Rail travel: how to get a free upgrade to first class

Miss Thrifty20 April 13, 2011

get a free train upgrade When travelling on an overcrowded train, I have a great trick for getting a free upgrade to the First Class carriage. I was reminded of it earlier today when I saw a tweet from a London friend (below).

If you are a UK reader, don’t tell me you haven’t been there: travelling on an overpriced ticket in Standard Class, with squalling children and someone else’s KFC assaulting your senses and nowhere to sit, damn it.

free upgrade to first class

I should point out that to get the free upgrade to First Class, there are conditions that must be fulfilled. Firstly, Standard Class has to be packed to the rafters. Secondly, you have to be able to turn on the charm. At least the first one shouldn’t be too difficult to fulfil …

This is how it works.

Have you ever browsed the National Rail Conditions of Carriage? No, of course you haven’t – why would you? Well, you can find them here, and I recommend that you turn your attention to Section 1G, Part 39


If you have a standard class ticket (other than a Season Ticket), no standard class accommodation is available, and ticket staff on that train give their permission, then you may travel in first class accommodation (or the equivalent) where this is available without extra charge.

On-train ticket staff will not give you permission to use first class accommodation (or the equivalent) unless they are satisfied that it is not required by anyone with a first class ticket and the standard class accommodation on the train is full. This permission may be withdrawn if a person holding a first class ticket requires the accommodation during your journey or standard class accommodation becomes available.

In summary: if Standard Class is full and there are seats in First Class, you can go get permission from the conductor to sit in First. Result! I have done this on a number of occasions and it works.

You do have to get that permission from the conductor, though – and I recommend that you ask him or her nicely, as they don’t have to say yes.

In fact, the only time I failed to get permission was on the very first occasion, when a crotchety conductor said he didn’t know what I was talking about. So now when I go on a lengthy train journey, I have had a battered printout of the National Rail Conditions of Carriage in my bag, ready to be brandished if necessary.

You can find a printable PDF here. (It’s 30 pages long, but you only need pages 1 to 16.)

Let me know how you get on…

Image credit: jonoakley

This post was featured in the 279th Festival of Frugality at the Canadian Finance Blog.

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20 Responses to “Rail travel: how to get a free upgrade to first class

Tim Nash says:

If you are hungry and on some East Coast trains leaving in the evening, when the difference between first and standard is over £300, then consider having dinner in the restaurant carriage. It’s a first class carriage, you get a meal (steak and a large glass of wine will set you back £20) and the advantage that after your meal you are not asked to leave.

The only downside is that East Coast are running restaurant carriages very rarely.

oh and the first class upgrade won’t work on East Coast who will not declassify first class as there are vestibules which they classify as a seating area, I assume they are including the toilet!

April 14, 2011 at 7:52 am

Miss Thrifty says:

“East Coast who will not declassify first class as there are vestibules which they classify as a seating area”. Do they? What a swizz!

I don’t use East Coast very often because the Grand Central line (pictured above), goes from York to London without stopping and is cheaper and nicer. But I did hop on an East Coast train recently and was NOT AMUSED to discover that you now have to pay £10 for wi-fi! Robbers.

April 14, 2011 at 8:07 am

Tim Nash says:

Since the good days of GNER the service has plummeted especially now it’s government owned, I love the fact Grand Central exists a completely privatised rail operator, who is cheaper, more punctual and generally more comfortable then their franchised competitors just a shame they don’t do Leeds to London as well 🙂

April 14, 2011 at 8:38 am

andy says:

Just a thought, if you’re going out in Manchester for a bite to eat anytime soon then I’d recommend
finding an offer first (of course) and I came across a good site the other day, actually my friend
emailed it to me, its largeManchester.com/offers.html and it has one in particular that gives 50% discount
Have a look, let me know what you think and if you have your own to share

April 22, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Becky says:

Genius . Thanks for this. I am so much happier in first class!

May 2, 2011 at 8:33 am

Plan to travel soon, so I’ll definately be giving your tips a try. Looking forward to stretching my legs out in first class!

May 18, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Jenny says:

Very useful information, I guess you
Need to walk through the whole train to check for no seats before approaching the conductor but if you don’t ask you will never get!

July 10, 2011 at 10:15 am

Alexa Harper says:

This is an interesting technique. The cool thing is there are sorts of nifty ways to save yourself a lot of money when it comes to taking the trains. Too many to list. But I would say the most important thing to keep in consideration is timing. You got the right timing, you get the right prices! :0

August 16, 2011 at 2:07 am

Andy says:

This is excellent – provided only a few people get to know about it. The downside is that we could end up with first class full of inconsiderate people listening to loud music, texting friends with an audible keypad bleep (my personal favourite – not!), using foul language and constantly making and receiving ‘phone calls. I do agree with you in principal, but know from experience that the most unruly passengers will be the first to grab such an opportunity with both hands.

Passengers will soon refrain from paying costly First Class fares if there is no associated benefit in the form of an enhanced travelling experience. It will become the same as buying an expensive house on a new-build estate these days – pricy, but with no guarantee that your immediate nieghbours will behave in a civilised fashion.

August 23, 2012 at 11:36 am

Jason Fernee says:

I exercised this right today… although I couldn’t ask permission as there is no guard or inspector. So what happens if you can’t gain permission as nobody is available and an inspector gets on half way through your journey? Have to say the train I got on was 30 miles from London and they were packed on like sardines on four coaches, so I had no qualms about using this.

February 2, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Miss Thrifty says:

Good question! I suppose that technically, if you can’t get permission then it hasn’t been granted, and you can’t sit there. I’d chance it though…

February 6, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I use South West trains everyday and pretty much every day (Waterloo to Weybridge line) First Class is declassified whether the train is packed or not. It is almost like there is no first class area, even though it is marked first class. Use this tip at your own discretion and don’t blame me if you get in trouble though 🙂 although I have never had any or seen anyone get in trouble for sitting in there.

June 21, 2014 at 11:14 am

Kaz says:

I tried this today & they were shocked that I knew but insisted there were seats even though they were reserved in standard class – they were rude In fact. Additionally the ticket conductors wasn’t even aware of the NRCC guidance. The head conductor was but she insisted on the payment ?

December 8, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Miss Thrifty says:

Ouch! You were unlucky Kaz. Nothing ventured, nothing gained – better luck next time. Despite the NRCC, I think a lot depends on the conductors’ goodwill, more’s the pity.

December 12, 2016 at 3:16 pm

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