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Back in 2021, Travel & Leisure posted the most ridiculous article I’d seen in a long time on Instagram. Their caption read, “Sometimes getting an upgrade isn’t about the right timing or knowing the right people. Sometimes, it’s all about having the right outfit. Find out what to wear to increase your chances of an upgrade, according to flight attendants, at the link in bio.” The post got slammed badly in the comments.

I would have thought they’d pull the article after the backlash to the blatantly bad advice, but the story is still circulating and was shared again just last week.

When it was first published, here’s what one of the hundreds of commenters had to say:

@alyssabsnapp: I’m a flight attendant and this article could not be more wrong or outdated. Delete

Listen, T+L is trying to make affiliate money by selling clothing but giving readers such terribly false information to do so is just wrong. You’re just not going to get upgraded based on your outfit. End of story.

It’s true that you can get downgraded (aka removed from a flight) for what you wear or don’t wear. Usually, customers get booted for not wearing enough clothes, or wearing something that has profanity or is encouraging harm. You can also get kicked off a flight for being too smelly so don’t forget to shower, wear deodorant and clean underwear.

To T+L’s credit, in the old days, by which I sadly mean before the year 2000, you could potentially get upgraded for dressing well, being nice or flashing a travel agent card. But with the implementation of computer systems, airline executives are able to track and hold all employees accountable for everything. So agents have much less flexibility to upgrade passengers randomly. In fact, most upgrades are determined by an algorithm that assigns upgrades with no one ever laying eyes on the passenger … or what they’re wearing. RELATED: Do You Have ‘Econophobia’?

Now, if you want to make a left turn when you step aboard a plane, here are my tips for flying first class:

1. Sometimes first-class tickets are cheaper than economy
What many consumers don’t realize is that sometimes buying a first class or business class ticket can be cheaper than a coach ticket. Always double check the prices (cash and mileage tickets) and don’t forget to look at Premium Economy as well. See screenshot above.

Even if it’s not cheaper, sometimes airlines charge just a little bit more so it might be worth it to spend the extra money, especially if you factor in the cost of checking bags, buying food/drink and assigning yourself a decent seat if you have an economy class ticket.

2. Become a frequent flier
The easiest way to get upgraded for free is to become an elite frequent flier with one particular airline. Many airlines give their elite fliers free upgrades (see screenshot of email from AA above) or access to affordable ones. These days, there are so many frequent fliers you really need to have more than entry way status.

3. Use miles and points

If you don’t fly a lot, you can still earn tons of miles by applying for certain credit cards and using them for first class tickets. Some offer sign-up bonuses of up to 100,000 bonus miles, which is good enough for a lie-flat seat on many airlines. The key is to make sure you pay off your credit card bills each month. If you can’t do that, then don’t get a travel rewards credit card. RELATED: Here’s how to fly first class for cheap between Los Angeles in New York.

4. Buy an upgrade
Sometimes airlines will sell heavily discounted upgrades so always look when booking or checking in online. It doesn’t hurt to ask a reservations agent, check-in agent or gate agent. Normally a seat in first class for a transatlantic flight will be a few thousand dollars, but if you are flying at an off-peak time, they might sell an upgrade for as little as a hundred dollars.


5. Travel during off-peak times
The key to getting upgraded is to fly when the frequent flier business travelers aren’t. You can forget about getting upgraded during peak business hours during the week since they usually have those seats reserved. But I always have good luck flying on Saturdays, when most business travelers are home with their families.

6. Travel alone
With first class being so full most days, your best chance of getting upgraded is by traveling alone or just trying to get one seat up front. Good luck getting your whole family or even your travel companion a seat with you.

7. Get bumped

If you know the flight is going to be full and you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination, then ask the gate agent if they are looking for volunteers to be bumped. Airlines sometimes oversell seats betting that there will be no-shows, and so when everyone shows up and there aren’t enough seats, they offer compensation to those who are flexible and willing to get a different flight.

Be sure to only take cash vouchers and not free tickets since the latter are heavily restricted and you won’t earn miles for using them. I will usually give up my seat for $500 but I always make sure I have a guaranteed seat on the next flight, which is hopefully within a couple of hours. If they don’t have a lot of volunteers, then it’s a good time to ask them to sweeten the deal—like to also throw in first class on the next flight. Delta did just that once when I was bumped (here’s that story). 

8. Book with a travel agent
Good travel agents, or advisors, as they like to be called, (especially in the Virtuoso consortium), are routinely allotted a certain number of upgrades. This will not come free but if you book frequently via an agent, they may be able get you up front for much cheaper than on your own.

9. Date a flight attendant or pilot

One of the best ways to fly first class for cheap is to date a flight attendant, pilot or airline executive. There used to be an old saying in the flight crew world: “Marry me, fly for free!” You will have to fly standby and won’t board until the last minute but if you plan it right, you can be traveling the world in style. FYI: The photo above was taken in 2003 by my brother. That’s me and my old girlfriend (Amber Airplane), a former United flight attendant. That morning, we checked flight loads to fly Los Angeles to Sydney and first class was wide open. We flew in $14,500 seats for about $120 (taxes).

10. Be nice
My number one travel tip is that passengers should always be genuinely nice to everyone they come across—from the reservation agents to the flight attendants and everyone in between. You will be surprised how far a big smile and just being genuinely friendly will go.

I almost always bring three bags of chocolates when I fly—one for the gate agents, one for the flight attendants and one for me. I never ask for an upgrade, I do it because I know how difficult passengers can be and most passengers treat them like crap. You probably won’t get upgraded but I bet they will give you first class service.

So there you have it. These are my 10 tricks and tips for getting upgraded to first or business class. And if you have no shot at getting upgraded on your flight, then here are my tips for getting the best coach seat on an airplane and how to make your coach seat feel like first class.

Did I miss anything? What’s your best tip or trick for getting upgraded?


How to Save Money With a Secret Third Carry-On
How to Use Your Wireless Headphones to Watch In-Flight Movies
10 Airport Security Hacks Every Traveler Should Know
How to Get the Best Coach Seat on the Plane
The Sleep Hack Every Traveler Needs to Know
Never Get Your Valuables Stolen on the Beach

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60 Comments On "Sorry, Travel + Leisure, You've Got It Wrong: Here's How You Can Really Get Upgraded to First Class"
  1. Steven Michael Erickson|

    I’ll be trying some of these techniques on my trip to Italy at Christmas time (especially the box of chocolates). I’d dress well but I’d prefer to sit comfortably than look nice. I’ll usually wear loose clothing which is a lot more comfortable than a pair of jeans or dress slacks. Any tips on comfortable but nice looking apparel?

    1. Anonymous|

      Dress well and carry comfortable clothes in your carry on. You can change if you don’t get upgraded.

  2. Nancy Reid|

    Happy to say that me and the hubs have cashed in on a couple of these techniques! We volunteer to get bumped and ask for first class seating arrangement on subsequent flight! We have been picked out of the crowd because we were dressed nice! I’m going to start bringing that box of chocolates you always talk about and see what it does for us! LOL

  3. Jeremy Foster|

    Bring a box of chocolates! That is brilliant, mate. I really don’t envy the job of a flight attendant and, since I also work in hospitality, I know what sort of an impact small gestures like that can have. I’m jumping on board with that piece of advice next time I fly! Good one!

  4. Hampton|

    Dress smart and usually Air France will upgrade you as will BA if there is room.
    Emirates bus superb. Soon to be like old Pan Am all they need for rtw is syd-lax-jfk

  5. Anonymous|

    #8 and #9 really? Going to unsubscribe from your newsletter just for writing those. That’s upgrade folklore and you should know better.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      You’re missing out with that attitude.

      1. Taxi|

        I appreciate your advice. The guy with the ‘attitude’ sounds like an angry jealous person. Let him gladly unsubscribe, as you don’t need negative comments when you’re just trying to be helpful… and a response isn’t even warranted towards that person.

    2. Flygirl44|

      Apparently you’ve never worked in aviation….and if you wanted your opinion shared, why be anonymous?

  6. Anonymous|

    He’s a loser? He may not agree but that doesn’t make him a loser. Do only non losers fly in first class and that’s why he should fly in coach? Very inappropriate reply.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Totally agree and deleted the comment.

  7. Bryant|

    Hi J.J.,

    Back in the old days I was a Gate Agent at Delta, but then again, the rules were different wau bacl then. But what you said about dressing well applys, the Chocolate thing I have to try…. (although nobody gave me anything as a Gate Agent to tell the truth). Anyway, Credit Card Churning for travel in C or F is the way to go!

    Bryant (the Airline T-Shirt Guy)

  8. Maja Gartmann|

    Sorry, the good old times are over! Practically nobody upgrades you these days anymore, let’s face it , it’;s a Business, just buy a Business Class Ticket or an upgrade Period

  9. Susan Wright|

    We were bumped up on Aer Lingus this summer. We had paid the 50.00 for the extra legroom. Perhaps there was a connection? We were dressed well.

  10. Anonymous|

    This is the kind of article I want to read to the final. Thxs! I travel easily 4-8 times a year, most of the time to between Costa Rica and Canada…so I’ll try to put that in action! ;)

  11. Alison|

    Excellent tips! I have successfully been bumped up to first class twice but am always trying to figure out how to make it happen. Sometimes its just luck of the draw but I will definitely be giving your tips a try.

  12. Matt|

    10. Use Flight Alerts to notify you when upgrade inventory becomes available on your flight.

  13. Mark West|

    Tip 8 worked for me! I was flying out of Heathrow to LA in the middle of a walkout by the counter workers for BA. I waited in a line patiently for 45 minutes and a very harrassed lady at the counter cringed and said: “please don’t hit me!” I asked her why in the world she thought that I would do that and she told me that I was already checked in & could have avoided the line. I told her that if I was going to hit someone, it would have been me. She replied that she wished all the other customers had that attitude. When I got to the gate I was paged immediately and offered an upgrade to Business Class from my Coach seat if I “wouldn’t mind climbing the circular stairs into the upstairs lounge”. This began my love of BA’s Business Class. It pays to be nice!

    1. Bryant|

      Well said, Been there, done that both sides of the counter…


      There are three people in the world you don’t want to make mad: Judges, Police Officers, and Airline Gate Agents.

  14. SamaraZ|

    My husband ( a pilot for SWA) and I always carry bags of M&Ms for the flight attendants and Starbucks gift cards. We often offer a coffee or other refreshment run for the gate agents especially if they are dealing with customer issues like an oversold situation or weather delays. If they decline we give them a gift card to Starbucks for after the storm. May not get us a seat but makes the wait more pleasant for everyone. Getting into business or first class is such a treat, but even if we only get coach we are still getting there and it makes us happy to brighten someones day.

  15. SamaraZ|

    Ps: dressing like you are going to fly first class does help.. just saying….

  16. David Light|

    Maybe I am just no lucky…I have tried almost all(not the chocolate one) and have never received an upgrade(even have flown in military uniform). I am getting ready to fly a whirlwind of 45K miles begining this weekend for the next 4 weeks on United. Time will tell.

    For Johnny Jet, how does one get access to the Airport Lounges?

    1. Johnny Jet|
      1. Richard Greaves|

        Not found, error 404

        1. Johnny Jet|
  17. Adriana Maramo|

    No. 8 is important in case of overbooking. When that upgrade is the ground staff’s decision, being dressed well is what matters most. The other first class passengers aren’t supposed to notice anything strange.

    1. Bryant|

      Exactly, I know the drill from both sides. ExGateAgt.

  18. andy j|

    I booked my flight to Toronto from dublin via LHR in premium economy with British Airways, I had chosen to pay for my seat; Upon arrival in LHR i was pleasantly surprised to find i was bumped up to business class. Never been upgraded in 13 years of regular travel and could never afford business class. Boy did that free champagne and 3 course meal taste good! Was like a little kid and my phobia of flying went out the window for sure! The only thing i could think of was that i was a blue Executive club member and the fact that i paid for my seat could have helped me get this unexpected treat!

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Lucky you!!

  19. Ken Peterson|

    My entire family of three got a first class upgrade when our flight was canceled because of snow from Boston to West Coast at Christmastime. When I called to rebook I asked the phone agent online if we would “share the pain”. He said unfortunately it was weather and therefore they wouldn’t share the pain. But I’ll bet most people who called him weren’t that nice. when we showed up at the airport two days laterhe had upgraded us to first class. without us asking

  20. Theresa Caruso|

    I remember the first time I got “bumped” and they gave me first class tickets. All I could think was “Why wouldn’t a flier want this??” From then on I gave myself an extra day to get home after every vacation. Flights are always packed and you never know.

  21. Joe Aro|

    No longer the warrior of the skies I once was, but back then I found that ‘nice’ and well dressed got me much, much more than I paid for.

  22. WJ|

    Really # 8 and #9 perhaps you are stretching for content for your blog

  23. annie cooper|

    Ummmm. #8
    and #9. Definitely can work under the right circumstances. I know this for sure because I have been a flight attendant for a very long time. When given the chance to involuntarily upgrade, I pick military first and then the folks I remember who were nice and looked nice during boarding. Someone bringing us a box of chocolates, would certainly go to the top of the list. Granted, the opportunity is not always there to upgrade, but it definitely is there some of the time. Fly safe.

  24. Anonymous|

    I was booked standby on a flight (mind you, I had paid full price for the ticket- don’t know what happened) and I off-handedly mentioned that perhaps I could be placed in first class at the check-in counter. I got to the gate agent first to ask a question and then asked about my seat on the flight and I had been put in first class! I was dressed quite nicely, so that may have had something to do with it. I will definitely remember these tips next time I fly.

    1. Bryant|

      I was a Gate Agent for Delta (back in the dark ages) when FC didn’t fill up with Frequent Flyers. My advise is to throw out the M&M’s Packets to the agent(s) and thank them for their service and walk away. And yes, dressing very professional helps too. Also, if the flight is full, and you volunteer to be bumped, sometimes even if you don’t get bumped they will put you in FC if the Y cabin is full and F is not……

  25. Moshe|

    We spend around 10k a month on our card (Amex plat ) I’m really just looking for a card that will make it easy to upgrade to first class from coach on long trips internationally , what would you suggest, ?amex is terrible in that department, making it almost more feesable to buy the first class ticket with cash.

  26. Tracey|

    I’m going to sound like a snob but trust me-I’m just average. Nothing irks me more than sloppy dressed, loud passengers who pay for the last minute upgrade to first class. No one wants to hear your belches or fart or see you pick your nose and scratch your butt. Even economy doesn’t deserve that!!! To make up for it, my 14 year old son and I always dress well and bring treats for the attendants (usually Canadian chocolate or maple candies). I work hard to pay for my seats and like being treated extra well.

    1. WC|

      That will not work in my humble opinion!

      My point here is that Delta actually have a policy to put their staff and direct family’s free trip ahead of their loyal customers, both my wife and are platinum medallion for a couple of years and expect to increase our odd to upgrade in B-class in international flights, but I found the fact and confirmed by friends who worked for Delta that their direct family members have unlimited privilege to upgrade B-class seats, usually with their insider information and connections, they will have much much better changes to upgrade by us even with K and higher class tickets (which we paid hundreds dollars).
      So my conclusion is to use other airlines especially in international flights, in Asia use Singapore Airline or Eva airline and Middle East to use Emerates.
      You all still remember Delta’s old logo “We love to fly and it shows” …no more and Yuk!

      1. ValerieC|

        For Delta and most US FF carrier programs, ‘unlimited’ upgrades are limited to domestic routes only (with a few exceptions such as JFKLAX where they are expressly excluded). There is no formal upgrade program for FFs on international itineraries which is why airline staff/families are put ahead of you. Carriers will also fly with empty seats in first/business. This is the perfect example of where Johnny’s tips would come in handy.

  27. Aaliyah|

    I’m traveling with my one year old daughter from ORD to ECP. I am not a Skymiles member with Delta but I so wish they would upgrade me since I’ll have to nurse her if she gets fussy and I know they’re won’t be any room! She’s generally pretty happy but I feel bad for anyone who has to sit next to us if she’s hyper. Wonder if that would work in my favor? Probably not :(

    1. Gigi R.|

      No airline will go out of their way to put someone with a lap child in a first class seat, so that’s going to work against you. The best you can do is be really, really nice and ask the gate agent if he/she can put you in a seat with no one next to you, in order to give you a little more room. Don’t play the “I’m nursing” card because they may be on high alert, legally, to tell you exactly what their policy is on that and nothing more. Just be nice and don’t ask for more than you know they can give you. Same other rules apply. Dress nicely, use your best manners.

      1. Rachel|

        What, exactly, is the “legal” position on breastfeeding on an airplane? My guess is that it can’t be any different than breastfeeding NOT on an airplane. Which, by the way, is that it is legal for a woman to breastfeed anywhere the woman is legally allowed to be.

  28. Priscilla|

    Unlike the awesome Euro brands, United does not arbitrarily upgrade anyone. There is a list, a complicated list that factors in how much you paid for your ticket and your frequent flyer status and ranks you. Since the merger the upgrades have been reduced because there are so damn many people on the list. I dress well, am nice but it won’t get me anything but #whatever I am on the list. It’s impartial, but not always fair. International upgrades on United are only happening on an upside down flight – where economy is way oversold and Business/First is way undersold. Basically that never happens on United. They let the seats go empty on International flights rather than upgrade loyal customers.
    My solution? I purchase my seats in Business Class or use miles to upgrade for International travel and for domestic, I am switching more and more travel to Southwest who doesn’t nickel and dime me to death. There may not be a lounge or first class with Southwest, but more and more the price is right and the attitude keeps me feeling appreciated.

  29. MizFit|

    Do airline staff really take candy from strangers?

  30. lijaan|

    I have travelled to and from the USA with my husband and 2 children every year since they were babies. They are now 16 and 14 and extremely well behaved and seasoned flyers. I would love to try and get an upgrade even just to premium economy as my 16 year old is 6ft 2 and could do with extra leg room. Any tips for this or is it usually a no no for kids, also I have being paying adult fare for both of my children since they were 12.

  31. Hermes|

    Great post! Do these tips work less well with lower cost (I don’t mean low-cost) airlines? And for trans-Pacific flights? I can’ see it working on the airlines I fly – e.g. Southern China Air Guangzhou to Vancouver.

    And what I would really, really, really like to find is airlines with underbooked flights. In 1991+- I used to fly Koren Air back and forth and typically just went to the back, lifted up the armrests and slept in five seats!

  32. Dan McCann|

    I am traveling to the Philippines on the 26 of this month. Chicago to Seoul to Manila. My 4th trip.On Korean Air.I have a 15 hour stopover/layover going and 17 hour on return flight. I have researched how to take AREX to Seoul Station.Looks doable.Also when an how is the best time give flight crew a card and cookies or chocolate? As you aboard or later? Leaving it in food area seems not a good idea with the security issues. Your articles and ideas have inspired me.Thanks for the ideas you write about. Dan McCann. Columbus Ohio

  33. Jeffrey Mastin|

    Bring a wedding dress and ask the attendant if they could possibly hang it up.
    My wife and I married on West coast, going to second reception in New England wanted to keep the dress in good shape. We were surprised that 3 out of 4 legs they put us in first.
    No we don’t travel with one since then but….tempting

  34. Anonymous|

    You should know that (at least on United) most of these would not work. UA has a very clear set of guidelines for upgrading. You can show up in a tuxedo carrying multiple boxes of chocolate with a ticket booked by a travel agent (my travel agent tells me that I know much more about upgrading than she does). And I can come dressed as usual in running pants with no chocolate on a ticket that I booked myself. And we can both have booked in the same fare class. I will get upgraded well before you since I have 1K status and 2 million mile status with upgrade certificates (only avaialble to 1Ks and Global Service flyers) on United and you will be just a regular passenger. Any FA or GA who puts you ahead of me will be fired since there is a firm (published) set of rules for upgrading. My upgrade certificate and my status puts me at the top of the pecking order for upgrades and your lack of status puts you at the bottom. An FA or GA who violates this pecking order is subject to dismissal. But generally this won’t happen since the upgrade list is handled automatically and even UA execs don’t have access to violating the pecking order (as I have been told by more than one of them). The pecking order is: (1) status of passenger; (2) instrument used to upgrade (a cert beats miles); (3) the price and the class of the ticket (if you don’t have at least a W fare on an internatonal route, you can’t be upgraded); and (4) when the upgrade request was made. No FA or GA is willing to risk dismissal because you look nice, talk nice, or offer chocolates.

  35. Linda L|

    I started following Johnny’s suggestion of giving chocolates (Jelly belly’s work well too) and it has made a difference in how I’m treated. I can’t think of a time I was bumped to the front of the plane though I’ve gotten a free drink or two. It feels nice to see someone genuinely smile at being surprised with a little treat.

  36. Howard|

    Just read this thread for the first time and I’ve been working most of these tips for a while. I tend to get upgraded to FC about twice a month and C+ 2-3 times. The FF status is the biggest reason but volunteering for a bump goes a long way but just being nice is so much more of a reason. Great tips, the only one I fail at is dressing for first class, jeans and a tee are my comfort clothes.

  37. tgt|

    Back in the 80’s, flying back-forth between Asia and the US, it was required for men to wear a suit and tie in Business/First Class. Of course, smoking was also allowed! We always buy Business Class seats these days, or use points, and we still dress nicely – though no more ties – and are always polite.

  38. VCW|

    In October 2004 my wife and I booked a ten-day trip to Germany to visit friends from university days in Berlin and Frankfurt and do a bit of family roots digging as well. We’re ‘war babies’ – born in the early 40s – and almost always wear business-casual clothing to fly. In a long line for our Lufthansa flight to Munich at O’Hare’s Terminal 1, most other passengers were dressed very casually, some as back-packers. A female LH employee approaches and asks “Vould you like to fly our all-business flight plane to Dusseldorf a bit later this afternoon? Ve’ll change your booking to connect from there, no problem.” Having no schedule to arrive in Berlin, we jumped at the offer, enjoyed a great flight, and seamlessly made connections through an uncrowded terminal. Wunderbar service, all for the price of a white shirt and blazer jacket!

    1. Johnny Jet|

      That’s amazing but I’m afraid those days are long gone for the most part

  39. Stephen|

    Whenever we fly from YYZ TO LHR and onward to Malta, Tenerife, Morocco, or Portugal with British Airways, they have consistently upgraded us from prem-econ to business on the outbound from LHR to YYZ.
    Probably just jinxed myself as we are off to Tenerife in 2 weeks via BA.

  40. Stephen|

    Correction. Should read “inbound”.

  41. biz-traveler|

    Hi –

    This on may not work anymore as the computer systems are better. When flying CO (pre- UA purchase), I saw a gold card member get an upgrade (probably a friend of the gate agent) and then inquired if a platinum member could get upgraded? Rather than admit they had upgraded a friend they upgraded me too.

    If you have time on a long haul (e.g., Houston to Sydney or NYC to Europe), wait for a senior manager to arrive — someone well dressed and not in an airline uniform. They are there because the oversold situation is serious. I asked for first class the next day; 10 minutes later they called me back and offered first class to LA and business class direct to Melbourne. Plus a $750 voucher.

    As an aside. I for many years had to travel on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I always came with chocolates. The big box. I never got upgraded but did get a lot of thanks. It was good to say that I really appreciated the staff that dealt with the insanity. A few weeks later I was in coach on the LAX to Newark flight and all my drinks were free. It was the same FA crew from the Thanksgiving Sunday trip!

  42. W Ho|

    Your wife is awesome! ??

  43. Robert J|

    I buy the flight attendants real food, not chocolates. I’ll get them burritos or something they can pick at like loaded nachos from the concessionaire near the gate. I don’t ask for, or expect anything, and yes it costs $30-50 but I’ve always had an exceptionally pleasant flight since I started doing this. There always seems to be one FA who got stuck on an extra shift and didn’t know when they were going to be able to eat that day.

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