How To Get Free Upgrades, Miles And Other Perks From Airlines

The days when we associated air travel with glamour are long gone, but that doesn’t mean the experience of flying is completely devoid of joy. Occasionally, there are even free perks.

From extra snacks and amenities kits to money vouchers and bonus miles, there are a variety of freebies travelers can receive from airlines. And there are ways to increase the frequency and quantity of such gains.

Below, travel experts share their tips for getting free stuff from airlines.

Take advantage of checked luggage guarantees.

These days, when you check a bag, your main hope is probably just that it makes it to the baggage carousel at your destination. But did you know you might be entitled to a reward if it doesn’t appear in a timely manner?

“Alaska Airlines, for example, gives you bonus miles or a discount code for future travel if your checked bags don’t arrive within 20 minutes of your plane’s arrival,” said Melanie Lieberman, the managing editor for global features at travel site The Points Guy.

Although Alaska Airlines rolled out this customer-friendly guarantee in 2010, Delta Air Lines has had a similar policy in place since 2015. If your bag isn’t at the carousel within 20 minutes of your flight arrival time, all you have to do is submit a quick claim and you can receive up to 2,500 miles in compensation.

And of course, if your bag doesn’t appear on the carousel at all, you may be entitled to compensation from the airline, your credit card company or your travel insurance provider.

Volunteer to be bumped from overbooked flights.

“If a flight is overbooked, airlines typically request volunteers to step forward to take a later flight in exchange for a flight voucher worth a few hundred bucks,” said money-saving expert Andrea Woroch. “As long as this won’t seriously impact your travel, it’s a great way to get free money toward a future trip.”

Don’t forget you can also negotiate for compensation. If they’re looking for multiple volunteers, you can step up when it’s as low as $200, but stipulate to the agent that you want whatever compensation the final volunteer gets, as the amount could rise to a much higher figure in the meantime.

“Offering your seat on a full flight could land you another later flight, but also a $500 voucher in your pocket,” echoed budgeting expert Jade Warshaw. “Take it a step further and asked to be rebooked the next day to get a free hotel and dinner on the airline’s dime.”

Tell them about a special occasion.

Some airlines love to help passengers celebrate special occasions. If you alert them in advance, you might get a tasty treat at your seat or special attention from flight attendants.

“Always tell the attendants if it’s your birthday, anniversary or honeymoon,” Warshaw said. “It can result in an upgrade or at the very least a free boozy drink onboard a domestic flight.”

Sure, special occasion seat upgrades might be rare, but it never hurts to share your joy, even if it just means getting an extra snack from the cart.

wsfurlan via Getty Images

Friendly airline workers might help you celebrate your honeymoon or other special occasion in style.

Monitor your ticket prices.

Savvy travelers set flight alerts on platforms like Skyscanner, Kayak and Google so that they’re notified when the prices drop for particular itineraries. You can do this not only before you decide to purchase your tickets, but also after.

“Always check the price of your ticket up until you go to the airport,” Warshaw said. “If the price goes down, you can ask the airline to honor the new price and they will likely rebook your flight at the lower fare.”

Pay attention to promo emails and other offers that may affect the cost of your itinerary as well.

Request items on the plane.

Long-haul flights are often stocked with a number of helpful amenities. Although some items are only offered to certain cabin classes, you can always request a bottle of water or other items from the flight attendant.

“Once on the plane, ask if you can have a sleeping mask, pillow, and blanket,
Warshaw said. “I also like to ask for free slippers or slipper socks. I put the slippers in my bag and keep them for when I get to the hotel.”

Laura Lindsay, a travel trends expert at Skyscanner, noted that air carriers have amenities to help out parents as well.

“Most airlines also offer kid packs to keep young minds occupied ― simply inquire,” she said. “Other perks you can get for free during flights include seconds on meals or snacks, overnight kits, toiletries and cockpit visits ― but wait until all passengers have disembarked before asking.”

File a formal complaint.

When factors within the airline’s control lead to disruptions or other travel issues, you have recourse to file a formal complaint with the company. There’s typically a form you can fill out on the airline’s website to submit your complaint, and you may receive miles or money for your trouble.

“Whenever I have experienced any displeasure with a flight, whether the seats were uncomfortable, the TV or Wi-Fi didn’t work well or at all, the trip was delayed due to staff issues or my bags didn’t make it a final destination, I have received free vouchers that I could use towards booking future flights,” Woroch said. “I have received as much as $150.”

Of course, limit your complaint submissions to actual occurrences rather than imaginary incidents or issues.

“You will have to be a little nice to enjoy some of these perks. Even though they are highly trained, no steward will go out of their way for a rude or annoying passenger.”

– Laura Lindsay, travel trends expert at Skyscanner

Join the loyalty program.

A classic way to get freebies and perks from an airline is by joining a loyalty program. Even at the lowest tier, you may get random free upgrades or earn extra frequent flyer miles.

For even more benefits, familiarize yourself with the pros and cons of different airline options and try to commit your loyalty to one.

“Know which airlines offer more freebies,” Woroch suggested, pointing to differences in snack offerings, entertainment and checked bag options on different carriers. “Keep these freebies in mind when you’re comparing airline options and costs because these add-ons can add up when you pay à la carte.”

Get a branded credit card.

“Get a travel reward credit card to get free bags, flights and more,” Woroch said. “Many co-branded airline credit cards offer free checked bags for you and a companion when you use the card to book a flight on the airline. Some will also include free airport lounge access, free travel insurance, free travel credits, free memberships like TSA PreCheck or Clear, as well as miles back for purchases, allowing you to earn free flights.”

Compare the reward programs different airlines offer through their co-branded credit cards. You might get sign-up bonuses with even more miles for spending a certain amount of money during your first few months with the card. Airline lounge access can also be an airport game-changer, with free food and drink and other perks.

Fly at quieter times.

“Getting a flight upgrade to business or first class isn’t always dumb luck,” Lindsay said. “It isn’t exclusive to elite frequent fliers, either. There are many easy things you can do to help yourself get bumped up. You can increase your chances of scoring an upgrade on your next flight by booking flights with more available seats.”

If you have timing flexibility, it can pay to fly on less busy days and at quieter times. Consider choosing days when business travelers are less likely to book flights to decrease your competition for flight upgrades.

Flying at less busy times increases your chances of getting upgraded.
Flying at less busy times increases your chances of getting upgraded.

Be extra nice.

You should always strive to be courteous and considerate to the workers you interact with at the airport ― and everywhere, for that matter. But there are also selfish reasons to be extra sweet in air travel settings.

“When it comes to getting in-flight amenities and freebies from airlines, nice guys don’t finish last,” Lindsay said. “If you’re looking to score any freebies on your next flight, you will have to be a little nice to enjoy some of these perks. Even though they are highly trained, no steward will go out of their way for a rude or annoying passenger. If you can make their shift more bearable, you can score some brownie points with the flight crew and your good behavior might just be rewarded with a first-class treat.”

Don’t be afraid to just ask.

“When in doubt, ask!” urged travel blogger Rocky Trifari. “Many airlines will go to great lengths to keep their customers happy by offering complimentary meals, gift cards, free lodging, or, in more extreme circumstances, flight vouchers for when things don’t go as promised.”

If your travel plans were disrupted through no fault of your own, it’s worth asking an airline representative if there’s anything they can do to make things right.

“You may be surprised by what they can offer!” Trifari said. “What’s the worst that can happen? They may say no, but you never had a chance of getting anything if you didn’t ask in the first place. Why not try?”

Lindsay suggested inquiring about free seat upgrades when possible as well.

“Asking politely for a free upgrade might sound obvious, but since most don’t think it’s that’s an option, it’s likely you may be the only person to even ask,” she said. “So, whether the gate agent is feeling extra generous that day, or they need to bump people up because they oversold coach, you’ll be the easy option.”

She recommended getting to the gate early so the agents aren’t hustling to prepare for boarding. Hold off for a little if there’s a line of people waiting to speak to them.

“Wait until the agents look like they have a moment to breathe,” she said. “Then ask them simply and directly if a free upgrade might be an option. If you have a good reason ― perhaps you just had knee surgery ― feel free to mention it. Never underestimate simple human kindness.”

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