Maybe it was the influence of too many movies, but when I was a kid I used to think that getting an upgrade for a golden ticket to a first-class seat was only for those suave enough to charm a ticket agent.
But as I started getting more involved in travel, I realized you don't have to be a celebrity to get upgraded to first or business class. Many travelers have their own secrets on how they do it, while I've found that business travelers are especially knowledgeable. Though it isn't easy, here are my tips on how business travelers can get upgraded to business or first class.
1. Commit to being loyal.
Joining an airline loyalty program is probably one of the easiest ways to earn points or miles for your purchases. Loyalty programs are usually free to join and can earn plenty if you fly frequently, especially if you travel on a specific airline.
You can also join an airline's dining program that earns points and miles simply for enrolling the credit card that you use to pay for purchases at participating restaurants when dining out. You may earn extra points for reviews and for signing up for newsletters, such as with Southwest's dining program. Be sure to note if your points/miles have an expiration date.
If you fly often enough, consider applying for an airline-specific credit card that will earn you more points/miles for items in various categories. With credit card sign up bonuses, you can earn thousands of points/miles by meeting a minimum spending amount in the first three months of account opening. The bonuses and benefits vary by card so be sure to find the one that best suits your spending habits.
2. Volunteer to get bumped if the flight is overbooked.
Business travelers who are able to volunteer to travel on another flight when their flight is overbooked open up the opportunity to negotiate a better deal. Since you are volunteering, you can ask for incentives for giving up your seat.
You can increase your chances of being upgraded if you're seated in a higher-class seat, such as premium economy, and when you don't have checked baggage that will be more inconvenient for the airline to locate.
3. Know your options when checking in.
There are several things to know when checking in. First, you have a better chance of getting moved if you check-in early. If you are checking in on a self-serve kiosk, note if there is an opportunity to purchase an upgraded seat that is often cheaper since it is so close to the takeoff time.
If checking-in with an agent, arrive early and politely ask if you can be considered should any opportunities for an upgrade arise. If nothing is available when initially checking in, ask again once the agents are at the gate. By that time, everyone will have checked in and the agents will have a clearer view of what is available.
4. Purchase miles.
Business travelers can safely purchase miles directly from airlines. Pay attention to special rate opportunities often marketed through newsletters. You may also consider a mileage run where you take long flights that are booked at a low cost in order to have more miles.
Final bonus tips to help with an upgrade.
If you want to help your chances at getting an upgrade, dress professionally and be polite. Business travelers who are dressed smartly and are amicable are more likely to be regarded by staff if an opportunity arises. Also, business travelers who have elite status and a loyalty record have a better chance of getting bumped up.
However, it is important to keep in mind that some airlines have policies that are essentially against giving upgrades. While you can try, it's also important not to have unrealistic expectations.
Finally, earning points for dining or through airline shopping portals add to your mileage bank. Even if it's only a couple of points, every little bit counts.