Flying first class may seem like a dream come true, but few of us are willing to pay the price for a little added legroom and a few luxuries. There are ways to get upgraded to first class without paying a penny, however, but you will have to be willing to do a little work to get one.
However, what you may not know is that many of those people in first class snagged their seats for less money than you paid for your ticket in economy. In fact, there are many ways—some obvious, several not—to fly first class without paying for it, and here are a few of the best:
Dress the part. If you hope to get upgraded to first class, then you need to look like a first class passenger. Whether you like it or not, an old T-shirt and ragged jeans just isn't going to cut it. No respectable airline wants its first class section to be filled with undesirable passengers that can't be bothered to dress in an appropriate manner. It may not be necessary to dress in your Sunday best, but using a little care in selecting clothing will reflect well on you. Use your manners. As the old saying goes, "You will get more bees with honey than with vinegar." Being polite and courteous will go a long way to improving your chances of getting upgraded to first class. Think about it - would you reward a rude and disrespectful customer if it were up to you?
The best way to get all the free first-class flights your little heart desires is to earn elite status on your airline of choice. Many airlines offer complimentary domestic, space-available upgrades to all levels of elite fliers. Once you hit 25,000 elite miles earned within a calendar year through flights, you start at the lowest level of elite status and work your way up at 50,000/75,000/100,000/125,000 levels depending on the airline. The higher the level of your elite status, the more likely you are to get an upgrade. This means you can buy a dirt cheap economy ticket and end up with a first class seat. As a Delta Diamond, this happens to me more often than not and I even get upgraded 6 days before most of my flights! If you're thinking "I don't fly enough to get elite status," you're missing the boat. Almost every airline has a co-branded credit card that allows you to earn elite qualifying miles. And fear not. Even if you're upgraded, airlines treat you just like a paid first class passenger. In fact, flight attendants usually have no idea who is paid and who is upgraded. So don't think airline status is exclusive - anyone can get it if you are savvy enough!
Become familiar with the staff. If you fly the same airline regularly, getting to know the staff will increase your chances of getting any upgrades that are available. Be friendly and respectful to all staff members. All it takes is one nasty comment for your chances of an upgrade to take a nosedive.
Fly at unusual hours that are less likely to be filled. This may mean being willing to fly at night or on the weekend. Most business flights are booked during the weekdays. The more seats available in first class, the more likely you are to snag one.
Get bumped. Be ready and willing to be bumped to a later flight if the flight is overbooked. Chances are you will get an upgrade to first class for your willingness to be bumped to the next flight.
I've been on several packed flights where passengers had broken economy seats and were reassigned to business or first since they were the only seats left. This is luck of the draw, though. Don't break your seat!
Fly alone. You are much more likely to get upgraded if you fly alone than if you are with a group. There simply may not be accommodations for a group, but there is usually room for one.
Get listed as SFU (Suitable For Upgrade) or CIP (Commercially Important Passenger) by the travel agent. Let the agent know who you are and why you are important. You don't have to brag here, just be honest while being creative. Tell them what you do and why you are traveling. You may be more important than you think you are.
Bring a doctor's note if you have an injury or disability that requires a little more legroom. Although it's not a guarantee to getting an upgrade, it can't hurt.
Buy An Upgrade: An empty seat in first class is lost revenue to an airline. Many will sell deeply discounted upgrades up until departure. Call the airline after you book your flight to check the cost and inquire when you check in at the airport - it may be a lot less expensive than you expected.