Photo: Joi Ito
Here are the 12 simple steps I followed to get upgraded to business class on my 15-hour flight from Seattle to Dubai.
1. Travel solo.
The chances of being upgraded with your friend/mom/lover is a fraction of the already slim chances of getting upgraded at all.
If you’re traveling with someone whom you’re okay abandoning for the glory of first class, then all you need to do is make sure you buy your own ticket — one ticket per booking reference number.
Having tasted the fruits of the forward cabin, I can say that yes, yes I would abandon my husband in coach for a chance to have a whiskey menu and a feather bed.
2. Book with a good airline.
What’s the point of the upgrade if the first class cabin hasn’t been upgraded since before I was born? You may only get a few upgrades in your entire life, so if you’re really going to go for it, GO for it all the way.
On this particular trip, my choices to get to India were: Air China via Shanghai, or Emirates via Dubai. A quick look on SeatGuru told me that not all of Air China’s planes were updated, while all of Emirates’ planes were. A quick look on Airline Equality showed terrible reviews for Air China, while Emirates got consistently good ratings. The fare difference was about $100 more for Emirates, and the Emirates flight was an hour longer due to a slightly longer layover.
My friend chose Air China for price and reported this of the coach cabin: only overhead TVs, no movies in English, no subtitles, “squishy” meals, and old seats. Meanwhile, with Emirates, even coach looked awesome (and in fact I had coach on the way home and it was still the best coach cabin I’ve ever flown).
Another benefit to booking with Emirates was that their first- and business-class cabins are huge — more than double the other airlines I could have booked with. Read: more chances of getting upgraded. If you have any sort of rewards card or membership with an airline (say, via your credit card), that can be reason enough to fly with them.
3. Sign up for the airline’s rewards card.
I don’t mean the credit card they partner with — many airlines offer just a basic membership card for any number of reasons, but mostly to give you any reason to choose them again. I signed up for Emirates at the same time I purchased my flight. When I flew I had zero points to my name, but the first question they asked me when I inquired about an upgrade was “Are you an Emirates Skywards Member?” Yes. Yes I am.
Imporant note: If you already collect points with an airline and have any clout with them at all, that can be a reason to revisit step 2 and book within that network. The bottom line: Passengers with points or membership will be upgraded before passengers without.
4. Call the airline.
Why? To discuss seats. I called in to request bulkhead seats — the very front row — which has extra legroom. So does the exit row. Sometimes airlines charge for this. If they don’t charge, then usually these seats are blocked out until check in. I knew Emirates didn’t charge and that the bulkhead would not be available yet. But it was the perfect segue to discussing first class. It went something like this:
- Agent: I’m so sorry miss, but we don’t release those seats until 24 hours prior to check in.
Me: Oh, well thank you so much for trying anyway. I really appreciate it, and your time. You have been so kind. Could you make a note on my file that I would really appreciate bulkhead or exit row when they are released?
Agent: No problem, Miss Katharine. I have made that note. Is there anything else I can do for you?
Me: Actually there is one more thing. If it isn’t much of a bother, would you be so kind as to add my name to the waitlist for an upgrade?
Agent: Of course, Miss Katharine. There isn’t a waitlist, but I can add that note to your file.
Me: Can you tell me what I should do to follow up?
Agent: Speak to an agent when you check in at the airport.
Me: Thanks so much!
EASY. Ten minutes of my time. This was about two months before flying.
5. Call the airline again.
Call again about 72 hours before your flight and do the following:
- Inquire about how full the flight is.
- Ask again about the note on your file regarding bulkhead/exit row.
- Inquire — with utmost politeness — about the note on your file regarding an upgrade. Ask first if it’s still there, and if it’s not, ask this agent to add it again. If it is there, inquire about what you should do to follow up.
6. Check the status of the flight.
About 24 hours before the flight, check the schematic to see if the plane is full. You can usually do this after you’ve checked in, while you pick/check your seat.
If the flight is NOT full or very close to full, there’s about a 0% chance of the upgrade going through. Airlines are only allowed to issue free upgrades when coach is full and they need to make room for standby, staff, families, etc. However, for major international flights, often they oversell tickets to ensure there’s a full plane to get their money’s worth.
But if you check the schematic (or call the airline) and it looks half empty, then you’ve wasted about 25 minutes of your life angling for an upgrade that won’t happen. If it is full, you’re in good shape!
7. Check in early.
Like super early. Like three or more hours. The more time you have, the more people you can ask about your upgrade.
8. Dress well.
This is a HUGE factor that most people overlook. Listen, if you paid for first class then damn it, wear your velour track suit. But if you’re going for free upgrades (which is why, I assume, you have read this far) then look the part.
I wore a comfortable but clean slouchy tee, a black linen blazer, a cute necklace, jeggings that looked like jeans (so sneaky), black Toms, and a pretty scarf. Everything I was wearing was still decently comfortable, but I also tucked real leggings, socks, and a light sweater in my carry-on bag. Everything I did wear packed down to next to nothing when I wasn’t wearing them in India.
This from the girl who normally travels in an adult onesie. I wonder why I was never upgraded before?
9. Speak to any and all staff you can find.
People I spoke with, in order:
- The woman at the check-in counter (write down his or her name!)
- A woman at the gate who told me she could see the note and to check back before boarding
- Another woman at the gate while I was wasting time
- A man at my gate, prior to boarding, who told me no, there was no chance of getting upgraded
- The first class check-in counter staff, who also appeared to be a manager
10. Be polite.
Even if you didn’t follow the viral tweet-off via @TheYearOfElan, it’s not rocket science to know that people who work in customer service deserve respect. Most of your job is spent being yelled at, hassled, spoken down to, bossed around, and having demanding requests made of you — some of which are downright silly, impossible, or over the top.
So, when you have 500 people to shove onto a plane and 20 minutes in which to do it, and dozens of those people are approaching the counter with all sorts of requests, while it’s your job to be of good service to these people, you do have some say in how hard you work to make those things happen. Anyone who has ever worked customer service knows this. Those who haven’t, most obviously don’t. The bottom line is: You are far more likely to get their attention (and their time) if you are polite, patient, and understanding. That doesn’t mean get walked all over — but you can be confident and gently firm, while still being polite and kind.
For example, I did not approach and say, “Well, hi, um, so I think, maybe there is, is like a note, um, on my file maybe about, um, an upgrade? No? kthxbye.” Nor did I do this: “Listen to me. I was promised an upgrade, and I’m not going anywhere until I get one!”
I did something like this: “Hello. [Insert Name] from the check-in counter told me to come speak with you. I’m an Emirates Skywards member and I should have several notes on my file about an upgrade. Do you have a moment to take a look for me? Thank you, I really appreciate it.”
11. Don’t give up.
My flight took off at 5:45pm. I was not upgraded until 5:15pm. I absolutely did not expect the upgrade to work, but at the same time there’s little harm in boarding last and being sure. Often when I board last, I find empty rows and claim one. Bonus! But that wasn’t today because the flight was full and my luck (read: hard work) was about to change.
I checked in again at my gate when the boarding started, and that fellow told me, “No. There’s no chance.” I went to the bar and ordered a beer. I was about to give up, and while I was okay with the fact I wasn’t upgraded (I never really expected one), I was still dreading a 15-hour flight. I texted my husband to say my experiment had failed and I would be boarding soon. Then I watched as hundreds of people began shuffling aboard and decided it was worth one more shot.
I took a deep breath and went to the first class check-in counter instead of the regular one. I gave my same spiel as cheerfully as I could: “So and so told me to check in with you…there should be a note…I was told to check back…” I added in at this point, “I know you’re terribly busy and I apologize for the extra work, but I’d really appreciate you taking a look.”
Now that I was standing at the first class counter, I did try to act and look professional. I brought out my little black notebook and took fake notes, pretended there was something very important on my phone that I needed to jot down, etc. Essentially, I looked and acted like someone traveling for business (in how I dressed, and in my mannerisms), and that is what business class is for.
I was ready to take my normal ticket and head to the back of the plane. But then the man at the counter asked me to “wait just a moment” and my heart paused. As I continued to “look business-y,” I heard his radio squawk. It was hard to hear but went something like this:
- Radio: “KUSssshHHHHh zimpful kelrg …. is …. Kushhh …. Seat for … Standby?”
Counter staff man: “Roger that niner bravo six …. I’ve got …. Candidate …. Go ahead?”
Radio: “Zimmmffushsh brigak … Roger that … kushhhhhhh …. Go ahead …. Candidate.”
And I knew in my little tired heart that I was that candidate being selected for an upgrade to make room for a standby passenger.
12. Play it cool.
When he handed me my boarding pass, I felt like I’d won the lottery, and that lottery was not money but seat 7B. SEVEN. He smiled and thanked me for waiting, and I did everything I could to not grin like a total idiot. I thanked him with much enthusiasm, and said I needed to make a phone call before boarding. What I actually did was head to the bathroom and dance.
I called my husband and my mom, and then I composed myself and got on that dang plane. Instead of turning right, I was greeted and sent — for the first and so far only time in my life — to the left. To the front of the plane. Deep breathing was key here.
“Hi, Mrs. Mulligan! My name is Zsuzsi and I will be with you for the duration of this flight. Can I offer you some champanye before takeoff? You’ll find your menus in your seat pocket. We will be serving dinner first tonight, and I’ll be back to take your order after takeoff. Please, get comfortable and let me take care of everything. Welcome to Emirates.”
Feature image by Joi Ito