There's no one-size-fits-all trick for landing an upgraded airline seat these days—and that can mean more opportunities for travelers willing to crunch the numbers.
Tallying enough miles to crack an airline's elite status tier used to be the quick way to free upgrades. But smaller first-class cabins, fuller flights and increased airline efforts to sell those prime seats has eaten away at that advantage, said George Hobica, publisher of deal site AirfareWatchdog.com. "I've seen flights where there are 20 elites on the eligible [wait]list and not one person gets upgraded," he said.
(Looking for hotel, cruise or car rental upgrades? Check out the video above for tips.)
But the elites' loss may be a gain for other travelers willing to put a little effort and cash into a better seat. Some options to consider:
Buy economy, redeem miles to upgrade. It takes fewer miles to upgrade than redeem outright for a seat, but that doesn't mean it's always a bargain. Airlines often charge a fee in addition to miles required, and that fee varies by what fare class you originally bought, said Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com. (The cheaper the ticket, the more you'll pay. A flight to Europe on United, for example, might have a fee of $300 to $550. Only two fare classes have no upgrade fee.) Availability can also be uncertain, with some airlines terming the upgrade a "request"—so check for that confirmation email.