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How to Get Upgraded to First Class: Credit Cards, Bidding, and Other Travel Hacks

Not every flight is worth the upgrade, so you must be strategic

by Lark Gould

October 19, 2022

Photo: Unsplash+ In collaboration with Getty Images

Flying First Class is a supreme pleasure of travel, regardless of the airline or route. But the service, the cabin, the comfort, and the access can differ between international and domestic routes. How one gets upgraded on a domestic flight in the U.S. will vary from the methods used on international flights. For those who want to fly with maximum comfort, here are some more assured ways of making your way into the First Class cabin.

Should You Upgrade to First Class?

Not every flight is worth the upgrade cost, whether in price, points, or practice. Many domestic flights in the U.S. and other regions do not even have a First Class compartment. For instance, at Southwest Airlines, all the seats are the same, and any elite benefits will only be observed during the boarding process. (Those who want to upgrade get to board first and have the first choice in run-of-the-plane seating).

On other two-class aircraft, the First Class seats at the front of the plane may be a bit larger and more comfortable, and service may include fast beverage attendance, warm chocolate chip cookies, and even a meal. However, the flight may be only a couple of hours—too short for anyone who cannot afford the points or cost easily. Also, the seats are often too few in number—12 to 16 seats—and are booked up quickly by elite credit card holders and airline loyalists.

How to Upgrade to First Class on International Flights

Most flyers—especially frequent flyers—choose to save points and privileges for upgrading on long-haul international flights. This can yield perks beyond the usual luxury-laden lie-flat Business Class seat.

On airlines such as Singapore Airlines can mean flying “uber-First Class” in a private suite with a double bed and reclining chair plus dedicated service. On other carriers, upgrading to First Class means enjoying the long hours in the air in a private “pod” with doors that close for privacy. The cozy set-up provides added room for sitting, reading, sleeping on a comfortable flatbed, and even dining with a friend.

Cathay Pacific’s first-class suite / Photo: Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

Get—and Use—the Right Credit Card

The top and, for many, easiest way to upgrade is to earn elite miles on co-branded airline credit cards. It’s not hard to rack up points when flying the world for meetings and business on the company dime. For many entrepreneurs, who are not on a managed travel plan, that means keeping the points. It also means being mindful of which credit cards offer the best introductory deals—often a windfall of points—and best multiples on each dollar for purchases.

Elite status credit card holders often receive a slew of added benefits, such as first boarding privileges, dedicated TSA lines, and the chance to upgrade at the gate on a first-come, first-served basis for those First Class seats that are available at the time of departure. Points accrued on one airline-branded card can be used for other airlines within an airline alliance network, such as Star Alliance, Oneworld, and SkyTeam.

The Last-Minute Upgrade Gamble

Another easy and true method to use to upgrade First Class is to buy a last-minute upgrade. Several airlines, such as American, Delta, United, and Alaska, allow passengers to purchase upgrades on the day of departure, regardless of loyalty status. These can be done at the gate or ahead of time online within their loyalty accounts.

Travel with an Elite Airline Customer

Getting sponsored by or traveling with a friend or associate in the top tiers of loyalty with an airline is another surefire way of enjoying an upgrade to First Class. Many airline programs allow their elite members to “sponsor” another traveler for an upgrade by regularly using upgrade certificates the airline offers to these members. The elite passenger does not have to be present or fly with the person getting the upgrade.

Similarly, if you are flying with an elite status member of the airline, that member can request and get a complimentary upgrade for you as their travel companion. But these are managed ahead of travel, not at the gate.

Bid for an Upgrade

If you are a member of the airline’s loyalty program, you may get a text or email as the flight approaches allowing you to bid on a First Class seat to upgrade from the seat you are holding. These opportunities, in some cases, allow you to bid with miles—although, for most, it is a cash wager.

Airlines such as Hawaiian Airlines, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Avianca, TAP Air Portugal, Aer Lingus, and Iberia have such programs. However, the process is not enacted unless the airline determines there are enough vacant seats. The bid only allows a one-class upgrade, so those who want to try for a First Class seat must already be in Business Class.

The Bottom Line

Upgrading through points and credit card brands is an entire field of study in its own right. There are plenty of opportunities to win big in a calculated move, and those opportunities are always changing. Stay alert, look for airline moves and promotions, and don’t be afraid to call the airline desks to learn of unannounced promotions.

Learn more about how to maximize frequent flyer miles in our interview with Nicky Kelvin from The Points Guy, on ReachTV’s The Business Traveler TV Show.