Brian Kelly, also known as The Points Guy, has flown thousands of miles since launching his travel platform in 2010. We asked him how passengers can take advantage of discounted and free upgrades—even if they don't have status with the airline.

By Zee Krstic
August 26, 2019
Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek via Getty Images

Ever found yourself walking through a mostly empty premium class while boarding a long flight and wishing you could just hop into one of those seats? You might be surprised to learn that there are a few ways you could be enjoying an upgrade, even if you didn't purchase it months ago and just checked in for your journey mere hours before arriving at the airport. Most veteran travelers know that they can earn complimentary perks with an airline if they hold a certain credit card or choose to use their hard-earned frequent flier miles—but many are unaware that the most desirable in-flight perks can actually be purchased in an auction 24 hours before a flight by anyone at all. This under-the-radar option is a surefire way for travelers to enjoy first class and other premium seats without buying them upfront. 

According to Brian Kelly, CEO and founder of digital travel platform The Points Guy, many airlines—from Lufthansa to Air Canada and Virgin Atlantic—conduct live auctions on first-class seats just about a day out from any given trip. As Kelly is frequently traveling on long-haul international routes, he tells us that savvy travelers can bid less than half the original cost of premium- and first-class seating and still work their way up to the front of the plane. In some cases, domestic travelers can also do the same; Kelly says that airlines like American, United, and Delta will offload empty premium seating at a fraction of the original asking price.

They may be few and far between, but complimentary upgrades do exist, especially for those travelers who purposefully chase down itineraries on non-peak routes. Kelly is sharing his top three strategies for seeking out an upgrade on an existing reservation, plus explains why it's almost always worth it. Consider his advice in the days and hours leading up to your next flight and you may just get to your destination on cloud nine.

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Upgrade at Check-In

If you're willing to pay (even just slightly) for an upgrade, pay close attention when you're checking into your flight and when you arrive at the airport: The airline may directly ask you if you're interested in an upgrade. "Most major U.S. airlines let you buy up to business or first class on both domestic and international routes—you can look for these by going to your reservation and looking for a pop-up notification about upgrading," Kelly says. "If there's no upgrade option in advance, you're much more likely to get an offer when checking in." Checking in early is crucial for those looking to score a discounted upgrade on a domestic flight, Kelly says. 

A select few airlines offer upgrades for a fixed cost, regardless of when you're flying or the demand, Kelly explains—Alaska Airlines is a prime example. "With them, upgrades range between $29 and $199 based on the distance; let's say you book a $150 coach ticket from New York to San Francisco, and then pay $199 to upgrade. You're basically paying $350 for a first-class transcontinental flight, which is great considering that those flights usually cost about $650 when booking first class outright."

Get to Bidding

Arriving at check-in is even more important for those who are flying internationally, as airlines often host upgrade auctions in the 24 to 48 hours before the flight departs. "Upgrade auctions are typically only offered by foreign airlines," Kelly says, adding that passengers can participate in these auctions on Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Alitalia, and Aer Lingus, among many others. "Like other buy-up offers, info about the auctions can be found on your online reservation…You don't really name your own price, as there are minimum and maximum amounts you can bid. There's usually also a tool that tells you how strong your bid is, but that isn't always accurate." 

How much is too much, you might ask? Kelly says he will check to see what first class tickets are retailing for by heading to the airlines' site before he makes a formal bid. "If it's a holiday weekend, then the minimum bid amount likely won't cut it, but if the cabin is basically wide open and paid fares are pretty cheap, then a low-ball offer might be successful," he shares. But be sure about your offer, as you can't cancel or increase your bid: "You can only bid once so offer a realistic amount that you feel comfortable with."

Purchasing an upgrade may be easier if you're traveling on a flight that has larger numbers of business seats open ("Like nighttime departures from Europe, especially in the middle of the week," Kelly says). "[Our] team members purposefully book non-primetime routes in hopes of earning upgrades pretty often," he says. Increase your chances of receiving an upgrade by choosing to fly outside of an airline's hub city ("You'll have a higher chance of getting an upgrade on American Airlines out of Newark than on United," he explains). 

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Use Twitter to Your Advantage

If the airline hasn't emailed you about a possible upgrade or offered you one via an online reservation portal and you're still hoping to snag one before check-in, pick up your phone. Twitter isn't just for logging complaints; in most cases, airlines have entire social teams dedicated to monitoring Twitter feeds, and these professionals can help you avoid lengthy telephone waits or being transferred between departments, Kelly says. "Don't be hesitant to ask them about options—for example, American Airlines often offers 'Cash & Miles' upgrades on most flights but doesn't let you purchase them online."

The Only Free "Upgrade" You Should Be Asking For

Just like many other travelers, Kelly has also heard of urban myths where polite passengers—or those who purposefully dress in business attire—are able to upgrade their ticket just by asking nicely. Those instances are few and far between, and most of the time, it's the "computer that picks who gets the surprise upgrades based on a number of complicated factors," Kelly says. "The average traveler shouldn't annoy airport staff to ask for an upgrade...While you should obviously be respectful, going out of your way to dress up in a suit and tie or kissing up to the gate agents won't score you a free upgrade."

Even The Points Guy himself has never once earned a first-class upgrade just by asking. Depending on your flight, however, Kelly says you may be able to move into a "premium" seat located in an exit row or towards the plane's bulkhead by asking your gate agent prior to the general boarding call (not while they're scanning tickets). Don't wait until you are onboard to ask a flight attendant, either, as they're busy prepping the cabin for departure—plus, these professionals don't have the power to reassign your details to another seat in the airline's system. 

At the very least, you might be able to enjoy an empty row simply by using your phone prior to boarding—most airlines enable passengers to change their seat on a mobile app before boarding begins. If you notice there's an empty row that you can't access, make a note of the location, Kelly advises. "If you simply ask the gate agent for an empty row, they're more likely to just say there is none—but if you're able to say I'd like to switch to seat 23A, for example, then they'll gladly switch you." This tactic doesn't always pay off, however, as people often travel standby and can end up being assigned the seat next to you right before boarding closes altogether.

Why You Should Upgrade—Even on Regional Flights

Comfort should be at the top of every traveler's must-have list, but some upgrades may seem overpriced (even at auction!) for the actual amount of time you'll be onboard. Even so, Kelly says being upgraded is much more about Champagne and a big comfy chair. "Usually, I wouldn't care about an upgrade on a very short flight like New York to Boston—but if the airline is offering me an upgrade for $30, and I was considering checking a bag which normally costs $30 anyway, then the upgrade is a no brainer," he says. Think about other perks associated with any kind of upgrade, too: JetBlue, for example, will offer free access to an expedited security line if you purchase a premium seat on board. 

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