Fashion Tips & Reader Questions

I Followed A Flight Attendant’s Tips On How To Get A Free Upgrade…And They Worked

Now that’s how you dress for a flight. 

In the past few days, a few posts have popped up on my newsfeed with “insider tips” from flight attendants; namely, tips on how to be the kind of passenger who gets upgraded. And because today marked the first time I have traveled sans children in a good long while – and you know nobody with kids is going anywhere except the very back of the plane – I figured what better time to do a little experiment and see if I could score myself a few hours of free food and extra recline?

Caveat: I am a Delta Skymiles member, so I have to assume that factors into upgrade decisions. But I’m only a Silver – which really isn’t that big a deal – and I’ve never been upgraded before, so frequent flier status, in this case, doesn’t feel like a game-changer to me.

OK, so here are the things that the flight attendants said they look at, and my take on each:

Upgrade Me (...Please?)


  • What You’re Wearing. This one seems pretty obvious: Dress like a shlump, and you’re not going anywhere near the fancy people up front. I don’t think this requires actual dressing up, though (heels and tight anythings on a plane always seem very amateur hour to me). I simply upgraded from my usual ripped-tee-and-sweats look to a non-wrinkly button-down and cropped leggings (plus my new favorite shoes, which are basically slippers and are so wonderful for air travel). Oh, and I put on (a little) makeup. And I brushed my hair! These are all small miracles, because all of them happened at 5AM in a dark bathroom, where I was huddled desperately trying to not wake up my children with the faintest hint of light or sound.
  • Who You’re With. Are you with a baby? Congratulations, you are staying exactly where you are. Obviously. Flight attendants look for people who are traveling alone, since it’s practically impossible to upgrade two (or more) people to adjacent seats.
  • What You’re Carrying. The less, the better: If you’re going to take up a whole bunch of overhead space and irritate the people sitting around you with your piles and piles of stuff, they’re probably not going to move you. But my feeling is that it’s less about quantity, and more about looking neat and portable: a small rolling bag is better than a shopping bag with food and magazines spilling out of it. For this trip, I checked everything I could (even my coat, which I am seriously hoping does not get lost on the way to New York, because brr), and streamlined down to a slim black computer bag and a black crossbody, both neatly packed and zipped shut (again: miracle. GOD I love not having to travel with boatloads of snacks ’n’ wipes).
  • Whether You’re Nice. For the duration of my young adulthood, I was of the belief that one should not make eye contact with strangers, because they might be crazy, and eye contact would make them crazier (this is a New York thing, I think). Then I moved to the suburbs, and discovered that it actually feels really great to smile and say hi to people. To everyone, in fact! With actual eye contact! And yet the more that I do this, the more I realize how absent this basic level of human engagement is in our society. Smile at the flight attendants. Be patient. Look them in the eye. Wish them a good morning. Basically, be a pleasant human being, and your common decency will be so unexpected that they will likely notice, and possibly reward you for it via complimentary champagne.

Finally, one flight attendant that was interviewed said that if a passenger hands over some candy, she will give him whatever he wants. “Scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” she specified.

I cannot do this; it seems creepy and desperate. So: no candy. But I did all the other ones!

And it totally worked. I rolled up to the gate in my clean, neat outfit with my clean, neat bag, all patient and emanating waves of child-free calm. I was not carrying a massive Burger King bag, nor was I carrying a baby. I walked up to the ticket counter, handed over my ticket with a big smile and a “Good morning!”…and what was I handed in return?

An upgrade.

And then, on my next flight, I did all the things I did on the first one, and ended up getting moved from my original seat again! Except this time I was moved – without explanation – to a seat located directly in front of a child with what sounded like the Black Plague, and a demonstrable proficiency in the sport of Seat-Kicking.

how to get a free upgrade on a flight

So coincidence and luck might play a role here. Possibly a significant one. But still: anytime there’s free food on the table, my feeling is its worth a shot.

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