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The Best Way to Upgrade to Business Class: 4 Tried and Tested Tips

A happy couple holding hands while walking in an airport.

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Getting an upgrade to business class is one of the most popular perks for frequent flyers. Business class seats are wider, the legroom is better, you get free drinks and premium food offerings, and other cushy perks like lie-flat seats on international flights.

I’m usually an airline-free agent who always tries to find the cheapest flights possible. But I also have personal experience with flying business class. I once got a surprise upgrade to business class, entirely by accident, along with my entire family on an international flight to Germany on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. That undeserved upgrade to business class was the greatest airline experience I’ve ever had, and I think about it every day. I’ve been considering joining a frequent flyer program just so I can have a chance of getting into business class again.

But even though I don’t get an upgrade to business class very often, I have spent a lot of time researching airline rules and interviewing travel experts and frequent flyers. They taught me the following expert tips on how to get an upgrade to business class.

1. Get elite status with airlines

If you want to get the best chance of a free upgrade to business class, you should do what it takes to get elite status with an airline (or multiple airlines). Getting elite airline status can help put you at the front of the line for a business class upgrade whenever seats are available.

The airlines all have different names for their elite status programs, but here are a few, along with their tiers:

United Airlines MileagePlus® Premier® Status

  • Premier Silver®
  • Premier Gold®
  • Premier Platinum®
  • Premier® 1K

American Airlines AAdvantage®

  • AAdvantage® Gold®
  • AAdvantage® Platinum®
  • AAdvantage® Platinum Pro®
  • AAdvantage® Executive Platinum®

Delta Air Lines SkyMiles®

  • Silver Medallion
  • Gold Medallion
  • Platinum Medallion
  • Diamond Medallion

How to get elite airline status: Different airlines have a few different rules. But in general, you gain elite airline status by flying (going on flights to earn frequent flyer miles) and buying (earning loyalty points by purchasing tickets from the airline, and/or using airline credit cards to earn bonus miles and other travel rewards). The more you fly and buy, the faster you can climb the status ladder — and earn more business class upgrades.

Want to get a head start on elite airline status? Consider signing up for an airline credit card to start racking up frequent flyer miles (and status points) fast.

2. Use frequent flyer miles and points

Once you have your favorite airline’s credit card in hand, it’s time to start earning frequent flyer miles. The more miles you have, the better your chances of upgrading to business class, even if you don’t have elite status.

Airlines often have special deals before your flight, where you can buy an economy class seat, and upgrade to business class using miles. (This is also sometimes possible with reward points from travel reward credit cards.) Keep checking your email and refreshing your airline app to see if the price of an upgrade goes down before your flight date. Even if a business class upgrade costs too many miles or points on the day you book your flight, the airline might offer a better deal as the departure date gets closer.

3. Choose unpopular flights

Getting a business class upgrade is just like finding cheap flights: your chances are better when there are empty seats on the plane. Try to choose flights that are less popular (less expensive).

If you choose a flight with early morning takeoff or late night arrival, or that requires you to travel on a holiday, that means fewer people are trying to book tickets. And you’ll boost your odds of getting into business class.

You can also search for cheap business class tickets, so you can see the going rate for full-price business class seats. The less people are willing to pay for those seats, the more likely you can get upgrades for free.

4. Volunteer to give up your seat on overbooked flights

Airlines are seeing strong demand for air travel, and that means flights are more likely to get overbooked. If you’re on a full flight, airline gate staff will make an announcement asking passengers to volunteer to give up their seats in exchange for travel vouchers.

These vouchers can often be used for business class upgrades. Depending on the situation and your travel plans, you might even get a free night in a hotel, free meals, and other perks to thank you for volunteering. But don’t respond to the first announcement; if no one volunteers right away, airlines will often sweeten the deal. Make them work for it!

Bottom line: Business class upgrades are not guaranteed, except for the highest-spending frequent flyers. But these tips can help you boost your chances. Try to get elite status so you’re a VIP customer with your airline. Look for opportunities to cash in your frequent flyer miles for good deals on upgrades. Be quick (but not too quick) to volunteer to give up your seat on a fully booked flight. Keep in mind that airlines are always going to have more empty seats in business class on the emptiest, least-popular, least-convenient flights. Better legroom awaits!

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The Ascent does not cover all offers on the market. Editorial content from The Ascent is separate from The Motley Fool editorial content and is created by a different analyst team.The Motley Fool recommends Delta Air Lines. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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