Want an upgrade on your next flight? I’ll cut straight to the chase here:
Pay For It!
That is the one way you’ll guarantee an upgrade on most flights. If there are spare seats in the next cabin up, then more often than not, the airline will be more than happily sell them to you. Just ask at check in. In some cases, the airline even advertises the price.
From browsing online, I see more than a few people messaging airlines asking for an upgrade for a special occasion. Or posting on forums the best “hacks” in order to get an upgrade. Even a Google search throws up 139 million results on the subject.
The following applies to Europe. I’m aware that the upgrade process is very different in the USA, at least on domestic flights.
Whilst free upgrades do occasionally happen, it will be you doing the airline a favour as opposed to them helping you out. If economy is oversold and there are a few business class seats, then the easiest way for the airline to solve this problem is to bump a select few up.
Back in the 90’s, I remember the trick of dressing up smart, asking nicely at check in and hoping for the best being the order of the day when flying. And this did work. Not on every single flight, but more often than it would today. In 160 flights in 2018, I was upgraded a couple of times, if that. As of December 2019, I have taken 95 flights and I don’t recall being upgraded once.
These days, getting an upgrade is a far more complex process. And not a human one either. Everything is done behind the scenes, via a computer. Some of the things that are taken into account are:
The airline is more likely to reward one of their own frequent flyers as opposed to someone who is unlikely to fly them again. In the world of alliances, again the airline is more than likely to upgrade their own. But this isn’t always the case. The one and only upgrade I received on Star Alliance was when flying with Lufthansa, despite holding my status with Turkish Airlines. I have also been upgraded on American with British Airways status. It simply depends how many more there are ahead of you on the list.
The rest of my upgrades have come on British Airways.
There is one caveat to this however.
How frequently you fly in a premium cabin
If you have someone who travels in a premium cabin every week, who is a top tier frequent flyer, what does the airline stand to gain by upgrading them? They have them convinced. Where as if you have a lower tier frequent flyer, who takes nothing but the cheapest economy fares, it makes more sense for the airline to show them what life is like in front of the curtain. Once they have had a taste of the good life, they might not want to go back. Which will = more £££ for the airline.
That’s why it’s not unheard of for British Airways bronze, or even blue card holders to be bumped up, despite there being a number of gold card holders left back in economy.
How many people there are on your ticket?
If there is just the one of you travelling, you stand a far better chance. It’s far easier for the airline to find one spare seat in the cabin than four. Especially four seats all together.
Have the airline given you a bad service previously?
Back in 2014, I had a pretty lousy flight back from Malta. I emailed British Airways a complaint, and received their standard copy/paste “sorry, see you soon” response. Deciding to push things a little further, I got in contact with their call center, to not only have another moan about the flight, but also the crappy response.
The next two flights I took with British Airways, I got an upgrade. Now, it could have just been a co-incidence, but there’s always the chance it could have been a bit of service recovery.
Have you checked in online?
If the airline doesn’t know that you at least intend to turn up for the flight, then they certainly wont consider you for an upgrade. So the best trick here is to check in online before you arrive at the airport.
Having said this, more often than not, I’ve been given an upgrade at the gate right before boarding. So what difference it makes between checking in online and doing it at the airport, I don’t know.
Although on one occasion, I was given an upgrade hours before even setting off to the airport. I found this out by checking the app to see if the flight was on time, and noticed that my seat had changed to something a lot further forward.
Do you know any of the crew?
Your final roll of the dice is to score an unofficial upgrade. If you’re friends with a member of the crew, and they happen to be in a good mood, they will be able to see if there’s any spare seats on board. It’s possible they could invite you forward once the doors are closed.
I’m guessing policy varies by airline though. Some might say it’s fine to do this, others might hand out severe penalties for the crew upgrading without good reason. So best not to shout about it too loud if you do score an upgrade by this method.
The above list isn’t by any means exhaustive. The methods used for giving an upgrade differ by airline. When flying American Airlines a few years back, I was upgraded at the gate as they needed my seat to accommodate a family together. Other airlines could just as easily take the attitude of, “too bad, pay up next time”.
And this isn’t by any means the concrete rules either. You don’t have to be a member of the airlines frequent flyer program at all to get lucky. You don’t have to have been given a poor service previously. As mentioned, it’s the computer that decides in most, if not all the cases these days.
One notable exception to all of this I can think of was when LOT ran their 787 to Heathrow back in late 2012. When at the check in desk, I asked if the 787 was still operating, and mentioned that I’d booked that trip especially to fly on it. The agent went off, had a word with someone and said that because of this, her supervisor had agreed to upgrade me. Nearly 700 flights later, this remains the one and only flight I was given an upgrade without an operational need. At least in this century.
Just whatever you do, don’t think that boarding last and grabbing a spare seat up front will work. It wont. The crew know exactly how many passengers they have up front. And which seats are supposed to be filled and which ones aren’t. Yes, someone has tried this. It’s on YouTube.