An AirlineReporter ongoing series. Unsolicited travel advice from David.What do you get when you combine writing about airline travel since 2008, with a few decades of being a sarcastic chap? Unsolicited Travel Advice from David (the Editor-in-Chief of this dog and pony show) — that’s what! There are way too many travel-related click-bait stories out there that give you boring and questionable information from “experts.” This series will be different — I will give you entertaining, possibly less questionable information, while not caring about any sort of clicks or bait. Let me set the mood. Imagine that you and I are hanging out (before all the COVID-19 stuff ), when we have just hit upon an interesting airline/travel topic (free first class upgrade) and I am fired up and ready to spew my thoughts and opinions. When I wrap up, I am hoping that you won’t just awkwardly stare at me, but instead continue the conversation in the comments. Let’s do this…

Now, that is what I am talking about -- what I think about when I think "first class." (this is on a Etihad A380)

Now, that is what I am talking about — what I think about when I think “first class.” (this is on a Etihad A380)


This one is easy. You don’t. Conversation over.

“This is not what I was expecting,” you might be thinking to yourself. “I have heard about special tricks, some have to work, right?” Okay, okay, this wouldn’t be any fun if I didn’t at least talk about some of my favorite “tricks” that travel “experts” have given over the years. Or at least make fun of some:

  • Dress to Impress: I have seen this one for years. The idea is you dress to the nines, and the flight crew will be so impressed, that they will upgrade you for free. Right. Maybe (just maybe) this would have worked decades ago, but flying has changed. First class passengers wear everything from suits to PJs (and worse).
  • Suck Up: There are a number of valid reasons to bring a little present for your flight crew (like if you have loud kids, or you plan to act like a kid), but some passengers will try to butter the flight crew up before asking for an upgrade. It is not very genuine and I am guessing that the success rate is pretty low.
  • Be a Frequent Flier: If this is the first time you are hearing about being a frequent flier, you probably don’t deserve first class upgrades. #sorrynotsorry
  • Hope Your Seat is Broken: Seriously, I saw this given as real advice. Because if it is broken, you might get sent to first class. Heck, why not go one step further and just break your seat? Then demand to be put in first class (this is me being sarcastic — do not do that). Of course, this could all backfire and you’d end up in a back middle seat, delayed to the next flight, or permanently banned from the airline.
  • Lie: Just tell them it is your birthday (hope they don’t ask for your ID), your anniversary, or you are going on your honeymoon (make sure you have someone with you). Maybe they will upgrade you on your “special” day.
  • Be Sneaky:  Be one of the last to board or wait until the plane takes off and go find yourself an empty first class seat. Even if you ignore the fact that this is pretty much theft, the flight crew has a pretty good idea who is supposed to be in the premium seats and it is not you!

This classic first class is totally worth trying all the tricks in the book… it even has a sweet projector!

Those are all pretty worthless, but have no fear! I have 5 WAYS TO GET A FREE UPGRADE TO FIRST CLASS, that are 100%* legit. Keep reading to find out what they are (you won’t believe #4)…

*- By “100%” I mean that they are 100% real things to 100% consider and might 100% not work 100% of the time. 

5 TIPS TO GETTING A FREE UPGRADE TO FIRST CLASS (because listicles are fun and easy to read)

  1. Get Bumped: This is probably my least crappiest advice. If your flight is overbooked, an airline might offer free tickets (sometimes first class). In my younger years I actually tried to set this up a few times, but with failed results.
  2. Serve Your Country: I have probably seen more free upgrades given to those flying in uniform than any other group — always makes me smile. However, there is obviously a lot you need to do to try to make that happen (like join the military).
  3. Become an Airline Blogger: I have to admit that this has worked for me a few times. Not in a “do you know who I am, upgrade me” sort of way (that has never happened), but more in a build a brand/website for over a decade, buy an economy ticket, pitch a story involving an upgrade, be told “no” quite a bit, get one approved, write up a story, get accused of being a shill for that airline, and finally have my mom tell me that she wishes people were nicer to me in the comments. I love those opportunities, but the ROI (return on investment) is probably not there for most people.
  4. Don’t Fly Southwest: They don’t have first class, silly.
  5. Cry Your Way: This totally worked for me. No joke. Once I sat in my economy seat, I started crying like a baby and I was moved to the front of the plane — into the nose of a 747 none-the-less! Of course I was five and was crying because the jet-bridge blocked the view of my mommy waving goodbye.
Flying off into the sunset!

Flying off into the sunset!


I always find it interesting when someone ends up spending more energy/time to “work the system” than it would have taken to just pay for the upgrade. I am guessing it has more to do with the “thrill” and the “game” of it all.

With most things in life, there is not one easy magic trick to get something great for free. I really wish that there was one. Of course I might not tell you, since I want to keep it for myself!

Okay, I am done, and now I want to know what you think. Are there “tips” that I am forgetting? Have you tried any of the ones that I have listed? (I will try not to judge you). Have you been burned trying for a free upgrade to first class? Let’s start a conversation in the comments! 

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me:
Heartbreaking…Kansas City International Uses Runway for Airplane Storage

Fun read. In my 30 years of flying, I have seen the first class cabin go from being mostly empty to almost always full (prior to the pandemic). Airlines have gotten very good at monetizing those seats. Getting a free upgrade on Delta has almost gone away for even the most elite frequent flyers as they learned to price upgrades just right to fill the cabin while avoiding giving away those seats for free. I think the best free upgrade I ever got was flying from Seattle to Paris. When I boarded the flight, they just handed me a new boarding pass and said here is your new seat. As I got to the end of the jetway, I realized I had been moved to business. Very nice surprise indeed!

Hey Dave, you make a good point on how things have changed and airlines wising up that empty first class seats don’t really help the bottom line. It will be interesting when the COVID-19 stuff settles down and people will be traveling less, and businesses might realize they don’t need to fly so much — then maybe that front cabin will be a bit more open!


Here’s one for Mom… “Great article and loved the sarcasm!” SorryNotSorry!

LOL! Thanks Markus. I will be sure to let her know :). Not sure if you saw the April Fools podcast I did with my mom, but I meant to bring that up, but since it was unscripted, I forgot… oh well!


JL Johnson

David- This is ALMOST perfect. However, you totally missed the opportunity to tell me that if I open up a personal and business ChargeMart Plutonium card, and max them out a time or two over a 90 day window that I might get enough points to buy FREE a one-way first class ticket from Lampasas, TX to Fargo, ND. Never mind those annual fees are likely enough to cover the trip… Just head on over to dub dub dub my empire was built by setting unrealistic expectations and encouraging people to sign up for cards they really don”t need com

OMG! I literally have my jaw dropped that I didn’t think about that. But….

Now my wheels are spinning. Which is the Best Airline Credit Card / Mileage Plan? story could work on its own… b/c I have a few select and sarcastic thoughts about that :).



Win the lottery and buy a first class ticket. At least the second part is certain to work.

I got an upgrade once, transatlantic on LX First, the gate’s boarding pass scanner just printed a little slip saying “New Seat 1A”. Pure joy!

I never tried any “tricks”, but a previous flight was cancelled due to a storm, and I was travelling alone – often, they need just one seat, so travelling solo might increase the chance a bit.

Hey Martin,

Literally winning the lottery to have the money, or figuratively winning the seat lottery to get a free upgrade — both work :).


I was on AA OMA-LAX then on to LAS. I had nothing to do in Vegas until dinner, so I told the gate agent in Omaha that “If you need to bump anyone, look me up.”

As boarding commenced, I was paged. Instead of getting bumped, I was handed a ticket for the F cabin! Agent said, “We didn’t need you but thanks for volunteering!”

Silly me, I forgot to ask for liquor…

Returning to the Washington, DC area from Las Vegas approximately 20 years ago, those in my travel party who arrived earliest at the United departure gate were informed that our connecting flight to Denver was oversold. The airline was seeking volunteers who would 1) be routed through Chicago; 2) receive a voucher good for future travel; and 3) be upgraded to first class on the DC-10 that would take us to Chicago. We jumped at the opportunity to fly first class on the much longer connecting flight to Chicago. Members of my travel group that arrived at the gate mere moments later were too late.
It was a completely different flight experience — and the only time I’ve ever received a free upgrade.

Hey Phil,

That makes it even feel that much better when you get the upgrade and your friends don’t :).


Adeej in nz

I can say from experience that playing the honeymoon” card didn”t work on Cathay Pacific when it was my honeymoon back in 2007. Should have taken it as a sign really as the marriage didn”t work either.

Oh no! That is too bad that the upgrade didn’t work and even worse that the marriage didn’t work :(. When I first got married, I did try the “any upgrades for newly weds” for hotels, car rentals, restaurant tables, but never airlines. I will say that it still was not successful and made me feel a little too “meh”.


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