Hacking Free Upgrades On Flights To Hawaii Really Works

Free Upgrades On Flights To Hawaii | 10 Hacks That Work

Getting into the best seat possible on Hawaii flights is something we’re always game for. There have been times when we’ve paid considerably for the privilege and others for little to nothing.

You’ll also recall that Jeff flew on Alaska Airlines in first class last fall for just $200 extra. That is an example of a  great deal.

By way of introduction, your editors’ experiences span most airlines flying to Hawaii. We’ve flown in economy, extra legroom, premium, and first class, on Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, and United—more times than we can count.

If you’ve wanted to fly premium on flights to Hawaii (okay, well, who doesn’t) but were not keen on the price tag, some exciting options and tricks might help move you up a notch or even to First. So here you go with free and inexpensive ways to upgrade.

Who sits in first class to Hawaii, anyway?

Is first class a luxury reserved for the rich? Not at all. There are always ways to experience upgrades without breaking the bank. When you do, you get more space, privacy, far better food, and at least some degree of pampering.

Upgrades on flights to Hawaii are always possible, and in fact, most passengers in premium cabins use some form of upgrade to get there. However, free upgrades, even for premium flyers, are becoming rarer.

Two BOH editors upgraded to Hawaiian Airlines First Class using miles on a flight from Sydney to Honolulu. The upgrade cost was 45,000 HawaiianMiles, the equivalent of $450. That’s a great price when you consider 2) the flight was of 10 hours duration, 2) we paid for the cheapest economy tickets from which we upgraded, and at the time, 2) the cost to purchase first class outright was $2,500 per person.  Thus the savings was handily two-thirds off the retail price.

Hacks and options for upgrades on flights to Hawaii.

1. Careful shopping hacks. This week Editor Collin took off from Hawaii for vacation. Jeff, the most experienced BOH editors fight hacker, helped him find flights and seats. On the outbound flight, Collin got on a Hawaiian A330 widebody because it is more comfortable than the alternative A321 narrow-body. That in itself is an upgrade. Then they got Collin an aisle seat in the 4-passenger section (economy is 2, 4, 2). Not only that, but the seat they selected had two passengers (likely together) that occupied the other side of the section. The other middle seat was never sold, and Collin again got an upgrade by having an empty seat next to him. On his return flight, they moved him into (in our opinion) the best economy seat of the A330, 34A. That is an extended legroom seat, for which the charge was $91. Nowadays, that’s a great value.

You’ll recall that Jeff took that very same seat for his Hawaiian Airlines’ extra legroom and economy review. That window seat has unlimited legroom and direct aisle access without disturbing the other passenger. Note that there is a facing flight attendant seat for takeoff and landing that’s usually fun for talking. Also, the aircraft door leaked air, and Collin was advised to travel wearing a hoodie and not to freeze.

2. Flight attendant gift hack. We’ve never tried this precisely, although we have been known to bring gifts for flight attendants (like chocolates). On a recent flight, we saw a woman start handing out bags of Ultimate Gummy Bears to the FAs, who were delighted. We didn’t know if it worked in her case because we were already upgraded, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

In the most recent viral incident below, a young man creatively bought Starbucks gift cards for 8 flight attendants on a long-haul international flight. He said that he paid a total of about $130 for the cards. As a result, he got moved to an exit row with what he called unlimited legroom. Not the business class he was hoping for, but not bad either. We embedded the hack video below (content warning). He mentioned one point to treat people graciously and be happy with the outcome either way.

3. Early check-in. If you still need to upgrade, by all means, set the alarm, and on the exact moment of 24 hours, be sure to arrive at the check-in of the website or app to see if any improvements may have become available. Even a better seat or an extended legroom option may be offered only when checking in. If you’re a minute or two late, it may not be there any longer.

4. Various paid upgrades. These can occur at any time, from the point of purchase to the time of flight. Check with the airline you’re flying in advance to see how it works so that you are prepared to act. Search “upgrade options on XYZ Airlines to Hawaii to help find what others report.

5. Upgrade using frequent flyer points, as we did in the case above. Upgrades to and from Hawaii on five airlines typically start at about 15,000 frequent flyer points, although usually higher.

6. Airline-branded credit cards. These can come with a significant bonus, up to 70k or more miles for signup. We can’t say how many times this has provided upgrades, even to British Airways A380 First Class: two people, two credit cards, 140k miles to play with. You get the idea. Not only that but these cards offer other benefits like free checked bags.

7. Fly enough to become an elite. Many people in first or other premium seats are such travelers. They get free upgrades (guaranteed or based on status/availability) as perks, which vary by airline.

8. Bidding for upgrades on Hawaiian Airlines. Hawaiian is the only US carrier that participates in bidding. And to be honest, this has never worked for us, but we’ve heard it has for some of you. It works like this. You buy an economy ticket. Either you can go to their “manage my trips” web page or wait to receive emails from the airline asking if you’d like to bid. Then decide how much you’ll pay (they tell you the minimum they would accept). Submit your offer and see if it works. The cost can be 1/2 or less than you would have paid for first class, but it won’t be cheap.

For example, on a flight from Honolulu to Portland, $350 was the lowest bid to be accepted, and $875 was recommended. Keep in mind that Hawaiian has to pay the bidding company too. In this scenario, we would offer $450-$500, which would have been the cost of a mileage upgrade if available.

9. Ask? Nope. It just won’t work, but if you’re celebrating something, or are too large, tall, or are pregnant, as a few examples, then it never hurts to ask. Dressing nicely is always a good idea, too, as being polite.

10. Partner airline points. Check airline and credit card alliances. You may have points on one of these that can be useful.

Have you upgraded, and if so, how did you do it?

Did you get a deal? Is bidding for upgrades something that you have done or might consider?

Hacking Free Upgrades On Flights Viral Video.

@x_travels Gave my flight attendants $130 to starbucks and i think it was worth it. #travel #travelhack #flying #airlines #airport #appreciation ♬ original sound – Xtravels

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6 thoughts on “Free Upgrades On Flights To Hawaii | 10 Hacks That Work”

  1. I had to pay extra for preferred seating on a Hawaiian Air narrow body Air Bus from Long Beach to Kahului. I chose 15A and believed the preferred fee was because it was a window seat. When I got to my seat, not only was there NO window, but there was also a frame piece that protruded 3 inches towards my seat giving me less seat room than normal. I complained to HA and asked for a refund of the Preferred Seating fee, but haven’t heard back for 2 weeks now. I changed my seat for my return flight, to another preferred seat, and I got bumped down to Zone 4, from Zone 3 which I was in going to Maui, and my previous flight in February. Retalition?

  2. Aloha BOH!

    A couple of tricks I do is search all outbound islands to the mainland to get a base price, then call and ask the HA staff what 25k pt upgrades are available, that will dictate what I fly. Interisland flights are cheap and plentiful, so I don’t care where I leave from.

    Also, I’ve done the cash upgrade before when it was just $250, but they raised it to $325 Mon now, but always only paid the money and got upgraded. I use expertflyer to see seat load when bidding.

    Lastly, you can find cheaper returning flights from the mainland to HNL that might have a layover on your island, without overpaying going directly…

    Mahalo Nui,


  3. We bid on 1st class Hawaiin Airlines to Maui last year for $150 each for two of us. We were upgraded. It was awesome

  4. Here’s a novel idea: how about getting your flight attendants little gifts *without* expecting something in return?

    By the way, the dude in that video with the Starbucks cards…. what an insufferable, smarmy creep.

    1. I got boxes of chocolates for the flight attendants for my trip to Phoenix and I didn’t want or expect anything from them. It made my day to see how appreciative they were.

  5. We bought coach tickets on Alaska to travel to Kaua’i for our wedding. I called often starting months ahead to see if I could upgrade to first class but they kept saying it wasn’t likely to ever happen. About 3 weeks before travel I called and was told upgrades were available for about $140 each. Amazing!

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