Don’t fall for this flight upgrade tip — How to get a first class seat

First class on Delta.

I was recently reading a popular magazine and came across a story on the easiest way to get a flight upgrade. Naturally, I was shocked with the number one tip: “Bring gifts for the cabin crew.” This is possibly the worst flight upgrade tip in the past 20 years.

If you read my flight upgrade story or watched my video on Realistic Ways to Get Upgraded to First Class, you know how I feel when travel “experts” and travel outlets advise you to bring chocolates or gifts to increase your chances of being upgraded to business or first class. I wish publications would stop perpetuating this “tip” since it is the biggest lie in travel. It simply does not work.

But before I tell you why bringing gifts and chocolates to increase your chances for a flight upgrade is misleading and inaccurate, let me go back to this magazine.

In the story, the author Allana Akhtar chose to interview two millennial flight attendants who have not been working in aviation long (one is an early-20s *reserve* flight attendant, and the other flight attendant has worked for only two years), perhaps to help promote their YouTube channels (which are linked in the story).

I have nothing against this, but I do frown upon using flight attendants who are not authorities on the subject as sources. This continues to perpetuate a flight upgrade tip that is ridiculous, wrong and misleads readers. In my 15-year travel career, I’ve met and interviewed dozens of seasoned flight attendants, who confirm it’s an outdated tip. Also, flight attendants are the lowest on the totem pole to hand out upgrades anyway, so I want to address this ubiquitous — yet unrealistic — flight upgrade tip that is getting out of hand.

Here’s the reason why bringing chocolates or gifts to the flight attendant or gate agent won’t increase your chances for an upgrade. 

We live in a world where nearly everything involving your flight is monetized, from better seats to checked baggage. Airlines will charge you for upgrades (if you’re not an elite member), the way they’ll charge you for bulkhead seats or food.

Bringing chocolates or gifts to get an upgrade may have worked in the 80s and 90s, but the rules are incredibly strict now, and upgrades are determined by algorithms. In fact, I would *love* for a passenger who has been upgraded to first class for bringing chocolates to a flight attendant in the past year to write in. Consider it a challenge! 

Jason and I are on our best behavior… or are we? 🙂

The chances of getting an upgrade before your flight

Upgrades typically happen before you board a flight. 

First, if you’re flying domestic, you’ll know that higher-status frequent fliers who are loyal to an airline will get dibs on upgrades. Even before you get to the airport, most of those first-class seats will likely be accounted for and allocated to elite members, and lower tier members will be on an upgrade standby list.

United flight first class and economy class.

If you paid for a normal ticket and don’t have status, you have very little chance of being upgraded (depending on the route and airline).

The point: elite members who spend thousands of dollars every year with an airline won’t lose their first-class seat to chocolates or gifts you bring. They are being rewarded for their loyalty with an upgrade. There’s also clearly an upgrade list on a screen, and no boarding gate agent will risk potential drama to bump you up on the list.  

On the very slim chance the flight has gone through all elite members and there are a few available seats, upgrades will then go to the person who paid the most for the airline ticket. Some airlines offer upgrades to those who put in a request for upgrades through frequent flier miles, so those passengers are also before you.

This is not conjecture; this is algorithm. This is how upgrades happen. Passengers who pay for upgrades will get priority, then elite members, then passengers who paid the highest fare. Gate agents and flight attendants have little to no power in upgrading you.

ANA 777-300ER Business Class.

Take note from the gate agent who told Business Insider: “”Different airlines have different rules, but a change or upgrade can get you fired these days. And it’s not worth our jobs. The airline computer system tracks everything, and big brother can be watching us.”

Bringing chocolate or gifts to a gate agent or flight attendant is not part of the algorithm, and they do not determine whether you get upgraded or not—the system does, and you can’t beat the system (now that’s a flight upgrade tip that is helpful).

But let’s say, hypothetically, you did bring chocolate or gifts to a gate agent on an international flight. Let’s say he/she was quitting their job anyway, has nothing to lose, and thought you were super charming. He/she needs a *very good reason* why you should get an upgrade, and this *very good reason* must go through a chain of command. Somewhere along this chain of command, a higher official will likely say “That’s not a good enough reason, you’re wasting our time,” so you’ll start from square one.

Flying business can help… use your miles to upgrade!

But let’s say that the request does go all the way to the top of the chain of command…. they’ll look at things like how much you spent on your ticket, whether you’re an alliance member, if you look crazy or not, and they’ll take in other factors to determine whether it’s worth their time to upgrade you over the dozens of other people who have likely asked for an upgrade. 

So, in theory, bringing chocolates or gifts could get you noticed, but it’s unlikely it will get you upgraded. In fact, in a recent story for Conde Nast Traveler, U.S flight attendant Kristi Horrocks says an upgrade for a gift is “unrealistic,” though she’s willing to reward the considerate. “When someone shows up with any gift or appreciation, I do the best to make them feel at ease on board in any way possible,” she said.

Getting an upgrade on the flight

Bringing gifts to the flight attendant is very considerate— but, again, it won’t get you an upgrade, and it’s the worst flight upgrade tip.

On a domestic route, if all the business- and first-class seats are already allocated for, which they will likely be before boarding due to elite passengers, how would you get an upgrade if there are no available seats?

Business class flight.

Sure, there’s a fraction of a chance there will be an open seat here or there, but honestly, when has there been an empty seat in first/ business class on a domestic flight in the past few years? They get full fast. Even if you’re flying off-peak hours, and there’s availability, chocolate and gifts are not your ticket in.

Let’s say one seat is available, and there’s no elite member who wants it. A flight attendant has to go through that long chain of command to get you that upgrade, but chocolate and gifts are the lowest of reasons to put you on the list.

If a flight attendant is caught giving you an upgrade without getting approval from the purser, she’s going to lose her job. 

The only way you get can an upgrade from a flight attendant is through the purser or head flight attendant, but again, your chances are slim. There needs to be a *very good reason* like a mechanical problem in your seat (which is called an operational upgrade) that can get you upgraded to first class— but only if economy is booked up. 

Upgrades to business and first class are a little different for international flights, and again, bringing chocolates or gifts could get you on the list, but the purser has to consider many things: how many seats are available? Are there elite members waiting for that last-minute upgrade? Are there enough meals provided (it’s illegal to fly a plane where not all meals are provided for premium passengers)? Other than bringing chocolates or gifts, do you have an actual, good reason to be upgraded (you’re in labor; your current seat is broken and cut you; the guy next to you is racist and venting, etc)? In the end, bringing chocolates and gifts alone will not increase your chances of being upgraded, but a slew of other things happening to you could be considered.

You’ll need a good reason to get upgraded to first class.

I remember that Twitter moment when a passenger was outraged when an airline wouldn’t put him in Premium Economy when he was booked in Economy, even where there were plenty of available seats. The airline responded: “If you go into a car dealership and buy a Toyota, you won’t leave the lot in a Lexus, would you?”

Bringing a $20 gift to a flight attendant or gate agent is not going to get you a $5,000 seat when you paid $500 for it.

So what is the absolute best way of being upgraded? 

I highlight the best ways to get upgraded here, and they typically include: being a loyalty member, volunteering to give up your seat for another flight and hoping there is a mechanical error in your current economy seat and the entire class is booked solid. You should always be strategic, like checking the flight loads in business and first class to determine your chances, and definitely try to align with the airline’s algorithm to get high on the upgrade list.

Can you still bring chocolates or gifts to the flight crew or gate agent? 

Absolutely. If you want them to make their day, by all means, go nuts. They will most likely remember you, take special care of you, or give you free drink tickets, or maybe a cookie from first class. They work hard and should be appreciated. Just don’t do it to increase your chances of an upgrade. Do it because you’re a genuinely nice person. 

Going on a flight soon? Let us know your best flight upgrade tip below!


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