Get A First Class Upgrade to Hawaii, Free Or Cheap

Many of you mentioned first-class upgrades that you’d been able to obtain “by hook or by crook” when we remembered the beloved 747 flights to Hawaii and 757 flights to Hawaii. So it made us think about that subject and how it works in today’s very different air travel environment. We are also to share our tips on moving to the front of the plane.

How often have you walked by or looked into first class, wondering…

…what would it take to be seated in the larger seats with legroom, perhaps even a bed, with being able to enjoy vastly improved dining, plus luxury lounges and other amenities? And what about those people turning left to enter an elite cabin when you had to turn right and face the barrage of economy seats on the flight to Hawaii?

Yes, first-class upgrade to Hawaii (or business class): we’re a living testament to that.

There’s no doubt that the easiest way to score that upgrade is to be a frequent flyer. But the reality is we aren’t all frequent flyers. All the airlines offer upgrades to those special folks, depending on the circumstances. However, Hawaii is typically a harder route to draw the upgrade card, so be forewarned.

Factors include actual seat availability, the highest ranking frequent flyer, and whether you have the airline’s branded credit card. Each airline prioritizes upgrades differently, and it’s good to get to know the rules on the one with which you plan to upgrade.

Upgrades, in our experience, can occur at any point from the time of ticket purchase until the last minute when you’ve already taken an economy seat, and your name is called to move up.

Because upgrades are so variable, we’d suggest you first check online for your reservation to see what’s possible. Then pick up the phone and talk with the airline’s call center to inquire further about how their upgrades work.

If nothing pans out in advance, be sure to be online exactly 24 hours before departure and see what is offered during check-in. Afterward, head to the airline ticket counter before your flight and ask again.

You can still get an upgrade if you are not an elite flyer. Here’s how.

We often use a combination of cash and airline miles to upgrade, including on international flights. An airline-branded credit card can accumulate miles to use with that airline or a partner carrier. What’s worked great for your editors with both the Alaska Air credit card and the Hawaiian Airlines credit card. We’ve also taken advantage of their relationship with international carriers to be able to upgrade flights to Europe.

Tip:  If you know from the beginning that you’ll be doing a mileage upgrade, our experience is that it is best to book those as far in advance as possible. That means 330-days ahead of your flight. Mileage upgrades that far in advance may either have more availability or be at a lower mileage requirement than if you wait. That is almost always the case.

Editor Jeff scored an upgrade from the cheapest economy ticket to first class on Hawaiian between Sydney and Honolulu for 45k HawaiianMiles. Those miles having a value of $450 made the total cost of first-class less than 1/3 the price the airline was charging to buy it outright.

Bidding for upgrades is another way to score potentially lower-cost upgrades. Hawaiian airlines is one airline that offers that. Air Canada and Westjet do as well. We’ve tried it, but so far, it hasn’t worked for us.

Hawaiian Airlines Lie-Flat on Airbus A330
Hawaiian Airlines A330 First Class

Upgrade based on an oversold flight? Not too likely, but…

Someone mentioned in a comment that they always try to book flights that are more likely to be oversold. When that happens, airlines may offer you another flight, and perhaps even in first class.

Try negotiating for that perk, or they might move you to an empty first-class seat if it exists on your scheduled flight when economy is sold out. Here too, we’ve both had these bumping experiences that worked. Editor Jeff was upgraded to first class when he was the last to board in economy. That was several years ago, on a Continental DC-10 from Los Angeles to Honolulu. It was elegant, and it cost nothing.

But keep in mind that the chances of being bumped are extremely low when flying on Alaska, Hawaiian, and Southwest. Of the majors, the most likely airline on which to get a bump upgrade is American. Has that ever happened to you?

Getting an airline upgrade takes time, but it’s worth it to us.

Alaska Airlines First Class
Alaska Airlines B737 First Class

BOH editor Jeff is a guru when it comes to scoring upgrades on airlines. He’s always researching it online to see what others have been able to accomplish. Jeff’s scored a range of first-class upgrades that include many Hawaii flights (on Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, and United). Also internationally on British Airways, Qantas, and others. He makes it a game so doesn’t resent the time it takes. Sometimes, he has to check literally hundreds of times to wait and see when an upgraded seat opens up. But honestly, it was worked far more times than it has not. So don’t despair.

Does saying you’re on a honeymoon get you anywhere?

Other than perhaps a congratulations, no, it does not.

How tightly are upgrades controlled, and who has authority?

In most but not all cases, flight attendants are incapable of offering an upgrade. The same may or may not be true of the gate agent.

Should you dress a certain way to improve your chances?

Well, not exactly. While having noticeably inappropriate clothes will probably hinder your changes, dressing to the nines won’t do much for you. We may be going against popular thinking here, but dressing and acting nicely on flights will always work in the passenger’s favor.

Today’s lead photo description.

Lead photo of BOH editor Rob. On the way home to Honolulu via Singapore, he scored an upgrade to regional business class on Singapore Airlines A350. Flying in the US, the price is always the same no matter whether you start in Hawaii or on the mainland. Internationally that isn’t the case. He chose a route through Singapore specifically because it was far less expensive and had more upgrades available.

Flight attendant provided advice on TikTok.

Flight attendant Cierra Mistt got millions of views when she shared some of her secrets as a flight attendant on how passengers can get upgraded. She suggested you might get an upgrade based on “some Starbucks and a bag of chocolates.” You may say that isn’t possible, but Jeff reports he has in fact gotten into first class with a box of See’s chocolates.



how to get FREE upgrades to first class (tips from a flight attendant) 💙✈️ #ChewyChattyPets #fypシ

♬ original sound – Cierra Mistt

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11 thoughts on “Get A First Class Upgrade to Hawaii, Free Or Cheap”

  1. I recently had the fabulous surprise of being upgraded (on American) from economy to first class on both my Memphis-DFW and my DFW-Honolulu flights. It was exquisite, especially the flight to Honolulu: lie-flat seat, large screen TV screen, premium headphones, delicious food. Wow. When we landed, I didn’t even want to get off the plane, lol. I’ve had to make several trips to the mainland over the past few months, all on American, and I guess they thought I should get a reward or something. It’s going to make my next flight in economy much more difficult, though, because now I really know how the important people fly!

  2. Our last flight from Newark to Honolulu Non-Sop my wife noticed on-line a chance to upgrade our economy seats to First Class for $109.00 each and grabbed it. We don’t have their credit card, mileage points or anything except for their site downloaded on our phones. Unfortunately on the return flight First Class was full, if not we happily would have paid for the upgrade. Flying First Class was really comfortable, roomy and quieter. I slept most of the way there waking only long enough to eat the snacks and meals! It was definitely something that we could get used to for every flight over a few hours in length.

  3. Have flown 1st class a couple of times by accident, I think, because I don’t recall ever paying more than economy fare. Maybe a family wanted my seat, or it might have been a redeye flight. I was treated very nicely by the attendants. Mostly, I am content with an aisle seat in the main cabin so I can stretch my legs and stroll up and down after the hubbub settles. A good story or two, by paperback, or a book of simple crossword puzzles keep me occupied, plus the joy of completing the Dept of Ag & Tourist Bureau form and estimating how many trips I have taken to your beautiful state.

  4. Don’t book the “bid up” program on Hawaiian Airlines! If you have to cancel last minute you Do Not get a refund ! I lost $450.00 !

    1. Best chocolates in the world! We rarely have them available in Tennessee – only in holiday pop-up shops in exclusive malls – so I love flying to the west coast airports on the way to and from Hawaii where I can buy all I want. Mahalo for the tip ;-)!!!

  5. We had planned a vacation to Hawaii before the pandemic through one of the warehouse club travel agency. Due to covid the trip was cancelled. As soon as the state “opened back up” we rebooked for last Thanksgiving. We really lucked out because what we had paid for economy for Thanksgiving week 2020 got us first class in 2021. It was a fabulous experience having never flown 1st class before. The only downside is now my wife doesn’t want to return unless we can fly 1st class again.

  6. I don’t understand the reference to Southwest Airlines upgrades. I wasn’t aware Southwest has any first class seats? I don’t think they do.

      1. When ? Just curious ! New airplane traveler here & loving learning from other ppl’s life stories !!!
        Went to Honolulu last July (2021), with daughter & 2 grandchildren – on United Airlines & it was packed from Pittsburgh to Denver the to Honolulu & again on the 2 flights home ,& packed on the smallest& oldest plane I’ve ever been on for the 2nd & last flight of 4 total (45 minutes ) from DUlles toPgh Int’l. Also sas my 1st time ever flying ! (Took 2 trips flying by myself since ( Nov & Dec ., visiting family) from Pgh to Tennessee & Pgh to South Carolina ; going to Talmpa & St James VI in next 6 mos,& back to Honolulu next Sept!!)

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