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Robert Schrader in Business Class

The Sad Truth About Flight Upgrades

People always want something for nothing—and travelers are no different. One particular area where many travelers want more than they paid for is flights, specifically the ability to sit in first or business class when they’ve only purchased cheap tickets in economy class. While social media, travel blogs, and even popular culture might lead you to believe that free flight upgrades are easy to get, this is mostly a myth.

The Cost of Flying Up Front

In order to understand why airlines these days are reticent to offer free upgrades to premium class, you need to understand the economics involved. Business- and first-class fares are several times more expensive than economy-class ones—in the cheapest case.

A search for a round-trip ticket from Chicago to Tokyo for travel in May 2016, for example, yields an economy-class fare of $992, a business-class fare of $2,814, and a first-class fare of $9,336, around the price of a mildly-used automobile. Oprah can afford to give cars away, but airlines certainly can’t.

International vs. Domestic Upgrades

Differences in price between premium and economy class are less severe on domestic flights than international ones. You can fly first-class from Los Angeles to Austin, for example, under $300 one-way most days, as compared to around $150 round-trip.

Of course, the difference between sitting up front and in the back on domestic flights often amounts to nothing more than a larger seat, as opposed to the lie-flat bed, fine wines and other amenities you often receiving flying premium class internationally. So while it might be easier to score a free upgrade while flying within the U.S., your experience will almost certainly be second-class.

Priority, Privilege and Paid Upgrades

Another reason it’s increasingly unlikely that you’ll get upgraded for free is that airlines offer a bevy of upgrade options, paid an unpaid. Almost all airlines allow customers to purchase upgrades with frequent flyer miles, money or a combination thereof, and while these often amount to a substantial discount as compared to full fare, they are far from a free ride.

In the rare event that an airline does give free upgrades (usually in the form of an “operational upgrade,” which results from economy class being severely overbooked), it does so according to the priority of the flyer. How airlines prioritize flyers varies, but it almost always relates to the elite status, purchased fare class and other concrete, quantifiable metrics.

Can You Just Ask for a Flight Upgrade?

In a word, no. Even if you ignore the fact that the protocols described above deplete upgrade inventory in 99.9% of cases, the idea that you can simply smile sweetly or dress nicely and receive an upgrade is the biggest myth of all. In reality, asking for an upgrade will do little more than annoy airline staff, or even worse, make you look like a freeloader.

Indeed, the only surefire way to get upgraded on your next flight is to pay for it. Or, barring that, check out some of my tips on how to make flying in economy class a less miserable experience.

About The Author

is the author of 1120 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


informs, inspires, entertains and empowers travelers like you. My name is Robert and I'm happy you're here!


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