The Best Time to Ask for a Flight Upgrade, According to Flight Attendants

Here's how to score a paid upgrade, according to two former flight attendants.

Upgrades to business or first class are extremely coveted, especially on long-haul flights. And that's why they're, predictably, so hard to come by. So, can you simply ask for one and get it for free? No, not really — not even if it's your honeymoon. But in some cases, you may be able to ask to pay for an upgrade, which you can do from booking till boarding.

Airplane seat in first class cabin

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On almost every flight, the passengers who get upgrades are either the ones who pay for them (whether in dollars or miles) in advance or frequent fliers with elite status who receive complimentary upgrades as part of their perks. There are very few exceptions, so don't expect to score a free upgrade by just asking.

"Through the years I heard stories from people about how they got upgraded to business or first class based on their looks or how they were dressed. This simply never happened at the major airline where I worked," Susan Fogwell, a former flight attendant of 22 years, told Travel + Leisure. "If a flight attendant moved a passenger from one class to another, the flight attendant would not have a job for long. The difference in price is in the thousands, depending on the route. There is also a team of flight attendants on board who would be aware of the 'free upgrade.' So when someone tells a story about a so-called free upgrade, take it with a grain of salt."

But if you're looking to buy an upgrade with miles or cash, you should do so as early in the process as possible. Start by contacting your airline after booking to see if there are any paid upgrades available. If you're out of luck there, you can try again at the check-in desk. 

If it's another no, you still have a chance. On some flights, passengers who booked a business or first-class seat won't make it on board, whether they miss their connection or cancel at the last minute. You can chat with the gate agent just before boarding begins to see if a paid upgrade might be possible.

View of back of gate agent checking in two passengers

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But if that's also a no-go, then you have one last option. "You should ask the lead flight attendant or the flight attendant at the boarding door," said Bobby Laurie, a travel expert and former American Airlines flight attendant. "You should ask prior to door closure, but don't be surprised if they don't move you until after you're in the air if they're going to grant your request."

Fogwell added that you're more likely to score a (paid) upgrade to an economy-plus seat than you are to first or business class. "While sitting in a cramped middle seat or squeezed in at a window seat, a passenger observes an empty economy plus seat and will ask if they can change seats," she said. "Standard procedure is to wait until the door closes to see if everybody shows up for the flight. If the seat is available, the passenger pays for the upgrade on the flight."

So while you shouldn't expect a free upgrade on a flight, you can still ask for upgrades from booking till boarding — and you may be able to pay your way to a much more comfortable seat.

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