When you’re about to take off for a trip to Maui, it doesn’t seem like life could get any better.
As it turns out, it can.
On a recent flight, we received a surprise first class upgrade AFTER we had already boarded our main cabin seats. Here’s how the fluke upgrade happened — and what it was like to fly first class from Seattle to Maui on Alaska Airlines.
(Spoiler: It was fantastic.)
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In this post:
- Breaking down our first class cabin experience with Alaska Airlines
- Why Alaska Air gave us a first class upgrade — after we boarded
- How to make it to the top of the upgrade list for an Alaska Airlines flight
- Boarding our flight to Maui as first class travelers
- First class seats and storage on the Alaska Airlines 737-MAX
- First class food and refreshments
- Onboard entertainment and internet access on the Alaska Airlines 737-MAX
- Landing at Maui’s Kahului (OGG) Airport
- Final thoughts
Breaking down our first class cabin experience with Alaska Airlines
What we liked:
- Board earlier than most
- Complimentary food, snacks, and alcoholic beverages
- Free checked luggage
- First class cabin seating with more legroom and larger seats than main cabin seats
What could have improved our experience:
- Lie flat seating
- Alaska Airlines lounge access (You aren’t granted lounge access as an upgraded fare, only if you purchase a first class fare.)
Looking for lounge access at Seattle-Tacoma Airport? Read about the new Centurion Lounge from American Express.
Why we scored a complimentary first class upgrade — after we had already boarded
We were upgraded at the eleventh hour, after we had already boarded the plane. There was no hack involved, just pure chance and a high ranking on the upgrade waitlist.
Here’s how it happened:
When John and I arrived at the Seattle airport, we loaded the upgrade waitlist found on the Alaska Air mobile app. We were ranked #3 and #4 on the waitlist, and the first class cabin was full.
Our boarding time arrived, and we boarded with Group A as MVP Gold members. We tend to book seats in the main cabin, at the exit row. Because it’s an emergency exit row, there’s more leg room in these seats than the typical main cabin seat.
Soon after we had boarded the plane and settled in, I noticed that the flow of passengers had stopped. No one was coming down the jetway.
That’s when the announcement came.
We were instructed to deplane, as our Boeing 737-800 (an older model) had a mechanical issue. The crew apologized and let us know that we would receive our new gate and plane assignment shortly.
In less than 20 minutes, the Alaska gate crew announced our new gate assignment — just one gate over. Even better, we’d be flying on the newer 737 MAX. And this newer plane came equipped with an extra row of first class seats.
Suddenly, I received a notification on my phone from the Alaska Airlines mobile app — the airline had changed my seat assignment. Instead of my usual seat at 16D, I was now assigned 4F.
Our “almost, but not quite” ranking on the upgrade waitlist as #3 and #4 scored us the last two first class seats on the new plane!
So if you’re looking for a “hack” that puts you at the top of the upgrade waitlist, I have two words for you: elite status. Keep reading to find out how the airline decides who gets upgraded to an open first class seat.
How to make it to the top of the upgrade list for an Alaska Airlines flight
You may be asking yourself how one gets to the top of the first class upgrade list when flying with Alaska. One thing is certain: don’t bother getting dressed up to impress the flight crew. Fancy duds won’t land you a complimentary first class upgrade.
Instead, Alaska maintains an upgrade list for every flight. The airline doles out available first class seats based on where you rank on that upgrade list. Contrary to what some believe, whether or not you land an upgrade depends on more than your sense of fashion.
These are the considerations that Alaska Airlines takes into account when creating the upgrade list, in order of importance:
Your elite status level. Also referred to as your frequent flier status, your elite level indicates how many miles you’ve flown with the airline in the past calendar year. For Alaska Airlines, the lowest elite level you can earn is MVP at 20,000 miles flown. The more miles you fly, the higher the status level you can earn, from MVP Gold to MVP Gold 100K. The higher your status, the higher you’ll rank on the upgrade list.
Your fare class. Alaska categorizes the different seats on a plane by category and assigns a letter to denote its fare class. When it comes to complimentary upgrades, certain fare classes rank higher than others.
I generally don’t pay much attention to fare class when I book a flight, because I focus more on the cost of the ticket. However, you can find the fare class letter in parenthesis when booking your ticket, or in the flight details section for already booked flights.
The higher your fare class, the higher up the upgrade waitlist you’ll rank.
Your Million Miler standing. If you’ve flown a million miles or more with Alaska, you have a chance of ranking higher on the upgrade waitlist.
When you booked your flight. The final factor Alaska considers when ranking you on the first class waitlist is when you booked your flight. If you’re vying for the last first class seat upgrade, how early you booked your ticket could make the difference between ranking first on the waitlist or losing out on the upgrade.
Boarding our flight to Maui as first class travelers
One of the biggest benefits of flying as a first class passenger is that you’re among the first to board the plane. There are a few groups who are called to board before first class passengers: those in need of physical assistance, parties with young travelers (babies) who need extra time to get settled, and active military.
While some may scoff that boarding early doesn’t matter — everyone gets to Maui at the same time, right? — boarding early has its benefits.
First, there’s no fighting for overhead bin space. This isn’t something you contend with much in the first class cabin, because I’ve found that first class fliers tend to check their luggage (it’s free), resulting in fewer rolling bags needing overhead space.
Second, boarding early gives you time to settle in and get comfortable while the rest of the passengers board. I typically start charging my cell phone while others are boarding. By the time the plane is ready to push back from the gate, my device battery is charged and ready to play an in-flight movie or two.
Finally, the first class cabin is typically the first to deplane. After more than five hours on the plane, walking off the plane quickly and without a long wait is a small luxury.
Our flight crew was friendly and warm, and boarding went smoothly. It wasn’t a long walk to get to our fourth row first class seats, and we were able to settle in quickly.
First class seats and storage on the Alaska Airlines 737 MAX
Compared to other airlines, Alaska Airlines isn’t the most luxurious when it comes to first class travel. You won’t find lie-flat seating, privacy pods, or even a monitor for watching movies.
What you will find in first class on the 737 MAX are four rows of large, plush seats in a standard two-by-two configuration. While there are few bells and whistles, first class on Alaska Airlines is still more comfortable than sitting in the main cabin.
This is what you can expect to find at your first class seat on Alaska’s 737 MAX:
Roomy front pocket. The front pocket expands to hold a few devices. John slipped both his Nintendo Switch case and laptop into his front pocket. It held beautifully.
I always travel with an airplane seat bag, which conveniently hangs from the front pocket. I’ve successfully used this handy travel organizer on plenty of main/coach cabin flights, not just in first class.
It organizes everything I’d need for a flight, such as: my kindle, cell phone, Airpods, wet wipes, tissues, and charging cables. I even keep a mini pen inside for filling out Hawaii’s required agricultural inspection form.
During the flight, I don’t need to rustle through my carry-on bag to find what I need. And after the flight, I slip it into my bag without worrying about whether I’ll forget something on the plane.
Retractable footrest. In the first class cabin, a retractable footrest allows you stretch out and elevate your legs for a more comfortable flight.
Convenient side pocket. There’s a small side pocket on the middle armrest with a mesh screen so you can see whether you’ve forgotten something when you leave. I don’t typically use it, but it would be a good place to put a small device while it’s charging.
Power outlet and USB charger. Speaking of charging, it always takes me a second to remember that the first class power outlets are in the middle armrest — not on the seat back in front of you.
Center armrest. Not much to speak of about the center armrest, except that it has a recessed drink holder and ample room for passengers on either side to share.
Device holder. Alaska planes don’t come with in-seat monitors, so you have to bring your own device if you want to watch in-flight entertainment.
In the first class cabin, you’ll find a device holder integrated into the tray table. The tray table folds out from the outer armrest. Simply flip the stand up and prop your device up against the stand to watch a movie without holding your device in your hand.
Above-seat buttons. Above your first class seat, you’ll find controls typical to other airplane seats. Adjust your airflow, call for a flight attendant, or turn on a reading light using the controls above the seat.
First class food and refreshments
The very first time I flew in first class, the first thing I noticed was how often attendants come by to feed you. Expect to receive water, beverages, warm nuts, a snack selection, and dessert with your complimentary in-flight meal. The best part? I feel like the flight goes by faster because they keep us busy eating.
Main cabin (non-first class) passengers don’t receive a meal with the flight. However, meals are available for purchase in the main cabin. You have to pre-order your meal on the Alaska Airlines mobile app or website two weeks in advance of the flight and up to 20 hours prior to departure.
John and I had pre-ordered paid meals in advance, which the airline didn’t charge us for since they upgraded our seats to first class. If we hadn’t pre-ordered, we would have been left with whatever was available as our complimentary in-flight entree. Since this was a last-minute airplane switch, the catering company didn’t add many extra first class entrees. As such, our meal selection was limited.
Here’s what I ate while in first class from Seattle to Maui:
There are usually two or three rotating hot entree selections available for first class passengers. For example, sous vide steak was one selection on our flight. Also available are the standard fruit and cheese plate or charcuterie plate that are almost always available.
They ran out of the steak meal before they got to my seat to take my order. Instead, I opted for my usual, the fruit and cheese plate. The meal comes with a selection of Seattle Beecher cheese, crackers, part of a sliced apple, grapes, and a piece of chocolate.
I order this on nearly all of my Alaska flights, and it’s a solid choice. The apple is sometimes a little mealy for my taste, but the grapes are typically quite tasty without being too soft.
The flight attendant apologized for the presentation (or lack thereof) when he served my meal. When the catering team had transferred food to the new plane, they didn’t add extra serving trays or the typical accouterments for the additional first class seats.
Alaska normally serves first class meals on melamine trays that have a wood design, along with cutlery. I didn’t receive any cutlery (no matter, I use my hands for fruit and cheese and keep backup napkins in my airplane bag). Instead of the usual wood grain tray, my food was served on a black cafeteria-like tray with a paper liner.
John’s charcuterie meal was served just as it would be in the main cabin — in a reusable tray and clear lid. The cabin attendant did bring John a bag of complimentary chocolate almonds, which John requested when the attendant made his rounds.
While the presentation was inconsistent with typical first class flights, it didn’t matter to us. After all, we were happy to have been upgraded and not be charged for our meals.
Later in the flight, we received a small container of ice cream from Salt & Straw for dessert. On past first class flights I’ve received a warm chocolate chip cookie, so Alaska Airlines dessert selections may vary depending on your specific flight.
Early in the flight, the flight crew served warm nuts in a plastic cup. In the past, nuts have been served in a white ceramic dish. Not that it bothered us.
Some time around the middle of the flight, the flight attendant came around with a snack tray. The usual offerings include small Kind bars, nuts, chips. I’m partial to popcorn.
Alaska offers complimentary alcoholic beverages in the first class cabin. As I’m not an alcohol drinker, I can’t give an opinion on their offerings. And ever since a flight attendant once told me that airplane water pipes are never cleaned, I don’t order coffee or tea.
The one thing I order to stay hydrated throughout the flight is plain old water. The airline serves boxed or bottled water. In first class you automatically get an individual boxed water at your seat.
Onboard entertainment and internet access
Sitting in a fuselage for nearly six hours can make anyone cranky, but having onboard entertainment and internet access helps pass the time for a more agreeable experience. On our flight (and most Alaska Airlines flights), we had both options available.
Satellite WiFi. Even though I was flying over the Pacific Ocean, I was able to surf online and send iMessages to my family and friends. Alaska has been upgrading its fleet, and they plan to have satellite Wi-Fi installed on all of their planes by early 2023. As of November 2022, 80% of Alaska’s jet fleet has satellite Wi-Fi.
Alaska charges $8 for streaming for the entire flight, which isn’t a bad deal for a nearly six-hour plane ride.
And if you’re a T-Mobile, you get an even better deal —to the tune of free streaming access for the duration of the flight.
Inflight messaging. If you aren’t a T-Mobile subscriber and don’t want to fork over $8 for streaming service, all passengers have access to free messaging (no photos, though).
AirTag tracking for my checked luggage. One surprising thing I experimented with while partaking in Alaska’s streaming service was tracking my checked luggage bag. I had stuffed an Apple AirTag in one of my packing cubes before heading to the airport.
After I checked in my bag at the airport, I was able to track my bag as it traveled around SeaTac’s terminals — until it arrived planeside while I boarded.
While in flight, I was able to confirm that my bag made it onto the plane by using Apple’s Find My feature. The location tracker showed my luggage somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
After we landed, I was able to use the same app to track my bag at Maui’s OGG airport baggage claim. The app had some lag time and didn’t update every minute. But I did receive a notification as soon as my bag was about to roll onto the baggage carousel.
Inflight entertainment. Both first class and main cabin passengers have access to Alaska’s inflight entertainment service, which has a broad selection of movies and TV shows. You don’t have to pay for the streaming service to have access to inflight entertainment — it’s included with your fare.
However, you’ll need to bring your own device, such as a smartphone or iPad. And don’t forget headphones. The airline no longer sells or rents headphones.
Landing at Maui’s Kahului (OGG) Airport
While we were among the first passengers off the plane after arriving on Maui, we still had to wait for our checked luggage like everyone else.
First class passenger bags are typically tagged as priority, but since we were upgraded at the last minute, our bags didn’t receive special handling.
Alaska Airlines does offer a 20-minute service guarantee (the clock starts when your plane reaches the gate). If your luggage doesn’t arrive on time, you can receive a $25 discount code for your next flight, or 2,500 Alaska bonus miles. You just need to let Alaska’s baggage office know about the delayed luggage within two hours of your flight’s arrival.
I didn’t time how long it took to get our luggage — we were on island time at that point — but both of our checked bags made it to us unscathed, which is what ultimately mattered.
All in all, receiving a first class upgrade was an unexpected and delightful start to our Maui trip.
First class with Alaska Airlines isn’t the most luxurious experience you’ll find with an airline. But the extra space and nosh make flying from Seattle to Maui oh so civilized — especially when you’re upgraded for free.