10 Best Ways to Upgrade to Business and First Class On Your Next Flight

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We all enjoy the extra space, comfort, and elevated service we experience when sitting in a business or first class seat on our flight. Just lifting that champagne glass and toasting our travel companion acknowledges the pleasure of the moment!

Upgrades can be elusive, however, and the path to securing one of these coveted seats is not always clear.

Airlines each have different upgrade processes — and even with rules in place, whether you actually receive the upgrade is often left to other variables.

Your upgrade could very well depend on whether IT systems work as planned, a lack of human error, aircraft equipment that doesn’t get changed at the last moment, and whether a higher elite member appears to bump you down the list.

Securing an upgrade may seem like a crap shoot, but the more you know about how the upgrade system works, the better your chances of scoring one.

In this article, we’ll arm you with all the information you need to increase your chances of sitting in business/first class on 4 major domestic airlines by covering:

  • How elite status helps you score upgrades
  • Instant upgrades for purchasing a higher fare ticket
  • How to use miles to upgrade
  • When purchasing an upgrade makes sense
  • Buying discounted business/first class tickets
  • Booking award tickets and finding award space
  • Whether an airline-branded credit card can help you secure an upgrade
  • How to upgrade companions

Let’s get started on how to secure an upgrade with your favorite airline!

1. Achieve Airline Elite Status

There’s no doubt that qualifying for an airline’s elite status is the best way to receive complimentary upgrades.

Whether it’s domestic upgrades, regional upgrade certificates, systemwide upgrade certificates, or upgrading with miles, elite members have priority over those who do not have status.

Let’s take a look at how you’ll receive upgrades when you qualify for elite status with an airline. We’ll be covering American Airlines, Delta, United and Alaska.

Domestic Flight Upgrades

  • American Airlines – American AAdvantage Executive Platinum members receive complimentary domestic upgrades. Elite members below this level may receive upgrades on flights 500 miles or less.
  • Delta Air Lines – All Delta Medallion elite members qualify for complimentary upgrades that are granted in order of elite status level. In addition, Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion elite members have the choice to select regional upgrade certificates each year.
  • United Airlines – Upgrades for Premier elite members are offered on a space-available basis on select United-operated domestic flights. Upgrades are granted in order of elite status level.
  • Alaska Airlines – Elite members receive complimentary upgrades in order of elite status level on all Alaska Airlines flights.

Not all domestic routes qualify for complimentary upgrades. Select coast to coast flights and flights to Hawaii are excluded with some airlines.

Regional Flight Upgrades

Airlines have specific routes that offer complimentary regional upgrades. Regional routes can include North America other than the U.S., northern South America, the Caribbean, and Central America.

  • American Airlines – Executive Platinum elite members receive complimentary regional upgrades. All other elite members must use 500-mile regional upgrade certificates for each 500-mile segment flown to receive a regional upgrade.
  • United Airlines – Elite members receive complimentary regional upgrades. However, Regional Premier Upgrades earned by Premier Platinum and 1K members can be used to confirm upgrades on select United and Copa flights operated within certain regions.
  • Delta Air Lines – While Medallion elite members can receive complimentary regional upgrades, Platinum and Diamond elite members have the option to select regional upgrade certificates that can be used to confirm the upgrade in advance.
  • Alaska Airlines – Alaska offers elite members complimentary upgrades to all of its destinations in order of elite status.

International Flight Upgrades

Airlines do not commonly offer complimentary upgrades on long-haul international flights. However, elite members frequently have the opportunity to earn such upgrades.

  • American Airlines – Executive Platinum elite members can earn up to 8 systemwide upgrade certificates annually that can be used worldwide on American flights. These upgrades cover up to 3 flights in 1 direction of travel and can be used to upgrade from economy to business class or business class to first class.
  • Delta Air Lines – Diamond elite members can select 4 systemwide global upgrade certificates annually.
  • United Airlines – Premier 1K members receive 6 systemwide global upgrades when Premier 1K elite status is achieved, and additional global upgrades when meeting higher Premier Qualifying levels. These upgrades are good for one-way, one-cabin upgrades.
  • Alaska Airlines – All elite members receive complimentary upgrades on every Alaska Airlines flight in order of their MVP elite status.

2. Receive Instant Upgrades When Purchasing Certain Fare Class Tickets

It is possible to be upgraded immediately if you purchase a high fare class ticket. In most cases, the airline requires you to have elite status to be eligible.

  • American Airlines – Although full fare Y and B class tickets do not receive an immediate upgrade, the higher fare class will elevate upgrade priority over lower class tickets.
  • Delta Air Lines – Medallion elite members can receive an immediate upgrade when purchasing a full fare Y class ticket.
  • United Airlines – Upgrades are granted at the time of ticketing on full fare Y economy and B fares for Premier members, based on availability. In addition, Premier 1K members may receive instant upgrades when purchasing M, Y, and B fares.
  • Alaska Airlines – MVP Gold members purchasing Y, S, B, M, H, and Z fares will receive an immediate upgrade. MVP Gold members purchasing Y, S, B, M, and Z fares receive an immediate upgrade, and MVP members receive immediate upgrades when purchasing Y, S, and Z fares.

 

United upgrade with miles
Most airlines allow you to upgrade your flight using miles when purchasing your ticket.  Image courtesy of United.com.

3. Upgrade Your Flight With Miles

It is possible to secure an upgrade to business/first class when purchasing your ticket or on an existing reservation. Of course, each airline handles the process differently.

How to Upgrade With Miles or Miles/Co-pay When Purchasing a Ticket

  • American Airlines – The cost of upgrading your ticket with miles will depend on the fare class purchased and where you’ll be flying. To determine how much the upgrade will cost, access AA.com for their complete upgrade-with-miles chart.
  • Delta Air Lines – Delta’s “Upgrade with Miles” option is available at the time of purchase for domestic main cabin flights. You will find the option in the trip summary during your purchase if your flight is eligible.
  • United Airlines – When searching for flights, select “all search options” after entering your flight search parameters. Then select the “MileagePlus Upgrade Awards” option from the “upgrade type” drop-down box. You will see all upgrade options available including upgrading with miles, upgrading using miles and a co-pay, and discounted business class ticket options.
  • Alaska Airlines – First class mileage upgrades cost 15,000 miles one-way and can be purchased when you buy your ticket. To find fares that qualify for mileage upgrades, select “mileage upgrade” as your preference when searching for flights.

How to Upgrade an Existing Reservation With Miles

  • American Airlines – Discount economy fare tickets (but not basic economy tickets) can be upgraded on American Airlines and American Eagle marketed/operated flights. Visit AA.com for prices (miles/co-pay) and descriptions of fare classes and zone definitions for these types of mileage upgrades. You do not need to have elite status to upgrade with miles.
  • Delta Air Lines – Mileage Upgrade Awards are available for existing reservations and can be secured by calling Delta SkyMiles (800-323-2323). The representative will provide pricing and availability information.
  • United Airlines – Sign in to your MileagePlus account and access your existing reservation. Select “redeem upgrade” to view your options. You will see the option to buy up to a premium cabin, use a Regional or Global upgrade if available, or use miles and co-pay for the upgrade. You may also request a MileagePlus upgrade by calling United or at the airport.
  • Alaska Airlines – Upgrades to first class can be purchased for 15,000 miles for a one-way upgrade (includes connecting flights). You need to call Alaska Airlines reservations at 1-800-252-7522 to purchase the upgrade for an existing reservation.
Delta Upgrade Purchase example
Purchasing upgrades at check-in may offer good value. Image courtesy of Delta.com.

4. Buy an Upgrade

Most airlines allow you to purchase upgrades regardless of whether you have elite status. In some cases, these upgrade opportunities can be quite reasonably priced.

  • American Airlines – Purchased upgrades for flights may be offered on the day of departure based on availability.  In addition, 500-mile domestic/regional upgrades can be purchased in advance by any elite member for $40 each. (If a flight is 1500 miles in length, you would need to purchase 3 500-mile upgrades, for example.)
  • Delta Air Lines – Purchased upgrades are often offered in advance, but further discounted upgrades may be available for purchase at check-in. These discounted upgrades can often have attractive pricing. Elite status is not required to purchase discounted upgrades.
  • United Airlines – Existing reservations are eligible for purchased upgrades based on availability. Sign in to your MileagePlus account, access your existing reservation, and select “redeem upgrade” to review your options. You will see the option to buy up to a premium cabin, use an available Regional or Global upgrade, or use miles and co-pay for the upgrade. You don’t need to be a United Premier elite member to upgrade your ticket.
  • Alaska Airlines All travelers may purchase first class upgrades based on availability at 24 hours prior to departure. First class upgrades range in price from $29 to $199, depending on distance.

Hot Tip: Always check for last-minute upgrade purchase opportunities at check-in and at the gate! While not always available, when space exists these upgrades can be priced attractively. 

flight cost comparison
Discounted first class tickets can occasionally cost less than coach. Image courtesy of Delta.com.

5. Buy Discounted Business and First Class Fares

It sounds simple: just purchase a discounted business or first class ticket, and you’ll have an upgraded seat.

While some discounted premium cabin tickets can be priced lower than coach (yes, this is a fact!), finding such fares may be challenging.

Let’s look at some options for finding discounted business and first class fares:

Fare Alerts

Setting up fare alerts allows you to be notified if a good fare becomes available for your specific itinerary or for random destinations that have price reductions.

Sites where you can set up business/first class fare alerts include:

  • Google Flights – Once you’ve done a flight search, you can select the option to track the flight’s pricing
  • Mighty Travels – Free and paid subscription alerts for premium and economy fares
  • The Flight Deal – Daily email with flight deals
  • Kayak.com – Set up fare alerts for flights between preferred destinations
  • Secret Flying – Daily alert for flight deals

Searching for Discounted Business/First Class Flights

In addition to setting up alerts, you can also search for discounted business/first class fares on specific sites:

  • Google Flight Maps – Select business/first class when searching for a flight, then access the Explore Map (main menu upper left corner) for destination pricing throughout the world
  • ITA Matrix – Search for business/first class flights for several departure/destination airports with one search

Bottom Line: Setting up fare alerts and searching for discounted business/first class flights on sites designed to make the process easier can help you find a deal on a premium flight. 

6. Upgrade With Miles on Partner Airlines

  • American Airlines – You can use miles to upgrade on British Airways and Iberia flights, but you will need to purchase at least a full-fare economy ticket (Y/B fare class) in order to use miles for the upgrade.
  • Delta Air Lines – Global upgrade certificates earned by Delta Medallion elite members can be used on partner airlines Air France and KLM. Mileage Upgrade Awards are available on select Virgin Atlantic, Air France/KLM, and Aeromexico-operated flights.
  • United Airlines – United has 26 Star Alliance partners who participate in mileage upgrades. To request a Star Alliance upgrade with miles, you must first book your ticket, access the reservation on United.com, then request the upgrade under redeem upgrade as you would with a normal United reservation. Access additional information for upgrades with Star Alliance partner airlines on the United Airlines website.
  • Alaska Airlines – Alaska Airlines currently has 17 airline partners. While you can earn and use miles on these partner airlines, you cannot secure upgrades on partner airlines using Alaska Mileage Plan frequent flyer miles.
Delta A350 Suite
Fly in business/first class by using frequent flyer miles to purchase premium award tickets. Image courtesy of news.delta.com.

7. Purchase Business/First Class Award Tickets With Miles

Using your frequent flyer miles to purchase premium award flights offers endless opportunities to fly in business/first class with no stress of wondering if an upgrade will clear prior to your flight.

Since each airline has its own process for booking award flights, it’s impractical to list every airline’s award ticketing information here. Just know that purchasing an award ticket in business or first class is one of the best ways to assure you’ll be flying up front.

Here are our in-depth guides to booking award flights with miles on our 4 focus airlines:

Hot Tip: We’ve done the work for you and gathered all of the information you need to find award space on your favorite airlines as well. Our in-depth guide to finding award space walks you through the process, step-by-step. 

8. Carry an Airline-Branded Credit Card

Most airline-branded credit cards do not improve your chances of getting upgraded. However, airline-branded credit cards frequently come with other benefits like free checked bags, preferred security screening, and priority boarding/seating.

Airline-branded credit cards that offer improved upgrade priority include the following:

Airline Branded Credit CardType of Upgrade Eligibility
  • Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express
  • Medallion upgrade priority over non-Delta credit card holders
  • Complimentary upgrades on award tickets for Premier members who hold a United-branded credit card.

Hot Tip: Airline-branded credit cards aren’t the only credit cards that offer airline-related benefits. Premium travel credit cards such as the Platinum Card® from American Express and the Chase Sapphire Reserve® offer lounge access, airline credits, Global Entry credits, and additional travel benefits. 

9. Get Sponsored for an Upgrade

Get upgraded to business or first class with a little help from a friend via a sponsored upgrade.

Sponsored upgrades allow the elite member to “sponsor” another traveler for an upgrade using upgrade certificates, and the elite member does not need to be flying with the sponsored traveler.

Here’s how the sponsor program works with our 4 featured airlines:

  • American Airlines – American Airlines has one of the best sponsorship programs when it comes to upgrades. The airline allows elite members who have earned upgrade certificates to use them for any traveler, but they also go one step further: an elite member can sponsor another traveler for an upgrade, and the upgrade certificate can come from any elite member’s account.
  • Delta Air Lines – Delta does not have a sponsorship upgrade program. The airline has a companion upgrade program, where the elite member must be traveling with the person for whom the upgrade is requested.
  • United Airlines – Premier elite members holding Global and Regional Upgrades may use them to upgrade other travelers, even if the elite member is not traveling with the person receiving the upgrade.
  • Alaska Airlines – MVP Gold 75K members receive 4 one-way first class guest upgrades per year. The elite member does not have to be traveling with the person using the upgrade.

10. Be a Traveling Companion and Get Upgraded

You don’t need to have elite status to get upgraded if you’re traveling with an elite member who has companion upgrade benefits.

Here’s how the major airlines handle companion upgrades:

  • American Airlines – Elite members who have earned system-wide, regional, or 500 mile upgrade certificates can use them for companions. Companion upgrades are available on paid and award tickets. Companions qualify for complimentary upgrades with the same elite status priority as the elite member.
  • Delta Air Lines – Travelers accompanying Delta elite members on the same itinerary receive equal elite status priority for complimentary upgrades. Additionally, Delta elite members who hold global/regional upgrade certificates can use them to upgrade a travel companion on the same itinerary.
  • United Airlines – One companion traveling on the same paid reservation as the Premier member is eligible for a complimentary upgrade with the same priority as the elite member. If there are more than 2 travelers on the same reservation as the Premier member without elite status, upgrades are not processed automatically; the member must call to separate the reservations.
  • Alaska Airlines – Alaska Airlines MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K elite members can request upgrades for traveling companions on the same itinerary.

Bottom Line: An elite member who has earned upgrade certificates on American Airlines, United Airlines, or Alaska Airlines can sponsor any traveler to use the upgrade certificate. The elite member does not need to be traveling with the person receiving the upgrade. All 4 airlines allow companion upgrades for travelers on the same reservation as the elite member, with restrictions. 

How to Find Out if Upgrade Space Is Available

Each airline has its own process for handling how upgrade space is allocated. The process can also differ depending on if you’re purchasing an upgrade, using earned upgrade certificates, or using miles.

Here’s a general summary of how to find out if upgrade space is available:

  • American Airlines – Travelers with ConciergeKey/Executive Platinum status with American Airlines can view availability for using Systemwide Upgrade certificates when searching for a flight. All other travelers will have to call to find out if upgrade space is available.
  • Delta Air Lines – Delta’s website does not have the functionality of searching for upgrade space on their website; you must call. You can also do a dummy award booking to get an estimate of how many seats are available.
  • United Airlines – Search for flights using United’s expert mode. To activate expert mode, sign in to your MileagePlus account and select the option to go to your profile, then select search preferences. Under search preferences, you’ll find the expert mode option. Check to acknowledge the considerations, save, and it will be activated. Then during your flight search, you’ll be able to see the fare class you’re purchasing and the available fare classes for that flight by clicking on the details tab. Check out our complete guide with step by step instructions for searching available upgrade space on United.
  • Alaska Airlines – On Alaskaair.com, search for flights under the “search flights” section. Once flights are displayed, you will see the “upgrade fare type” — fares shown with an “F” in a solid blue box are available for upgrade.

Another resource for searching upgrade space availability is Expert Flyer, which requires a paid subscription.

Final Thoughts

Purchasing a business/first class flight with miles, points, or cash is the best way to assure you’ll be sitting in the front of the plane — so if it’s important for you to have that experience, start there.

Aside from purchasing a business/first class ticket, having elite status with an airline is the next best way to get upgraded on your flight. Top elites receive complimentary upgrades and earn exclusive upgrade certificates that can be used on international flights.

If you have a stash of frequent flyer miles and purchase a qualifying fare class ticket, you can use those miles to try to purchase an upgrade.

If none of these options are doable, hopefully you can seek out elite member friends/family with companion benefits who are in a generous mood!


*Featured image credit: British Airways

FAQ

How much does an upgrade to first class cost?

Each airline has its own pricing and policies for upgrading eligible flights, so there is no one set price for a first class upgrade. It may be possible to pay for an upgrade or use miles to upgrade, but the amount will vary based on your fare class, destination, and availability.

There are even some highly discounted fare class tickets (such as basic economy tickets) that cannot be upgraded at all.

Do I need elite status to get an upgrade?

You do need to have elite status with the airline to receive a complimentary upgrade.

However, you may be able to purchase an upgrade when you check in for your flight or at your departure gate.

You may also be able to use your frequent flyer miles to secure an upgrade. You do not need to have elite status to purchase an upgrade or use miles for an upgrade.

If your flight is disrupted and you are required to take a different flight, you can ask for an upgraded seat to compensate for your inconvenience, and your request may be granted if space is available.

Another opportunity for an upgrade request to be granted for a non-elite is when you volunteer your seat because a flight is oversold.

Will dressing well and asking nicely get me an upgrade?

No, just dressing well and being nice won’t get you an upgrade.

Airlines save valuable business/first class upgrades for their elite frequent flyers — if they give you an upgrade just for dressing well and being nice, those who “earned” it would be pretty upset.

That said, if you experience extenuating circumstances such as a severe trip disruption, a broken seat, or other major inconveniences, you could definitely ask to be upgraded.

The worst they can say is no…but if you’re dressed well, ask nicely, and there are seats available, you may have your request granted.

How does the upgrade process work?

For elite members of an airline frequent flyer program, complimentary upgrades are granted in the order of top status to lowest status.

Other factors that are considered in the upgrade process are fare class, time of the upgrade request, time of check-in, whether the ticket is an award ticket or a paid ticket, and if an earned upgrade certificate is being used.

An airline may use any combination of these factors.

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