are in business class. If you’re flying on a small plane or a plane that has just a few rows of business class, your chances are slim. This also applies to full flights. The closer to the travel date, the more “real” your chances become. If the flight looks fairly empty and there are a number of open business class seats, the airline is more likely to offer upgrades.

Look for premium routes from major hubs for the largest, more upscale planes. If you’re not seeing the type of inventory you’re hoping for with your favorite domestic carriers like United or Delta, check the inventory on international airlines like Singapore Airlines, KLM or Air France. Often, international airlines have massive wide body planes with huge business class cabins, particularly on important routes from their home country hubs.

Step 2: How to upgrade a flight — Book the right ticket

The second critical piece here is booking the right ticket. If you book a basic economy fare, you can’t expect a free glass of water, much less an upgrade offer. Basic economy fares are typically excluded from any upgrade possibilities. Think of it this way, the higher the cost of the ticket, the more likely you are to get a good upgrade offer.

Some important considerations are around fare classes and airline policies. There are some airlines that only allow one-category upgrades or bumps. So, if you book an economy ticket, you may only be able to upgrade to premium economy, instead of all the way to business class.

Step 3: How to upgrade a flight — Identify the right upgrade method

Now, assuming you followed our advice on booking the right ticket, you’re in a great position to be offered fabulous upgrades on your journey. Whether you upgrade using miles, credit card points or cash, we’re going to detail exactly where and how you’ll find these offers.

Upgrade a flight with points and miles

There are a few ways to upgrade to business or first class using points, whether it’s directly through the airline you booked with or through a third party like AmEx’s “upgrade with points” program.

When it comes to upgrading using airline miles, this is usually largely dependent on demand for the business class cabin at any given time. Upgrade offers on your reservation page can pop up at any time, starting the second you purchase that ticket, all the way up to check-in.

To check if your next flight has an upgrade offer, log into your account and access the trip details page. Typically, you’ll find any upgrade offers right at the top, like this Delta upgrade for my upcoming flight to LA:

Upgrade a flight Delta

Photo: Delta

When I initially purchased my ticket, this leg of the flight cost approximately $200 for a main cabin seat. The “Delta Comfort” seat (aka premium economy) cost over $300. This means at $19 or 1,900 points, I’m saving almost $100 by upgrading after I purchased my ticket. While this example is a small, somewhat minor one, you’ll find the same experience whether you’re on a one-hour flight or a 15-hour flight.

American Express also offers a program that allows cardholders to upgrade their flights using miles, even if they didn’t book the flight through the AmEx travel portal. They don’t have an extensive list of participating airlines yet, but it’s always worth a look:

If you have a flight booked on any of these airlines, there’s a chance you’ll have the opportunity to buy an upgrade to business class with your hard-earned points. Let’s say you found a crazy deal to Singapore for $450 from San Francisco to Singapore in Economy class. You may be able to upgrade to business class using your AmEx points. While the upgrade offers through this program vary extensively, most of the airlines they feature sell business class tickets in the $5,000+ range. The program can save you several thousands of dollars by using your AmEx points.

Upgrade a flight during online check in

Online check-in is a great time to secure a discounted upgrade. Upgrade offers at the point of check-in is often one of the last-ditch efforts by the airline to sell a business class seat and resell your main cabin seat for more money to desperate travelers. Think about it this way, maybe you paid $500 for your flight to Europe. If you get an upgrade offer of $200 to fly in business class, the airline can sell your economy class ticket to a desperate traveler for $1000+. Travelers looking for last-minute flights are more likely to book the $1000 economy ticket over the $5000 business seat. By upgrading to a higher class, the airline gets to increase their revenue by filling the cheaper economy seat at a higher price tag than normal.

As you go through the online check-in process, make sure to click into the seat map to see if they’re offering any great deals. It is not unheard of to find amazing deals for lay flat seats during check-in. This is particularly true for longer international flights on widebody aircraft with a lot of business class seating.

Using this logic, I was able to secure a $200 upgrade recently on AirFrance to Paris from San Francisco back in June. I’ve even heard stories where people have secured $50 one-way upgrades from NYC to Europe and $150 lay flat seat from Atlanta to Buenos Aires.

Upgrade a flight at the gate

Your last chance to get an upgrade is at the gate. While there are exceptions to this rule, the gate agent can sell upgrades to business and first class if there are open seats. Head to the gate early to inquire about upgrade pricing, and no, dressing well won’t actually help you secure it. However, what does help is being sweet and personable to the gate agent ;).

Often, if the cabin is undersold, they’ll offer great deals to fill seats. This is particularly true if economy class is oversold and they need to move people around.

Keep in mind, basic economy tickets are not upgradeable with just about every airline, not even at the boarding gate.

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