How To Get a Free Airline Upgrade

free airline upgrade to business class

A free airline upgrade to business class or first class is the holy grail for many travellers. We would all like 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.

Now free airline upgrades happen to be a rather emotive subject for a number of reasons:

  • Airline classes have a top-down hierarchical structure with the masses mainly flying in economy (coach) class.
  • Economy class is generally cramped and uncomfortable, particularly on long flights.
  • Business class and first class airfares often sell at a significant premium to economy fares. The average flyer will happily pay £450/$600 for a coach seat on an international long-haul flight but would certainly not pay £2,200/$2,900 for a business class seat. That’s happens to be a fare ratio of almost 5:1.
  • A free upgrade to the more comfortable business class cabin is perceived as very valuable to an economy passenger.
  • However the actual cost to the airline to upgrade an economy passenger to an empty seat in business or first class is marginal, perhaps $50-$100 more – hence the reason that free airline upgrades can often happen.
  • With millions of passengers flying worldwide in different classes it is inevitable that airlines will sometimes have to upgrade passengers to a higher class.

Whilst the free airline upgrade is sought-after, the reality these days is that it rarely happens to the “average” passenger. Such operational upgrades (or “op-ups”) are mainly the result of overbooked cabins. These upgrades are often already decided automatically by computer algorithms well before the flight.

But first, let’s take a closer look at the mechanics of an operational upgrade process.

Let’s Play Musical Chairs (Airline Style)

Airlines routinely oversell seats on flights in order to maximise revenue and increase load factors. This causes some consternation amongst the travelling public however it does probably help keep airfares a little lower.

Most airlines use yield management software which calculates the predicted number of no-shows on a specific route at a certain time and date. In other words, it works out how many tickets they can oversell on a flight.

On occasion the airline miscalculates. Every so often there will be too many passengers turning up at the airport and not enough available seats on the flight.

For example, consider an aircraft with a seating configuration of 127-39-42-8 in economy, premium economy, business and first class, respectively.

Now, say the airline has actually sold 146 economy, 51 premium economy, 19 business and 3 first class tickets on a particular flight. We then need to play the airline equivalent of musical chairs and re-jig the cabin assignment.

The situation? We have 5 unsold first class seats and 23 unsold business class seats – a total of 28 vacant seats. On the other hand we have 12 oversold premium economy passengers and 19 oversold economy passengers. That’s a total of 31 oversold seats.

The solution? You can see immediately that we have 3 passengers (31-28) who will not be able to fly. We have to find 3 volunteers who are willing to take a later flight with some compensation to sweeten the deal.

That leaves 28 oversold passengers and 28 vacant seats. Now the simplest solution would be to offer 28 upgrades directly into the vacant seats. However most airlines play fair and will generally only upgrade 1 class up.

First we can upgrade 5 business class passengers to first class – which leaves 28 open seats in business. We fill these by upgrading 28 premium economy passengers to business class, leaving 16 open seats in the premium economy cabin. Finally we can upgrade 16 economy passengers to premium economy. Full plane, 3 offloads, 49 upgrades processed, job done.

Obviously this is a simplified example as in a busy hub airport with many connecting passengers the precise numbers can be more fluid with no-shows and late arrivals. This uncertainty is the actually one of the best way the average passenger can circumvent the standard upgrade rules. Because airlines hate delays and sometimes decisions need to be made quickly at the gate to get the flight away on-time.

Airline Upgrade by Algorithm

So how does the airline normally decide which passengers to upgrade?

free airline upgrade Click here for the file location (967×1,304, 100KB) of How To Get an Airline Upgrade infographic. [Note, you may publish elsewhere as long as you use an attribution link to or this current page.]

Firstly it could look at either frequent flyer status or price of ticket paid.

The standard frequent flyer pecking order for processing 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

This 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. At the very least you should always join the airline program which will give you immediate priority over any non-members.

The upgrade infographic above also shows the distribution of members in a standard frequent flyer program. Of 10 million members you can expect about 120,000 (1.2%) mid-tier members, 5,000 (0.05%) top-tier members and 500 (0.005%) invitation-only members.

Now to reach invitation-only status can be quite a challenge – unless you are a corporate high flyer, senior civil servant of a banana republic or Mr. George Clooney himself (aka Ryan Bingham).

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 Emirates has IO (Invitation Only). In the US there is Concierge Key from American Airlines, Delta 360 from Delta Airlines and Global Services from United Airlines.

For most flyers getting top-tier status in your program is probably the single best thing you can do to increase operational upgrade chances. In addition, top-tier members can get 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 up to 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 (space-available) domestic upgrades.

There are some further differentiators which varies from airline to airline that can be applied when it comes to assigning passenger priority. These are:

• Fare class of ticket purchased
• Date of booking (first come first served)
• Online check-in sequence number
• Booking using an influential travel agent
• Individual passenger profiling

In the case of individual travel profiling this could be scored on how much the passenger has spent or flown with the airline that year. Alternatively a more complex profiling system could be in place.

British Airways for example ranks each passenger by a Commercial Individual Value (CIV) score between 0 and 100 which depends on status and spend. Executive Club Gold members who fly 5,000 tier points in 1 year get designated as Gold Guest List, with a CIV allegedly of at least 97. You need 3,000 annual tier points to retain that status.

On top of this BA also uses a special upgrade list program (known as the Discretionary Upgrade Tool) which is also used as a marketing vehicle to selected passengers who may be converted into higher revenue customers. For example, a mid-level member (BA Silver) who flies economy regularly could be given a free taster to business class in the hope that they will purchase business class more in the future.

So having status and authority within the airline will increase your chances on the official upgrade list.

Airline booking systems are also getting smarter. Rather than offer free operational upgrades, many airlines will first try to sell cheap upgrades to flyers in the days leading up to the flight. These days some airlines are also selling empty seats (next to you) as well.

Upgrades can be offered at a fixed price (and cheaper than buying the business or first class ticket outright) or auctioned off to the highest bidder. This is done online via email, manage my booking or online check-in, at the airport check-in kiosks or at an airline desk (check-in, lounge or gate).

So is there anything else you can do to slightly increase your likelihood of getting that airline upgrade? Yes, but these are long-shots at best…

13 Tips to Increase Chance of Operational Upgrade

1. Look out for full or overbooked cabins on flights. You will not get upgraded if your flight is half-empty. Ideally you want a full economy cabin and an empty business cabin. Flights around a holiday period can come under this category as business travel recedes.

Now if booking well in advance it is going to be difficult to know exactly what the load is come flight time. And flights booked closer to departure tend to be more expensive.

It’s probably best to just book your flight as usual and then monitor the flight load as the departure approaches. This is possible using online class availability tools (eg Expertflyer, KVS – both subscription services), running dummy bookings or phoning the airline to ask. Also watch for overbooking signals such as the airline selling upgrades online before the flight.

2. Op-up chances are generally greater on a wide-body aircraft (Boeing 747/767/777/787 and Airbus A330/340/350/380) with plenty of premium cabin seating. Business class seats on standard narrow-body planes like the Boeing 737 are not much better than economy and are in shorter supply – especially on planes where the divider between business and economy is movable.

Be aware for occasions when a larger aircraft type is substituted on your flight route. It could well be that some original economy seat assignments numbers are located in the business cabin of the new aircraft.

3. Upgrades are more often than not given to lone travellers rather than groups. Only when there are a number of seats available it is sometimes easier and quicker for the airline to upgrade a party of travellers on a single PNR. Note that travelling with young children reduces your upgrade chances to almost zero.

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

The Upgrade: New York-London Heathrow British Airways Boeing 747 party of 3 upgraded from WTP premium economy to business (Club World). 1 of the party was a (standard, non-elite) Blue Executive Club member, the other 2 non-members. Reason for upgrade: luggage was lost on outbound sector and didn’t arrive for 2 days; marked in booking, automatically upgraded at airport check-in.

5. Upgrades can sometimes be given if you experience bad service levels – particularly if you have another flight coming up. This was the case above where the combination of lost luggage on a premium economy ticket was enough for the airline to offer an upgrade as compensation. On-board upgrades are possible (but rare) in the event of a broken seat where there is no other possibility but to move to another class.

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

7. Check-in early – Check-in online at the earliest opportunity (usually T-24 hours). A few airlines are known to use check-in sequence number as one differentiator on upgrade lists. An airline may also need to start pre-upgrading passengers a number of hours before departure and would choose those that have checked-in already.

Checking-in early could also mean getting a sought-after exit row in your class. This can give you some extra leverage in the upgrade stakes, as the airline may want your seat for a late arriving elite member.

8. Board late – It could well be that on a busy/overbooked flight with many late arriving passengers (including those from flight connections), upgrades are still being processed come the very last minute. Hanging back until the last possible moment can sometimes result in you getting a shiny new business class boarding pass.

9. Pick your airline – British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Emirates are examples of major airlines that are well known to offer operational upgrades when required. As described above, BA uses complex software to process upgrades; Emirates is based at a major fluid hub (Dubai) and has many wide-body aircraft with large business cabins.

On the other hand Singapore Airlines is very protective about their premium cabins and rarely gives free upgrades, even to their top-level members.

10. Dress well – The old adage “comment if SFU” – Suitable For Upgrade – can apply on very 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 absolutely not a serious upgrade tactic.
Every week at London Heathrow there are thousands of well-dressed chancers hoping for that elusive upgrade – 99% of whom still end up flying at the back of the bus! And anyhow, many regular premium cabin flyers dress for comfort.

[A humourous aside, the lengths some people will go to for a free airline upgrade – certainly not recommended, from happy-go-lucky to the unethical and outright illegal:
*Flying on their birthday
*Minor “celebrities” and DYKWIAs booking economy hoping for the upgrade
*Bombarding the airline with calls asking to be placed on the upgrade list
*Arriving at the airport in crutches and a plaster cast
*Flirting with staff
*Bringing chocolates or coffee to bribe agents
*Outright bribery offering cash
*Photoshopping the boarding pass to seat 1A
*Calling themselves Lord, Lady, HRH, Sir, Doctor, Admiral Rothschild or whatever
*Flashing Uncle Ronald’s expired Gold airline card]

11. Should you “ask nicely?” – Now there’s nothing wrong with being polite and courteous to airline staff. However, in this day of struggling airlines, thousands of elite status passengers and upgrade computer algorithms 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. And often the desk agent would actually require authority from a senior manager to process an upgrade.

However, one situation where you might want to ask is if you are volunteering to be offloaded from an overbooked flight. You are doing the airline a favour and may receive cash compensation. Enquire about the possibility of being upgraded on your rebooked flight.

Or if you have paid a lot of money for excess baggage you should also ask for the upgrade.

12. 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 that 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.

13. The world’s top secret for guaranteeing you sit in business class every time… buy 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.