How To Get an Airline Upgrade on Your Flight

A free airline upgrade to business class or first class is the holy grail for many travellers. We all want to buy a dirt cheap discount economy ticket and then get ourselves upgraded or 'bumped up' into a premium class. After all, who doesn't want the free airport lounge access, flat seats and superior VIP service both on board and on the ground.

Unfortunately these days, operational upgrades for the 'average' passenger are a rarity and you only have a very limited chance of getting one. That said, here are a few basic tips and strategies for slightly increasing your likelihood of getting that upgrade...

Firstly you should understand the mechanics of operational upgrades with respect to an oversold cabin situation. For example, consider an aircraft with a seating configuration of 280-40-8 in economy, business and first class, respectively. If the airline has actually sold 307-18-5 tickets then the cabin has to be re-jigged.

Effectively we have 3 vacant first class seats and 22 vacant business class seats - plus 27 oversold economy passengers. The solution is to upgrade 3 business class passengers to first class which leaves 25 open seats in business. These can then be filled by upgrading 25 passengers from the oversold economy cabin. 2 economy passengers will be asked to voluntarily take a later flight and should receive some compensation to sweeten the deal.

So how does the airline decide which passengers to upgrade? The standard airline criteria for operational upgrades will be something like this:

  • Premium VIP/CIP members (Invitation only)
  • Top-tier frequent flyers (Platinum / Gold)
  • Alliance top-tier
  • Mid-tier members (Silver)
  • Alliance mid-tier
  • Non-elite members
  • Non-members

The above list shows that to increase your upgrade chances you should be a member of your airline's frequent flyer program and try to attain the highest possible status. To get to the very top of the list as an above top-tier "premium member" could be a challenge - unless you are a corporate high flyer, senior civil servant of a banana republic or Mr. George Clooney himself.

British Airways has its invitation only "Premier" membership, Qantas has a similar "Chairman's Lounge" program (given to all serving Australian MPs, no less) and in the US there is "Concierge Key" from American Airlines and "Global Services" from United Airlines.

airline upgrades

For most flyers getting top-tier status in their program is probably the single best thing to increase operational upgrade chances. In addition, top-tier members get some other upgrade bonuses - priority clearance when requesting an upgrade using points or miles and perhaps some complimentary upgrade vouchers.

For example, American gives its Executive Platinum members 8 one-way system-wide upgrades annually; Lufthansa HON Circle members get 6 e-upgrade instruments on attaining and renewing the status. Most of the US programs give top-tier flyers automatic domestic upgrades.

One thing to note, at an airline's hub airport there are likely to be a significant number of top-tier members ‘competing’ for any potential upgrade spoils. There are some further differentiators (which varies from airline to airline) that can be applied when it comes to assigning passenger or member priority:

  • Fare class of ticket purchased
  • Date when booking (first come first served)
  • Individual profiling - could be based on number of miles flown that year; British Airways for example ranks each passenger by a Commercial Individual Value (CIV) score out of 100 which depends on status and spend. Executive Club Gold members flying more than 3000 tier points per year get designated Gold Guest List, with a CIV allegedly of at least 97.
  • Online check-in sequence

Airline Operational Upgrade Tips

OK, so apart from becoming a top-tier frequent flyer, what else can you do for increasing your upgrade chances?

1. Keep an eye out for overbooked flights and potential op-up situations. Flights just before a holiday period can come under this category as business travel recedes. Monitor the load of your flight beforehand using online class availability tools and consider asking staff at the airport how the flight is looking.

2. Op-up chances are generally greater on a wide-body aircraft (Boeing 747/767/777/787 and Airbus A330/340/380) with plenty of premium cabin seating. Business class seats on standard narrow body planes like the 737 are not much better than economy and are in shorter supply - especially on planes where convertible seating is possible.

3. Travelling alone will give you a higher chance of upgrade than being in a couple or group. Travelling with children reduces your chance to almost zero.

4. Don't order a special meal as these cannot be upgraded with you. Airline meal numbers are tightly controlled and an airline would rarely serve an economy meal in business class.

5. Check-in online early as the airline knows you will be on the flight. On an oversold flight, an airline may need to pre-upgrade some checked-in passengers before they arrive at the airport. The old adage "comment if SFU" - Suitable For Upgrade - can also apply on rare occasions, where the airline pre-selects you for an upgrade but the ground agent has discretion to make sure you look the part first. So dressing in business or smart-casual attire will probably do you no harm - although this is not a serious "upgrade tactic". Every week at London Heathrow there are thousands of well dressed chancers - 99% of which still end up flying at the back of the bus!

6. Book a premium economy ticket. There are a growing number of airlines which have premium economy seating - British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Qantas, Air France, ANA, Garuda Indonesia, Eva Airways and China Airlines. The number of premium economy seats is limited and you are also deemed a higher revenue passenger. Any potential overspill from an overbooked economy cabin could result in you being upgraded to business class.

7. The infamous honeymoon upgrades - firstly, if you are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip then why not book a business class seat in the first place?! Airlines are certainly under no obligation to give you any special treatment. Now there's no harm getting a note put under your booking and hope the agent can bypass normal upgrade procedures. However, there's a much greater chance of an upgrade at your hotel rather than on your flight.

8. Should you "ask nicely?" - in this day of struggling airlines and thousands of elite status passengers you are highly unlikely to be granted such a request! You will probably annoy the agent who has heard this already from many non-status economy passengers that day. Some airlines (such as Singapore Airlines) are very protective about their premium cabins and rarely give free upgrades, even to their top-level members.

9. Most airlines will rigidly follow their upgrade priority procedures most of the time. However there will be occasions when rules are not followed - more likely at outstation airports (rather than home airports and major hubs) or when time constraints mean that even non-status passengers could be upgraded. Ground staff are under pressure to get the aircraft departed on time and so may have to forego the usual procedure. So you might get lucky...

10. The world's top secret for guaranteeing you sit in business class every a business class ticket! This almost never fails unless you get downgraded or offloaded. You will earn more frequent flyer miles and status points as well.

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