- Become a frequent flier
The easiest way to get upgraded is to become a low-level elite frequent flier with a particular airline. Many airlines give their elite fliers free upgrades or access to affordable ones. If you don’t fly 25,000 miles in a calendar year, then look into getting an airline credit card that offers perks. Some, like Delta’s SkyMiles Platinum Amex, offers 15,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQM) towards elite status. That means you would be just 10,000 miles (two roundtrip transcontinental flights) from elite status which would put you in the pool for free upgrades (when seats are available). You can also pay a fee to do an airline challenge (here’s a good post about that) offering, for example, elite status for earning 5,000 points within three months to elite members of other airlines.
- Use miles
Hopefully, you have a lot of miles. If you don’t fly a lot, you can still earn tons of miles by applying to certain credit cards and using them for shopping, buying flowers, clothes, etc. Some offer up to 50,000 bonus miles for signing up, which is good enough for a domestic first class ticket.
- 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. If they don’t have a lot of volunteers then it’s a good time to ask them to sweeten the deal—like also throw in first class on the next flight.
- 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.
- Travel alone
With first class being so full these days your best chances for getting upgraded come with 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.
- Buy an upgrade
Sometimes airlines will sell heavily discounted upgrades at the last minute. Normally a seat in first class for a transcontinental flight will be a few thousand dollars, but if you are flying at an off-peak business time there might be some empty seats so the airlines will sell upgrades for just a few hundred dollars.
- Book with a travel agent
Good travel agents are routinely allotted a certain number of upgrades. This will not come free but if you book frequently via an agent they should be able get you up front.
- Be nice and dress well
Be genuinely nice to everyone you 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. Oh and it doesn’t hurt to dress well. No matter how nice you are, they aren’t going to upgrade you if you’re dressed like a slob or have swear words written across your shirt.
- Bring a box of chocolates
Bring two boxes of chocolates when you fly—one for the gate agents and the other for the flight attendants. Even if you don’t get upgraded, I bet they will give you first class service.