Most of us stopped playing the “airline upgrade game” a long time ago. And why shouldn’t we? Airlines demand too much money for a slightly more comfortable seat, which ultimately doesn’t feel worth the effort and expense. Finally you decided, “Enough is enough, I don’t need a lie flat seat that badly.”

But perhaps there is a better strategy. Just maybe, there are ways to get into a better seat without breaking the bank. How you ask? This would include booking certain flights, becoming a savvy bidder for first-class seats, and knowing when to ask fo the upgrade. Before you open your favorite travel app and pack your travel essentials for your next flight—read on.

Free Airline Upgrade
Fully lie-flat seat on Jet Blu Airlines

Find a Flight with Empty Seats

If you are interested in a better seat, consider selecting a less-popular flight. Generally, the more popular the flight, the less likely and expensive the upgrade. Certain flights, like the first flight of the morning, or the red-eye (overnight flight), tend to be less full.

“I watch the seat maps and wait until the end to board,” says Shawn Crowley, a college recruiter based in Washington, D.C. If there’s still an open exit row, he asks the flight attendant if he can sit in one of the premium seats without paying extra. “I’ve had it work every time the seat has shown open.” 

Of course, the definition of a “better” seat has changed over time. A decade ago, “better” would have meant a “premium” economy or business-class seat. Now, with all the seat assignment games airlines play, a better seat can mean anything that’s not a middle seat.

Learn How to Bid on an Airline Upgrade

The hours and minutes before your flight leaves are the best time to find an upgrade. That’s because empty first-class seats are worthless to an airline, which means the company will do everything it can to monetize them. Many carriers allow you to bid for a first-class seat online, but you need to know a few things before you jump in and name your price.

How do you know if your seat is eligible for a bid? After you’ve made your economy-class reservation, log in to the airline site to see if you’re eligible. Often, the airline also sends you a notification. It’s a blind auction, so you won’t see what other passengers are bidding for the same seat. You’ll get notified 24 to 72 hours before takeoff.

You can check available seats on your airline website or a site like Expertflyer. Most experts suggest that you should never bid the minimum. Instead, bid somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of the difference between the cost of your original seat and the cost of your desired seat. Rates vary based on the length of the flight. 

Then cross your fingers.

Be Cordial and Be Aware

A polite, direct appeal to a gate agent may work. But strangely, in their efforts to cash in, airlines sometimes will upgrade you even if you haven’t asked.

And sometimes an airline will upgrade you – and charge you – without notice of the additional charge. Such practices have been reported by flyers, even though they hadn’t bid on an upgrade. So be sure to double check your credit card and call the airline immediately for a refund of the upgrade charge if this happens to you.

Final Tips for Getting an Upgrade

• Be courteous to fellow passengers

When you are courteous toward other passengers on the flight it can reap positive results for you. Airline employees tend to be more accommodating to passengers who are thoughtful and friendly to others.

• Alert flight attendants to any problems

What if you experience any inconveniences, like your overhead light or seat-back T.V. is not working properly or perhaps a nearby passenger is excessively loud or rude? Try politely informing a flight attendant and asking if there are any other seat options.

Simply move to another seat

Wait until the flight reaches cruising altitude and then move to another seat. Flight attendants can’t police every seat in economy class, so if you see an empty seat within your class of service, claim it.

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