How To Score A Complimentary First-Class Upgrade On Domestic Flights

First-class air travel is a luxury typically reserved for the wealthy. For most of us, paying full price for a first- or business-class seat is well beyond our travel budget (or basic comprehension). That's not to say first-class seats aren't worth it. We've all peeped from behind the curtain to glimpse extravagant meals and even more extravagant leg space.

The difference between first class and coach isn't subtle, and if you've seen the price tags for first class, nor is the price difference. However, first-class seats aren't completely out of reach for us commoners. There are basically two ways to experience front-of-plane luxury: money and knowing how to get upgraded to first class without breaking the bank.

The first option is pretty self-explanatory. If you got the money, buying a first-class ticket can be a worthwhile expense, especially on particularly long or crowded flights. The second, more economical option involves airline loyalty, a little know-how, and sometimes a dash of luck.

Elite status offers elite rewards

In the past, flying on your honeymoon or birthday could result in a free upgrade to first class. While these days are long-gone, major airlines will celebrate your loyalty. In modern travel, the most practical way to receive a complimentary upgrade to first class is by earning an elite airline status.

Free domestic upgrades are regularly offered to frequent flyers. You simply need to request a complimentary upgrade when booking your flight or at check-in, depending on the airline. These upgrades are given according to availability, and although you may have elite status, the airlines follow an elite-status hierarchy to accommodate requests. The tier of your elite status is determined by how often you fly and the number of flight miles you've earned. Your status may also improve if you frequently use an airline-branded credit card.

It should be noted that complimentary upgrades may only be available on some domestic routes. For instance, not all airlines offer upgrades on transcontinental domestic flights, while complimentary upgrades on long-haul international flights are rare. However, you may find free upgrades on shorter flights to the Caribbean or Central America, but this also depends on the airline. You can learn how to get upgraded to first class by reading the airline's fine print.

Redeem your miles or volunteer to be bumped

Earning an elite status may take some time, but while you climb the ranks, you could choose to redeem your miles for a first-class upgrade. In most cases, you can upgrade with a specific airline and any partnering airlines within the same alliance.

Luck can also play a role in receiving a free upgrade to first class. If you're scheduled to fly on an oversold flight, consider volunteering to be bumped from the flight. Often, by volunteering to take a later departure, the airline will reward you will perks, which may include flight vouchers and seat upgrades. Simply negotiate with the airline to receive a first-class seat on your alternative flight or, if not available, a cabin upgrade voucher for another flight in the future.

Lastly, while not free, you can always ask about late-minute upgrades before boarding the flight. When there are empty first-class seats, airlines sometimes provide deeply discounted upgrades. Again, this upgrade may not be free, but it doesn't hurt to politely ask the gate agent.