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10 Ways to Upgrade to First Class or Business Class

Traveling in first or business class is a treat all on its own.  We appreciate the extra legroom, comfort, and superior care we receive. Simply raising that champagne glass and toasting our trip companion acknowledges the moment's delight!

Upgrades, on the other hand, can be difficult to come by, and the path to obtaining one of these prized seats is not always straightforward.

Each airline has its own upgrading procedures, and even when guidelines are in place, whether or not you receive an upgrade is typically dependent on other factors.

Your upgrading may be contingent on IT systems working as expected, a lack of human error, aircraft equipment that isn't modified at the last minute, and whether you are bumped down the list by a higher elite member.

This article will cover all you need to know about increasing your chances of flying business or first class on four major domestic airlines in this article.

  • How elite status aids in the acquisition of upgrades
  • Upgrades are available immediately if you purchase a ticket with a higher fare.
  • How to Upgrade Using Miles
  • When is it a good idea to upgrade?
  • Purchasing business/first-class tickets at a reduced price
  • Obtaining and booking award tickets as well as award space
  • If you have a credit card with an airline's logo on it, you might be able to get an upgrade.
  • How do I improve my companions?

Let's get started on securing an upgrade with your preferred airline!

First Class
First Class

1. Achieve Elite Status with an Airline

There's no denying that earning elite status with an airline is the best method to get free upgrades.

Elite members get preference over non-elite members when it comes to domestic upgrades, regional upgrade certificates, systemwide upgrade certificates, and upgrading with miles.

Let's take a look at how you'll be upgraded if you get elite status with an airline. We'll be covering American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines.

Upgrades on domestic flights

  • Delta Air Lines All Delta Medallion elite members are entitled to complimentary upgrades, which are given in order of elite classification. Each year, Delta Platinum and Diamond Medallion elite members can choose from a variety of regional upgrade certificates.
  • American Airlines — AAdvantage Executive Platinum program gets free domestic upgrades. On flights of fewer than 500 miles, elite members below this level may be eligible for upgrades.
  • United Airlines — On select United-operated domestic flights, upgrades for Premier elite members are available on a space-available basis. Upgrades are given out in the sequence of elite status.
  • Alaska Airlines — On all Alaska Airlines flights, elite members receive complimentary upgrades in order of elite status level.

Not all domestic routes are eligible for free upgrades. Some carriers restrict some coast-to-coast routes and flights to Hawaii.

Upgrades on Regional Flights

Certain airlines provide complimentary regional upgrades on specific flights. North America outside of the United States, northern South America, the Caribbean, and Central America are examples of regional routes.

  • Elite customers of United Airlines receive complimentary regional upgrades. Premier Platinum and 1K members, on the other hand, can use their PlusPoints to confirm upgrades on select United and Copa flights operating in specific regions.
  • Executive Platinum elite customers of American Airlines receive complimentary regional upgrades. To acquire a regional upgrade, all other elite members must use 500-mile regional upgrade certificates for each 500-mile section flown.
  • Medallion elite members Delta Air Lines - receive complimentary regional upgrades, Platinum and Diamond elite members can choose regional upgrade certificates to confirm the upgrade ahead of time.
  • Alaska Airlines Elite - In order of elite rank, Alaska gives complimentary upgrades to all of its destinations.

Upgrades on International Flights

On long-haul international flights, airlines rarely provide complimentary upgrades. Elite members, on the other hand, are routinely given the opportunity to gain such improvements.

  • United Airlines - Premier 1K when achieving Premier 1K elite status, members earn six systemwide global upgrades, with further global upgrades available when reaching higher Premier Qualifying levels. These upgrades are only applicable to one-way, single-cabin upgrades.
  • Executive Platinum elite members of American Airlines can earn up to eight systemwide upgrade credits per year, which can be used on any American aircraft worldwide. These upgrades are valid for up to three flights in a single direction and can be used to upgrade from economy to business or business to first class.
  • Diamond elite members of Delta Air Lines can choose from four systemwide global upgrade certificates each year.
  • Alaska Airlines - In order of MVP elite level, all elite members receive gratis upgrades on every Alaska Airlines flight.
First Class
First Class

2. Get Upgrades Right Away When You Buy Certain Fare Class Tickets

If you purchase a high fare class ticket, you may be upgraded immediately. To be eligible, you must have elite status with the airline in most circumstances.

  • Although full fare Y and B class tickets do not receive an automatic upgrading on American Airlines, the higher fare class will gain priority over lower fare tickets.
  • United Airlines is an airline based in the United States. Upgrades are available for Premier members on full fare Y economy and B tickets at the time of ticketing, subject to availability. 
  • When purchasing a full fare Y class ticket on Delta Air Lines, Medallion elite members will receive an automatic upgrading.
  • 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.

3. Use Miles to Upgrade Your Flight

This is something I’ve done myself a few times.  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.
  • 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.
  • United Airlines is an airline based in the United States. 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.

How to Upgrade an Existing Reservation With Miles

  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

  • 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.
  • 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 three 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.
First Class
First Class

5. Purchase Business and First Class Fares at a Discount

It appears to be straightforward: simply purchase a reduced business or first-class ticket and you will be upgraded to a better seat.

While some discounted premium cabin tickets are less expensive than a coach (yes, this is true! ), obtaining such rates can be difficult.

Let's have a look at various ways to get reduced business and first-class tickets:

Fare alerts

Setting up fare notifications allows you to be notified when a favorable fare for your specified route or for random destinations with price reductions becomes available.>

You may set up business/first-class fare notifications on the following websites:

  • Google Flights (one of my personal favorites) — After you've completed a flight search, you can choose to follow the price of the flight.
  • Kayak.com Set up fare notifications for flights between your favorite destinations.
  • Secret Flying - Receive daily flight deals alerts
  • Mighty Travels - Subscription alerts for premium and economy fares are available for free and for a fee.
  • The Flight Deal (another personal favorite) - Receive daily flight offers via email.

Looking for Cheap Business/First Class Flights?

You can search for cheap business/first-class prices on specific sites in addition to setting up alerts:

  • Google Maps for Flights — When looking for a flight, choose business or first class, then go to the Explore Map (primary menu upper left corner) to see destination pricing all across the world.
  • ITA Matrix - Use one search to find business/first-class flights from multiple departure/destination airports.

6. Miles Upgrades on Partner Airlines

  • American Airlines is a United States-based airline. On British Airways and Iberia flights, you can use miles to upgrade, but you must purchase at least a full-price economy ticket (Y/B fare class) in order to do so.
  • Delta Air Lines is a commercial airline based in Atlanta, Georgia. Delta Medallion elite members can use their global upgrade certificates on partner airlines Air France and KLM. On some Virgin Atlantic, Air France/KLM, and Aeromexico flights, Mileage Upgrade Awards are available.
  • United Airlines - Mileage upgrades are available through United's 26 Star Alliance partners. To request a Star Alliance upgrade with miles, book your ticket, visit the reservation on United.com, and then request the upgrade as you would with a regular United reservation under redeem upgrade. On the United Airlines website, you can find more information about upgrades with Star Alliance partner airlines.
  • Alaska Airlines - Alaska Airlines has 17 airline partners at the moment. While you can earn and use points on these partner airlines, Alaska Mileage Plan frequent flyer miles cannot be used to achieve upgrades on partner airlines.

7. Use Miles to Purchase Business/First Class Award Tickets

Using frequent flyer miles to book premium award flights opens up a world of possibilities for flying in business or first class without having to worry about whether an upgrade will be available before your journey.

It's difficult to provide every airline's award ticketing information here because each has its own process for booking award flights. Just keep in mind that purchasing a business or first-class award ticket is one of the greatest methods to guarantee you'll be flying first.

8. Have a branded credit card from the airlines

The majority of airline-branded credit cards don't increase your chances of being upgraded. However, airline-branded credit cards often include additional perks such as free checked bags, expedited security screening, and priority boarding/seating.

The following airline-branded credit cards provide higher upgrade priority:

Business Class
Business Class

9. Obtain a Sponsored Upgrade

With a little help from a friend, you may get a sponsored upgrade to business or first class.

Sponsored upgrades let an elite member to use upgrade certificates to "sponsor" another traveler for an upgrade, and the elite member does not have to be traveling with the sponsored traveler.

Here's how the four featured airlines' sponsor program works:

  • American Airlines — When it comes to upgrades, American Airlines offers one of the strongest sponsorship programs. Elite members who have earned upgrade certificates can use them for any traveler, but they can also sponsor another traveler for an upgrade, and the upgrade certificate can originate from any elite member's account.
  • Delta Air Lines — There is no sponsored upgrade program with Delta. The airline offers a companion upgrade program, however, the elite member must be traveling with the individual who is requesting the upgrade.
  • Even if the elite member is not traveling with the person getting the upgrade, United Airlines - Premier elite members with Global and Regional Upgrades may use them to upgrade other travelers.
  • MVP Gold 75K members of Alaska Airlines enjoy four one-way first-class guest upgrades per year. The elite member does not require to accompany the person who is receiving the upgrade.

10. Upgrade Your Flight by Being a Traveling Companion

If you're traveling with an elite member who has companion upgrade perks, you don't need to have elite rank to get upgraded.

The main airlines handle companion upgrades in the following manner:

  • American Airlines – Companion tickets can be used by elite members who have earned system-wide, regional, or 500-mile upgrade certificates. On both paid and award tickets, companion upgrades are possible. Companions are eligible for complimentary upgrades and have the same priority as elite members.
  • Delta Air Lines is a commercial airline based in Atlanta, Georgia. Travelers who are traveling with Delta elite members on the same itinerary receive equal priority for complimentary upgrades according to on their elite membership. Delta elite members can now utilize their global/regional upgrade certificates to upgrade a travel companion on the same itinerary.
  • United Airlines is an airline based in the United States. A complimentary upgrade with the same priority as the elite member is available to one guest traveling on the same paid reservation as the Premier member. Upgrades are not automatically performed if there are more than two travelers on the same reservation as the Premier member who does not have elite membership; the member must call to split the reservations.
  • Alaska Airlines MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K elite members can request upgrades for travel companions on the same trip.

Conclusion:

Any traveler can be sponsored by an elite member who has earned upgrade credits on American Airlines, United Airlines, or Alaska Airlines. The elite member is not required to accompany the person who is receiving the upgrade. Companion upgrades are available on all four airlines for travelers on the same reservation as the elite member, although there are some limits.

How to Determine Whether Upgrade Space Is Available

Each airline has its own procedure for distributing upgrade space. Depending on whether you're buying an upgrade, utilizing earned upgrade certificates, or using miles, the process may vary.

Here's how to find out if upgrade space is available in general:

  • When looking for a flight on American Airlines, travelers with ConciergeKey/Executive Platinum status can see availability for using Systemwide Upgrade certificates. All other passengers must call ahead to see whether upgrade space is available.<
  • Delta Air Lines - The ability to look for upgrade space is now available on Delta's website.
  • United Airlines - Use United's expert mode to find flights. Sign in to your MileagePlus account and click the option to go to your profile, then search preferences to activate the expert mode. The expert mode option can be found under search preferences. It will be triggered after you check to acknowledge the considerations and save. Then, by clicking on the Details tab during your flight search, you'll be able to view the fare class you're purchasing as well as the available fare classes for that flight. Check out our comprehensive guide to finding available upgrade space on United, which includes step-by-step instructions.
  • Alaska Airlines - Search for flights on Alaskaair.com under the “search flights” section. When the flights are listed, look for the "upgrade fare type" – fares marked with an "F" in a solid blue box are upgradeable.

Expert Flyer, which requires a premium subscription, is another resource for finding upgrade space availability.

First Class
First Class

Last Thoughts

Purchasing a business/first class flight using miles, points, or cash is the easiest method to ensure you'll be seated in the front of the plane — so start there if that's essential to you.

Having elite status with an airline is the next best option to get upgraded on your flight after purchasing a business or first-class ticket. Top elites obtain exclusive upgrade coupons that may be used on foreign flights and gain complimentary upgrades.

If you have a cache of frequent flyer miles and buy a valid fare class ticket, you can try to upgrade with those miles.

If none of these solutions work out, you might be able to find elite member friends/family with companion perks who are willing to help!

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