Want to fly first class? These are the best credit cards for upgrades

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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 Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card.

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 2021. 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 3X miles for spending on eligible Alaska Airlines purchases and 1X miles on all other purchases

New cardmember offer: Get 40,000 bonus miles plus Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) with this offer. 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, 1X miles on other eligible purchases

New cardmember offer: 10,000 bonus miles after spending $500 in purchases on your new Card in your first three months of card membership

Annual fee: None

Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card

Rewards: 2 miles on every dollar spent on eligible purchases made directly with Delta, 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases

New cardmember offer: Earn 40,000 Bonus Miles after spending $1,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months.

Annual fee: $0 intro fee for the first year, then $99

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Rewards: 5X points on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3X points on dining and 2X points on all other travel purchases, 1X points on all other purchases (points are worth 25 percent 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. That’s $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards

Annual fee: $95

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Rewards: Earn 5X total points on air travel and 10X total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3X points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases, 1X points on all other purchases (points are worth 50 percent 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: $550, plus $75 for each authorized user

Written by
Aja McClanahan
Personal Finance Writer
Aja McClanahan is an author, blogger and speaker on personal finance and entrepreneurship. Aja is the author of "How a Mother Should Talk About Money with Her Daughter."
Edited by
Senior Editor, Credit Card Product News