The secret to getting free preferred seats on your flight

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There are ways to get “free” upgrades to better seats on the plane by leveraging benefits from many of the best travel credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the American Express® Gold Card But there’s a trick you’ve probably never heard of.

Let me set the scene.

I’m traveling to Oklahoma City for my sister-in-law’s wedding. Before my flight, American Airlines sent me an email to notify me that they expect a nearly full flight. Excellent…

If your flight’s seat map appears to be mostly full, that can actually be good news for you. It means you’ll almost certainly get a better seat than you paid for — if you play your cards right.

Would you pay a $40 premium for a couple inches of extra legroom? Me neither — but I’ll take it for free. (Photo by MPH Photos/Shutterstock)

How to get free preferred seats on your flight

Many planes are brimming with passengers, even in light of the pandemic. That’s because airlines are operating less flights (and therefore consolidating them) as they struggle to ramp up their service to pre-coronavirus levels. Some carriers like United Airlines and American Airlines aren’t blocking middle seats, so aircraft can still end up completely full.

Actually, full flights aren’t so bad if you know how to make the most of them. Yes, ideally we’d all have an empty seat beside us, but the next best thing is a seat upgrade.

Here’s a look at the seat map of my recent American flight. Nearly all the seats on this plane were grayed out — claimed by others who had already checked-in and chosen their seat.

Most of the remaining seats were those that cost extra: Preferred seats and Main Cabin Extra, which offer extra legroom or a better location on the aircraft. During my check-in process, I could either book one of the few remaining coach seats, pay for one of the better seats, or simply choose no seat.

By selecting no seat at all, American Airlines will have to place me into one of the empty seats on the plane. And because everyone is in such a mad rush to select a seat, it’s more than likely the only seats remaining will be the ones that nobody’s willing to pay for.

[ Read: The best travel credit cards ]

This has worked several times for me. On this latest trip, I received an “upgrade” on both legs of my flight to Oklahoma, giving me about $70 in value. I got the seats others had to pay for.

I’ve actually only done this with American Airlines and United Airlines, but it will likely work on other airlines, too. It’s a great strategy when booking basic economy tickets.

If you do want to give this method a try, make sure you don’t select a seat when booking your flight or checking in. Additionally, you can use a tool like Expert Flyer to see how full your flight is. If a flight is mostly full then this trick is more likely to work. If the flight has quite a few empty seats, it may be better to lock in a seat that is preferable to you before others reserve it, as you’re less likely to be bumped up to a “preferred” seat since not all of the free seats will have been taken.

Bottom Line

While this trick won’t net you an “upgraded” seat 100% of the time, it can definitely be worth trying, especially if only middle seats are open or all of the free seats have been selected. It could save you some cash in the process and lead to a more comfortable flight.

Let me know if you’ve ever used this tactic to get free upgrades. And subscribe to our newsletter for more travel tips and tricks like this delivered to your inbox.

Featured image by MPH Photos/Shutterstock

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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Justin
7 days ago

It’s not a secret anymore if you post an article about it. Good luck getting this to work once it gets spread around

Taylor
8 days ago

I’ve had this work with Delta several times as well. Really only ideal if flying alone (vs having wife and 3 kids with too), as the seats might not end up together. However, I’ve had pretty good luck with Delta reassigning other seats to get all of ours together, but they’re definitely not upgraded seats- more like back of the plane.

monte runfola
8 days ago

So why wouldn’t the airline just put you in one of the dreaded middle seats? I don’t understand…