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Nothing beats the luxury of first class, enjoying a roomy seat while sipping champagne can make even the longest of flights enjoyable. Generally speaking, if you want to fly first class, you can either pay full price for a ticket or hope for an upgrade.
Although first-class upgrades aren’t as common as they used to be, it’s still possible for people with elite airline status to get rewarded for their loyalty with a bump into first class. With a good travel credit card, earning those upgrades becomes even easier — and if you aren’t automatically upgraded, you can always use your credit card rewards to upgrade yourself!
How to improve your chances of an upgrade
If you’re hoping to grab a first class upgrade on your next flight, here’s what you can do to improve your chances:
Pick an airline and work your way up to elite status.
Airlines reward their most loyal customers, so it’s time to choose an airline and become a frequent flyer. Make sure the airline services the airports you’re most likely to fly into; you probably don’t want to pick Alaska Airlines if you’re located in the Midwest, for example. If you’re an international traveler, avoid small, primarily domestic carriers and look for a major airline that can get you across the globe.
Once you’ve chosen your airline, use it for every trip. Yes, you might find a flight that’s a few dollars cheaper on a competing carrier, but building elite status with an airline comes with its own rewards — including occasional first-class upgrades.
Avoid busy flights.
To get a free first-class upgrade, you’re going to want to be on a plane that has empty seats in first class. That means skipping busy flights in favor of less-popular ones. (How can you tell which flights are the most popular? Look at the price. The cheaper the flight, the less popular it’s likely to be.)
If you can book flights during the middle of the week, you’ll have a better chance of finding an empty seat in first class. Midweek flights are also less popular with business class flyers, which is good for you because business class tickets often get upgraded to first class before coach tickets. The fewer business class passengers on your flight, the more likely you’ll get upgraded.
Pay for your upgrade with points or miles.
You’re going to be competing with a lot of other travelers for those first-class upgrades — so the best way to ensure you get one might be to just pay for it. That’s where a good travel credit card can help you. If you have a lot of points or miles on your travel credit card, you can easily upgrade your ticket to first class. Use your credit card rewards for the rewarding experience of first-class travel.
Best credit cards for first class upgrades
When you’re choosing a travel credit card for first class upgrades, you have two options. You can choose a high-rewards travel credit card, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, or you can choose a high-rewards airline credit card, such as the Gold Delta Skymiles Credit Card from American Express.
With an airline credit card, you’ll have a smooth path towards first class upgrades as well as several other airline-specific perks such as free checked bags, lounge access, and companion tickets. Airline credit cards also give you higher rewards when you book through the airline, which is one more incentive to help you become a frequent flyer and earn that elite status.
If you’re looking for a travel credit card that isn’t focused on a specific airline, make sure the card lets you transfer your rewards to various airline loyalty programs. That way, you can redeem those rewards for first-class upgrades through the airline. The Discover it® Miles, for example, redeems miles by crediting your travel purchases directly to your account, you can fly any airline you want, when you want. You can also book your travel yourself and use your miles to pay for everyday expenses, such as public transportation and taxis.
For more information about airline and travel credit cards, read our guide to the best travel cards of 2018. We’ve also listed some of the best travel and airline credit cards below. Click on the name of each card for a full review.
Recap and best cards breakdown:
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card
Rewards: Earn unlimited 3 miles for every $1 spent on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases and 1 mile for every $1 spent on all other purchases.
New cardmember offer: Get 40,000 bonus miles and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22). To qualify, make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account.
Annual fee: $75.
Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
Rewards: 2x miles on purchases made directly with Delta, 2x miles on U.S. restaurants, 1 mile per dollar on other eligible purchases.
New cardmember offer: 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership..
Annual fee: $0.
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
Rewards: 2x miles on every dollar spent on eligible purchases made directly with Delta, 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.
New cardmember offer: Earn 30,000 Bonus Miles after you use your new Card to make $1,000 in purchases within your first 3 months and a $50 Statement Credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months.
Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
Rewards: 2x points on travel and dining, 1 point per dollar on all other purchases (points are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards).
New cardmember offer: 60,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first three months from account opening. That’s $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
Annual fee: $95.
Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Rewards: 3x points on travel (immediately after earning travel credit) and dining, 1 point per dollar on all other purchases (points are worth 50% more when redeemed for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards). $300 annual travel credit, $100 application fee credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, and airport lounge access through Priority Pass Select.
New cardmember offer: 50,000 bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first three months.
Annual fee: $450, plus $75 for each authorized user.
Author: Nicole Dieker | Last Updated: Mar. 19, 2019
Author Spotlight: Nicole Dieker is the editor of The Billfold and has five years of experience in personal finance coverage. You can find Nicole on Twitter @HelloTheFuture.
Editorial disclosure: All reviews are prepared by Bankrate.com staff. Opinions expressed therein are solely those of the reviewer and have not been reviewed or approved by any advertiser. The information, including card rates and fees, presented in the review is accurate as of the date of the review. Check the data at the top of this page and the bank’s website for the most current information.