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Finances & Money Frugality

10 Tips for Getting Free Airline Upgrades

If you fly on airplanes with any kind of regularity, then you have probably wondered if there is a way to get free upgrades on your flights. Luckily, there are many ways to do this, although some are more successful than others. Here are 10 tips for getting free airline upgrades.

1. Use Frequent Flyer Miles

If you are signed up for a frequent flyer program, then you can use your accumulated miles – not just to get free plane tickets – but also to get free upgrades and perks. You can upgrade your flight, get discounts on hotels, and even get free rental cars.

2. Get Elite Status

If you are a regular flier, then it is crucial to consolidate your business with only one airline. When you accumulate enough miles with a single airline, you can become an “elite” member. This provides you with all kinds of benefits. You can get upgraded to first class for free, you can cut directly to the front of the check-in line, and you can even hang out in special elite lounges between flights.

3. Be Flexible

Often, airlines will overbook their flights during busy periods, like the holidays. When there are too many people on a light, they will begin offering incentives to step off the plane. If you are willing to be one of those people, then you can be rewarded with free meals, upgrades, and even free plane tickets. Sometimes you will only need to wait an hour or two for the next flight, so there are many awards available if you are willing to be a bit flexible.

4. Ask Your Company

Many large corporations have special arrangements worked out with the airlines. If your employer has such an arrangement, you may be able to score a free upgrade.

5. Airline Newsletter

After you’ve booked your flight, or even before you’ve given any thought to your travel plans; you might want to sign up for the airline newsletter. This is typically an email newsletter nowadays. Airlines will give you the inside scoop on special deals and bonuses for booking flights during specific blocks of dates or to certain cities.

6. Promotional Codes

In the late 90s, most airlines began using special “Y-Up” and “Q-Up” codes. These codes were designed for regular business travelers whom the airlines wanted to reward outside of their traditional frequent flyer program. Essentially, you only pay for a coach fare, but your flight is booked into first class. When you are shopping for flights online, look carefully at the ticket number and try to secure one that begins with QUP or YUP.

7. Use Your Connections

If you’ve got friends or family within the airline, they may be able to help you out with a free upgrade. However, there is usually a set policy about which customers have first dibs on upgrades, so don’t get angry with your friend if they can’t help you.

8. Check-in Early or Late

If a particular flight has an upgrade to give away, you can increase the probability that you’ll get it if you don’t check-in with the herd. Some airlines now allow you to check-in up to 24 hours in advance. If they have an upgrade to give away, they may do it early to avoid any last-minute shuffles. If you check in late, you stand a better chance that all the coach seats will have been filled, so you may get booked directly to first-class.

9. Dress Nice

Most airline employees all agree that they are more likely to give someone a free upgrade if they are dressed like a first-class passenger. They have an image to uphold, and they don’t want to offend the other first-class passengers by upgrading someone who looks like a vagrant.

10. Ask

Finally, it never hurts to ask. Although this might not work 90% of the time; if you don’t ask, you’ll never have given yourself an opportunity. Sometimes flights have a few extra first-class seats that they will simply give away to the first person who asks.

It doesn’t get much better than paying a low fare but getting first-class treatment. Getting a free upgrade is sometimes a hit or miss, but if you follow some of these tips, you can improve your odds dramatically.

Elisa writes about frequent flyer credit cards for an Australian website where you can also get analysis of airline loyalty programs as well as guides to airports and alliances.

About the author

Clever Dude


  • To add to your be flexible point. It’s easy to do this on short trips – like a connection when your almost home. Think San Francisco to Seattle, usually (especially during the holidays) you can get a free plane ticket when stuff is overbooked. Definitely worth it when the next flight is only 3 hours later.

  • If you’ve got friends and/or family who work for an airline then you’ll find out that free upgrades for friends and family is looked at as stealing from the company. When I was working for one of the big legacy carriers a few years ago a friend of mine upgraded her family on a transcontinental flight. She lost her job for that.

  • Hello, I have never flown upgrade, it would be great if I could do it just for the comfort. Had open heart four graft surgery, had infection on leg where graft was taken, two lower back surgery with stainless steel plates and screws, had neck surgery with same plate/screws. Been saving up for a
    trip to Hamburg Germany Jun 2 and back on 13th Jun. Staying with friends or couldn’t go.
    Sorry I was to submit a comment instand gave a sob story. Thank you in advanced.

  • The key point is to combine items 9 and 10 above. You can dress nicely but if you don’t put yourself forward you may wait the rest of your life for your upgrade. I have practised what I preach with great success; one of my last free upgrades was from Tokyo to Vancouver and believe me it was worth it.

  • I always dress up for flights – and have been upgraded twice (for a small fee).

    But I have found that a lot of First Class Passengers are demanding, rude and very messy.

  • 4. Ask Your Company – not really free, but you can get a great discount if your company has an arrangement with an airline company.

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