Best Frequent Flyer Programs With Free First Class Seat Upgrades

There is nothing quite like flying in first class. While other passengers are trudging to the back of the plane, you are literally sitting back and enjoying champagne. Throughout the flight you receive personalized and dedicated service to ensure you are comfortable and satisfied. Finally, upon landing, you are the first to exit the aircraft.

There are two primary ways to sit in first class. The first involves paying for a ticket that typically costs multiple times more than economy, either in dollars or frequent flyer miles. The other way is to get upgraded for free based on your status in the airline's frequent flyer program. Here is how the major domestic airlines offer seat upgrades. (See also: Best Airline Credit Cards)


American and US Airways merged several years ago and have now unified their frequent flyer programs under the American AAdvantage brand. Earning Gold status in this program (by flying 25,000 miles and spending $3,000 in Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) or flying 30 Elite Qualifying Segments (EQSs) and spending $3,000 in Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) in a calendar year) entitles you to upgrades for flights 500 miles or less, within 24 hours before departure. Gold elites also receive 50% off Main Cabin Extra Seats that offer extra legroom when reserved at the time of booking, or complimentary at check-in, if available.

Those with Platinum oneworld Sapphire status (requiring 50,000 miles and spending $6,000 in Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) or 60 segments and spending $6,000 in Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) in a calendar year), may receive upgrades (for flights 500 miles or less) at 48 hours before departure and complimentary Main Cabin Extra and Preferred seats. Finally, those with Executive Platinum status (100,000 miles and $12,000 in Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) or 120 segments and $12,000 in Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) in a calendar year) can receive upgrades at 100 hours before departure, as well as unlimited, auto-requested upgrades on flights over 500 miles.

Other than flying, another way to earn elite qualifying miles is with their co-branded credit cards. (See also: Which American Airlines Credit Card Should You Get?)


Delta SkyMiles program offers Medallion elite flyers unlimited complimentary upgrades from fully refundable fares. In addition, Silver elites (those who flew 25,000 miles or 30 segments and spent $3,000 in a calendar year), may receive complimentary upgrades at one day prior to departure, although it is rare. If unavailable, upgrades to Comfort+ seats with extra legroom are complimentary and much more common.

Gold elites (50,000 miles or 60 segments and $6,000 spent), can possibly receive upgrades at 72 hours before departure, and complimentary Comfort+ seats. Both Platinum and Diamond Elites receive Comfort+ seats at the time of purchase, and upgrades to first class are possible at five days prior to departure, with Diamond receiving greater priority. Earning Platinum Medallion status requires flying 75,000 miles or 100 segments, as well as spending $9,000, while Diamond status requires 125,000 miles or 140 segments and $15,000 spent. Get elite status faster with one of the Delta credit cards.


United offers all of its Premier Elite members complimentary upgrades from full fare tickets. In addition, Premier Silver elites (25,000 miles or 30 segments, and $3,000 spent) may receive complimentary day of departure upgrades, or Economy Plus seats with extra legroom at check-in. Premier Gold elites (50,000 miles or 60 segments, and $6,000 spent) and higher receive Economy Plus access at booking, plus first class upgrades as early as 48 hours before departure. Premier Platinum (75,000 miles or 90 segments, and $9,000 spent) can receive first class upgrades at 72 hours before departure, while Premier 1K elites (100,000 miles or 120 segments, and $12,000 spent) can be upgraded as long as 96 hours in advance. You can earn extra miles with one of their United MileagePlus credit cards.

Which Is Best?

Your chances of being upgraded depend on several different factors. First will be the level of elite status you hold, with top tier elites being offered more upgrades than mid and low tier elites. So if you reach that top tier, your chances of regular upgrades are good, but if you just make the lowest tier, you will only rarely be upgraded.

In addition, your travel habits are important. Those who live in a city that is a major hub for their airline will find that there are many elites competing to be upgraded to just a few first class seats, especially at peak business travel times at the beginning and end of the week. However, those who live in smaller cities and travel on routes that are less popular with business travelers will have better luck. For example, flights to New York on Sunday night and returning Thursday and Friday afternoons will be very elite-heavy, while a Saturday flight to a leisure destination will have fewer frequent flyers.

Furthermore, United and Delta will offer instant upgrades to those traveling on full fare tickets, which is great for some business travelers who must purchase these expensive, last minute fares. Otherwise, American's upgrade policy is quite generous, and the unlimited upgrades offered to Executive Platinum members are invaluable, as they can be used for longer international flights.

Thankfully, all three of these programs offer strong access to extra legroom seats near the front of the plane, so even if you don't get into first class, you will have a little more space, and won't have to go sit all the way in the back of the aircraft. By understanding how airlines offer first class upgrades, you can choose the program that makes the most sense for your needs.

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