How to improve your chance of getting an airline upgrade

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The best advice is to ask nicely and dress the part

Getting an upgrade from coach to business or first class is not as common as it once was, but air travel experts say it still happens. Understanding how the airlines select passengers for an upgrade can improve your chances of being one of the lucky few.

Alex Miller, CEO and founder of air travel website Upgraded Points says travelers often need to use their points or obtain elite status to get a free upgrade.

"However, there are still some occasional freebies given out, mostly one of two types: Operational upgrades and non-revenue upgrades," he tells ConsumerAffairs.

The average air traveler has little chance of getting a non-revenue upgrade since they are doled out to off-duty airline employees, designated family members of employees, and people who work for partner airlines.

Operational upgrades

A typical traveler will most often be offered an operational upgrade. Sometimes coach is oversold, and rather than bump a passenger for a flight, they'll upgrade a coach passenger if there are empty seats in business or first class.

The trick is to be the one the airline selects for the upgrade. Miller says there are a few things that can help your case.

The first may sound obvious but Miller says it is often overlooked. Ask nicely. If coach appears to be booked to capacity, suggest to a flight attendant that if they're going to upgrade someone to first class, you'd like to throw your hat in the ring. Don't forget to smile and turn on the charm when you ask.

'Well dressed and professional looking'

Second, dress like you belong in first class. Flying coach has become less and less comfortable over the years as passenger space has shrunk. While that might require wearing comfortable clothing on a long flight, Miller says if you're dressed like you're headed for the gym, you are unlikely to be picked to move up to first class.

"Because there's no objective way to choose someone, the pilots and flight attendants usually look for someone well-dressed and professional looking," Miller said. "The main idea is they're choosing someone who both makes a good impression on the staff and also sets a good impression of the airline as a representative of the airline's customers."

Being a member of the airline's loyalty program may also help your case. These passengers are considered "elite" flyers, with status rising to different tiers depending on how much they fly and spend with the airline.

"The higher the tier, the higher your priority is for an upgrade," Miller said. "Then the airline works down the list until the business/first class cabin is full."

Miller says upgrades are harder to come by these days because airlines have done a very good job of managing their reservations, pricing seats, and filling cabins. An operational upgrade is only going to happen when the airline has miscalculated and must give some lucky passenger a treat in order to seat as many passengers as possible.

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