Travel Secrets

How to get a FREE Airline Upgrade!

By Hank Poole, Contributing Editor

The Elusive Free Airline Upgrade

In the past getting an airline upgrade to business or first class was not unusual. You just had to travel often and be smart and available. With airlines making seat assignments electronically and offering many paid ways to get an airline upgrade using frequent flyer miles, special coach with upgrade tickets, elite status, etc, the chances of getting an upgrade to a better seat on a random basis are slim.

The fact remains that it can happen, and who wouldn’t want more leg room, bigger seats, and better passage through customs and security? Here are some tips to follow to put yourself in the best possible position to receive an upgrade when one happens to come available.

Tactics for Getting the Elusive “Free” Upgrade

Some ground rules to follow if you are serious about getting an upgrade:

Dress neatly.

Dressing well is not the ticket to ride some hope it is, but even so, you are not getting an escort to the front of the plane if you are wearing cargo shorts, a tank top and flip-flops. Most people don’t even want to sit next to you in this case, let alone upgrade you.

Ask politely and directly.

Randy Petersen recommends something as simple as “If you are upgrading passengers on this flight, I would like to be considered.” Inserting the word “please” won’t hurt you either.

Be on time, and have good timing.

Showing up late to request an upgrade when an agent is just trying to get everyone checked in and in the air isn’t going to work. Do agents the courtesy of making your request with plenty of time to spare before the flight, and when no one else is competing for their attention.

Be reasonable.

Being overly demanding or demeaning just inspires agents to pick someone else to upgrade if the opportunity arises. And don’t waste everyone’s time and good will if you know that you are a poor candidate. If you are traveling with your whole family, have a pet lobster in a cage as your carry-on or purchased a ticket for an extremely low fare, you probably don’t want to spend your energy demanding upgrades.

Next, making it happen. Petersen offers the following tactics for getting a free upgrade:

If the flight is relatively empty, your chances are slim. Even though seats in business class may also be empty, the airlines don’t usually upgrade people for no reason. If the flight is full, your chances are better. Airlines carefully plan how much they oversell flights, and their inventory departments are not upset if people need to be upgraded to accommodate everybody on the flight. Therefore, on a full flight the airlines sometimes are forced to upgrade people. In this scenario, if you have a good story, you may be lucky. Remember, of course, that business or first class may already be full from prebooked elite-level upgrades.

Volunteer to give up your seat if the flight is oversold. Tell the agent that if they don’t need your seat but they do need somebody to upgrade, you’ll be happy to volunteer for that. Small chance, but worth a try. If they end up needing your seat for someone else, ask whether you can be upgraded on the next flight.

If you have been inconvenienced by the airline, don’t hesitate to ask for an upgrade. Again, airlines don’t generally upgrade people for no reason, but if they have caused you a problem, that may be reason enough. Also, ask about availability at check-in, particularly on international flights, where the check-in agents sometimes have more control over the seating chart. Then, if seats appear to be available, check in again at the gate. The final, “miracle” upgrades always happen at the last minute, when all passengers are checked in and any remaining availability becomes clear. Make sure you are within earshot of the gate desk, although hovering over agents is not recommended.
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More Techniques to Capture The Rare Airline Upgrade

Here are several more ways to put yourself in the right place at the right time to get an upgrade to business or first class from folks who travel often and have experienced it themselves.

Travel at quiet times

Graphic Designer Clare McMonagle says you get a better chance of upgrading to business class by ‘booking a flight on bank holidays and at other times of the year when business users are less likely to fly as the seats tend not to be taken up’.

Spend lots of money

Sometimes you have to invest to get a return. Relationship Executive Matthew Smith says: “My wife and I got upgraded when we moved here from the US on BA. Not sure why, but we think spending $1600 on baggage fees helped.”

Be loyal

Ewan Gray, Director, APAC advises joining the airline’s loyalty program: “Even if it’s the lowest level, you still get rewarded first. I know this from a friend at BA… and I’ve got a card for each partnership accordingly.

Be early

Your flight may only have one or two upgrade places available, so maximise your chances of bagging them by rocking up at check-in 11 hours before the scheduled departure. If it backfires, you’ll have to kill a murderous amount of time in Starbuck’s, but it worked for Product Manager David Low: “My wife and I were flying to the Dominican Republic. We’d got to Glasgow Airport far too early but at least there was no queue. The check-in lady told us that they had two spare seats in first class, and since we were first to arrive, we could have them for free. So we happily accepted.” Unfortunately David’s trip was spoilt somewhat by a devastating hurricane, but at least it got off to a good start.

Be late

Being late has worked twice for Chris Kim, Market Development Manager, Korea, who recommends: “Be late without reserving your seat: if you are lucky and if the flight is overbooked, you can get the premium class ticket”. However, Joe Sarre, Senior Engineer, IT Service, APAC says it ‘works well at busy times, but is a dangerous game’. “If you are too late you might miss the check-in time, or they might have already sorted their overbooking problems by giving upgrades to the passengers ahead.”

Check your emails

Joe recounts that Air France emailed him a couple of times on the day of departure offering a cheap (not free) upgrade. “I’ve twice missed this because I didn’t check my emails close enough to departure. One of these times I had even called the airline to ask if they had any deals and they said no! So keep checking your emails even up to a couple of hours before departure.”
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Have you ever been upgraded to first class for free? Do you have a special tactic you use?

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