It used to be much easier to upgrade your coach seat to business or even first class, but rigid rules and tighter schedules have made getting a better seat more difficult, since they are usually reserved for an airline's top customers.
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Not an elite flyer? Here are a few ways to snag more legroom on your next flight.
Often, you can pay for a better seat — whether it's in economy plus, business, or first. Upgrades are often available online prior to check-in or at check-in. You can also check for upgrade possibilities when you get to the airport.
Caveat: Most paid upgrades are only available after their elite customers have been upgraded.
Most airlines will allow you to use miles to upgrade a coach ticket to business/first. Be aware, however, that it's usually not a great value and you'd be better off waiting until you have enough miles in your account to redeem a ticket instead of using them to upgrade.
Caveat: Not all tickets can be upgraded (it depends on the fare class of the ticket) and some airlines — like United — charge a cash co-pay in addition to the miles
If there are no seats available, no amount of kindness will make a difference, but treating a gate agent respectfully and kindly can go a long way toward helping your case. (But don't try to bribe them!) If a seat does open up, you might luck out and get that coveted first-class spot.
Sometimes the airline needs to upgrade passengers for "operational" reasons. Most often, the company has oversold the economy cabin. Improve your chances by introducing yourself to the agent and explain that you would be interested in upgrading if economy is oversold. Be friendly and straightforward. If the answer is no, offer your thanks and mention that you'll be in the gate area if anything changes.
Caveat: This only happens rarely, but in the event that it does, you'll want to be in the best position to take advantage of the situation.