The Art of Negotiating for Free Flight Upgrades

free flight upgrades

Photo Credit: Richard Moross made available under a CC License

Here at Clueless in College, we’re adamant about finding ways to live a life of luxury for pennies on the dollar. When it comes to airlines, this is typically accomplished by using points and miles to obtain free flights or upgrades. But what about those who don’t have any spare points/miles to use or want to save them for a future trip? How can those people still afford to fly with the elite? Simple. Negotiate for free flight upgrades!

While working at Lockheed Martin, I took a class called “Negotiation Strategies and Techniques.” The teacher gave an example of how we can apply the principles learned in the class to our everyday lives in the form of negotiating for free flight upgrades. My first thought was, “Bullshit!” But then, she showed the class a picture of her sitting in a first class seat en route to LAX from MIA. Okay, I’ll give it a try. Can’t hurt to ask, right?

I tried this on a few flights with no luck. Either the cabin was booked full or I was just given a simple, “Nope. Sorry.” I started to think that this woman had simply taken a picture of herself in a first class seat that she paid for and was creating an embellished story to sell her services. Then, I gave it another shot on a flight from PBI to CAK while going to visit relatives.

I approached the gate counter and politely asked the pretty, young girl if they were offering any complimentary upgrades for Delta SkyMiles members (my dad booked the ticket with his Delta Amex). After a few seconds of keyboard mashing, I was kindly notified that I would be able to receive a free business class upgrade. What? That actually worked? I was on cloud nine.

Below, you’ll find the steps that I follow every time I enter the departure terminal of an airport. The best part is that you don’t need a background in sales or an extroverted personality to pull this off. Simply follow the actions and steps below and you’ll be on your way to potentially experiencing all that first/business class has to offer.

Required Actions

Before you book your flight, enroll in the airline’s frequent flyer program so that you can add your membership number to your booking. That way, when the airline employee looks up your information in the system, they’ll see that you are a registered member. These programs are free so there’s no damage done to your bank account balance.

Optional Actions

If you have an airline credit card, you’ll want to book your flight with it and bring it with you to the airport. This not only let’s you rack up miles but also allows you to take advantage of any perks that come as part of being a cardholder.

When booking, try to find flights during off-peak times such as red-eye (last flight for the night) or early morning flights. Off-peak flights stand to have fewer people booked in first/business class, which greatly increases your chances of being able to occupy one of those empty, leather seats. These flight fares are usually cheaper anyways. You may as well save some coin while simultaneously increasing the probability of receiving a complimentary upgrade.

The 3 Locations of Negotiation

1. The Check-In Counter

First, you need to find out if the first and/or business class cabins are fully booked. For obvious reasons, if the cabins are fully booked, then you don’t have anything to negotiate over. However, if seats are still available, you may be able to score yourself a free upgrade and rub elbows with the suits and ties. When you check in for your flight, avoid the kiosk and go straight to the counter. You may want to arrive for your flight 30 minutes earlier than you normally would in case you need to wait in line. If you choose to print your boarding pass from your home or office, you can still go up to the counter and inquire about a free flight upgrade.

Negotiation Round 1

  1. Approach the counter with a big, friendly smile.
  2. Greet the attendant and ask how their day is going.
  3. Politely ask if the airline is offering a complimentary upgrade to first or business class for [insert airline name] frequent flyer members or [insert credit card name] holders.
    1. If the answer is yes, then you’re in like Flynn.
    2. If the answer is no, don’t get discouraged. The airline is likely holding those seats until all passengers have checked in, just in case someone actually wants to purchase an upgrade. Ask if any first or business class seats are available for purchase. If so, politely decline.

2. The Flight’s Gate Counter

If you aren’t able to score a free upgrade at the counter, the next target will be the gate. The process is more or less identical to asking at the counter. At this point, you really need to win the gate attendant over. Most attendants have to deal with disgruntled customers all day long. You want to be just the opposite and get on their good side.

Depending on your moral code, you could even try stretching the truth and use an ailment like lower back pain and a tight financial situation as your reason for asking about the complimentary upgrade. Just remember to begin your sales pitch before boarding has commenced. Once boarding has started, the gate attendants will be busy checking customers in and much less likely to want to devote the time to give you a complimentary upgrade. Again, follow these steps:

Negotiation Round 2

  1. Approach the gate with a big, friendly smile.
  2. Greet the attendant and ask how their day is going.
  3. Politely ask if the airline is offering a complimentary upgrade to first or business class for [insert airline name] frequent flyer members or [insert credit card name] holders. Optionally, give your sympathy plea.
    1. If the answer is yes, then you’re golden. Enjoy your complimentary booze!
    2. If the answer is no, keep your chin up. Before leaving the gate counter, ask if any first or business class seats are available for purchase. If so, politely decline. You still have one more box to check.

3. The Plane

The last place to inquire about a complimentary upgrade is on the plane itself. This approach requires tact on your part. What makes this last ditch effort particularly tricky is that you may not be able to see if the first/business class seats are all occupied. On certain planes, first and business class passengers board through a separate door, usually located at the front of the aircraft. Then, economy passengers are boarded using a door located behind the first/business class cabins. On double decker planes such as some variants of the Airbus A380, the first and business cabins are located on the upper deck. As you can imagine, that makes it pretty difficult to check if all the seats are occupied.

If you do get the opportunity to pass through the first/business cabin on the way to your seat, pay attention to the number of empty seats. If the cabin is full then it’s time to accept defeat and hope for better luck next time. However, if you notice unoccupied seats, there may still be a chance to receive a complimentary upgrade. If you can’t do that reconnaissance, don’t worry. You’ll still be able to execute your final negotiation. Just make sure you’re one of the last people to board the plane so that you can speak to the cabin crew manager without holding up the boarding process.

Negotiation Round 3

  1. If seated, get up and find the cabin crew manager. This is the person talking on the phone over the plane’s intercom system and is usually at the front of the plane. Otherwise, try to speak with them before you find your seat.
  2. Remember your big, friendly smile and begin your inquiry.
  3. If applicable, mention that you noticed there were empty seats in the first/business cabin.
  4. Ask if there is any way to receive a complimentary upgrade to first or business class for [insert airline name] frequent flyer members or [insert credit card name] holders. Optionally, give your sympathy plea.
  5. Hopefully the answer is “yes” and you’re promptly moved to a nice, plush leather seat. If not, you’ll just have to try again next time!

If you miss the opportunity to ask for your complimentary upgrade before the plane takes off, you can try asking once the plane is in the air and once the fasten seatbelt sign has been turned off. You may opt to wait until you’re in the air to begin your negotiations even if you have the opportunity to speak with the cabin crew manager beforehand. The time leading up to takeoff can be very stressful as flight attendants are trying to hurriedly get people seated and overhead storage compartments closed. Once in the air, the cabin crew manager has a few minutes to breathe.

In closing, it’s important to remember that this is simply a guide for negotiating your way to free flight upgrades. It’s not guaranteed to work every single time. However, I believe it’s a numbers game. If you try this every single time (I do), then you greatly increase your chances of getting the bump up to first/business class. It never hurts to ask. Good luck and happy negotiating!

UPDATE: I recently applied the above negotiation tactics at the gate counter in Osaka, Japan to receive a complimentary exit row upgrade. It may not be as fancy as first or business class but it definitely made the 9-hour flight much more bearable!

Do you have your own tips and tricks for getting free flight upgrades? Feel free to share them with the Clueless in College community in the comments below!

Similar Posts:

Leave a Reply