How To Score A Flight Upgrade: 12 Proven Tactics

How To Score A Flight Upgrade: 12 Proven Tactics

What’s better than a fabulous holiday overseas? A fabulous holiday that kicks off with a complimentary upgrade so you don’t have to endure the journey in cattle class. Here are 10 tried and tested ways to make that more likely.

Upgrades are great when they happen, but you need to be realistic in your expectations. If you’re hanging all your hopes on an upgrade and one doesn’t come through, you’re going to be in an even worse mood, which is no way to begin a dozen hours or more stuck in an airplane. None of these methods is infallible — if your airline has sold every business class and premium economy seat, then an upgrade isn’t going to happen. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your chances with these tactics.

#12 Look the part!

We live in superficial times. Your choice of clothes can therefore impact your success on scoring an upgrade. While you don’t necessarily need to wear a business suit, rocking up in tracksuit pants and an old, tatty T-shirt won’t do you any favours.

#11 Don’t choose a seat online

If you’re not particularly fussed about getting the window or aisle seat, refrain from reserving your seat online. This can increase the odds of getting an upgrade, as the airline staff will be forced to stick you where ever they can. (Just be aware that you’re taking a gamble here: you could also end up with the crummiest seat in economy.)

#10 Stick with the same airline as much as possible

When it comes to upgrades, loyalty gets rewarded. If an airline has a relatively full economy cabin but vacancies in its other classes, then the first people to get picked to move up into another seat will normally be the passengers who have ‘status’ with the airline. That’s a sensible business strategy: it keeps customers who are already regular users happy. But it means your odds of getting a flight are a lot lower if you’re a first-time customer.

Ultimately, if your main goal is to save money, then you’re likely to flit a lot between airlines. But if you travel semi-regularly, try and commit to using the same airline as much as possible, make sure your frequent flyer number is attached to every booking, and your upgrade chances will improve.

#9 Travel at a relatively busy time of year . . .

This might sound counter-intuitive, but the reality is this: if the entire plane is half-full, most airlines won’t go out of their way to offer upgrades. After all, even economy passengers are having a better experience if there are vacant seats nearby, and the business class passengers who have paid will also feel like they’re getting better service. It’s when the plane is getting full at the back that upgrades are most likely to happen.

#8 . . . but not the busiest!

There’s definitely a balancing act involved here when it comes to timing. If the flight is completely full, as often happens in school holidays and over Christmas, then there’s obviously no option for getting an upgrade. The same logic applies to routes. For instance, Qantas’ flights to South America are generally packed, in part because it doesn’t fly on that route especially often. The chances of an upgrade here are slimmer than on more frequently-serviced routes such as Sydney-London or Melbourne-LA. (My own experience has been that upgrades are more common on sectors to Europe, though often they’ll only apply to one half of the journey.)

#7 Make sure you respect the baggage rules

Airline baggage rules are tighter than ever, and the charges for excess baggage can be extraordinarily high. But aside from that, it’s worth trying to stay within the limits if you’re hoping for an upgrade. Asking check-in staff to stretch the point on both the size of your bag and on giving you a better seat is definitely stretching the friendship.

#6 Volunteer to get bumped on US domestic flights

In the US, ‘overbooking’ is a common phenomenon; airlines sell more seats than are available on the assumption that some passengers will change their flights or not show up. When that doesn’t happen, volunteers are sought to take an alternative flight. The trade-off is that you’ll often get offered additional incentives, and it’s possible to ask for a first-class seat in return. (I’ve not ever encountered an example of this happening in Australia, whereas I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the ‘can we have some volunteers?’ question at American airports.) Clearly, this isn’t a sensible strategy if your US flight is connecting you to another international service. But if it’s an inter-city route and you’ve got a flexible itinerary, bear it in mind.

#5 Get to the airport in a timely fashion

While there’s a school of thought that says last-minute arrivals are more likely to get an upgrade option, that’s rarely going to be the case with international flights. If you’re timely in arriving and the staff aren’t feeling overwhelmed by last-minute travellers, your odds will improve. (If seating wasn’t pre-assigned when you bought your ticket, you’ll also get a better range of choices if you do end up staying in economy.)

#4 Use the power of love

There’s an infamous episode of the TV sitcom Friends where Monica and Chandler are on their honeymoon and continually miss out on upgrades (to flights and hotels) because another honeymoon couple is just in front of them. It’s not a guaranteed tactic, but mentioning you are on a honeymoon might help out. Staff here at Allure have also scored upgrades in-flight by proposing on the plane and by sobbing while saying goodbye to relatives at the airport, which are variations on the same theme.

#3 Travel on your own

Notwithstanding the last point, there’s a simple reality that applies with upgrades: you’re much more likely to get one if you’re travelling solo than with someone else. It comes down to simple mathematics: the chances of two adjacent business class seats being free are a lot lower than just one being available.

#2 Be pleasant to everyone at the airport

It should be obvious and we’ve already made this point in relation to luggage and timeliness, but simple good manners are a pre-requisite if you want any chance of getting upgraded. Airline workers deal with constant whinging all the time. If you separate yourself from the pack by smiling, your chances of getting a favourable response to “Any chance of an upgrade?” will go up.

#1 Use points to acquire an upgrade

OK, this isn’t a free upgrade; if you’ve got enough points for an upgrade, then you’ve already spent a lot on tickets. However, as we pointed out last week, it can be an efficient way of spending existing frequent flyer points. Just make sure you check the conditions attached to your ticket carefully, since not all ticket types allow this kind of upgrade. For example, Qantas’ “red e-deal” flights normally don’t allow upgrading using points.

Got your own favourite strategies for getting upgraded? Tell us your secrets in the comments.

This article has been updated since its original publication date.


  • As someone who is going to be doing a lot of flying soon, what’s the etiquette here? Do you simply ask (and hope you have one of the above factors in your favour) at check in?

      • actually the worst thing you can do is ask, you will always get a flat no. Most upgrades don’t happen at the check-in desk anyway (for flights), they happen at the gate when you are boarding and are system generated.

      • By all means ask, but you’re wasting your time. My experience is that upgrades are pretty rare these days and are automated rather than being available on a “first come, first served” basis.

        One point in addition to the above: it also depends a great deal on the airline you’re travelling with. SIA, for example, are renown for virtually never upgrading people.

    • I would hope none – the last thing someone who’s actually paid for business class wants is to be stuck with a child in the cabin…

      • …love to see you on the flight with someone who has a child AND has paid for their flight rather than scamming it.

        I can imagine some passengers are pissed off when the parents and their rug-rat get into business class but, just sometimes, they do actually dig into their own pockets to pay their own way. As we will be doing next year…

    • Probably lower than without the child.

      Business class travellers pay for comfort and quiet. Airlines know this. So you’ll be way down their list of options to move into that cabin.

  • I got an upgrade to premium economy on Qantas for a flight from Hong Kong back to Sydney. The service was much better with one flight attendant only serving around 10 passengers. : ) I should mention that I got to the HK airport JUST 90 minutes before departure.

  • 11. Be tall! I’m 6ft 8 and have been upgraded to business class on an international flight because of my height.

    • 6’7″ Here, and I have yet to be upgraded to business class – but I usually manage to get an exit row seat without paying the extra fee some airlines demand.

        • Nope, no status points. It was on my first international flight. Only once had trouble getting an emergency exit row seat, apparently they had all been taken and when I got on the plane the attendant asked a couple of short Asians if they would be kind enough to swap seats… they declined but luckily enough a kind Aussie couple offered to swap with us. People like that make my day.

          • This is my frustration – 18mths ago I paid extra for an exit row seat and booked it when it became eligible for a flight Mel – LAX. I was then asked, when seated, by the flight attendant to give it up then for a taller man. I said no because I had paid for the extra room. Obviously you have the same opportunity to book and pay for an exit row seat that I had. I didn’t like being made to feel bad about saying no.

          • I have never been on a flight where you have to pay extra for an emergency exit row seat. My frustration is when shorter people that don’t require the extra leg room take these seats. It is almost physically impossible for me to sit in a regular seat – I have to sit up dead straight and even then my knees are still digging into the back of the seat in front of me. I get even more frustrated when the person reclines their seat. I really feel for those that are even taller than me.

          • Lots of airlines charge for those seats now. You’re a living illustration of exactly why they shouldn’t be doing this. You can’t blame someone who has paid extra for the seat for refusing to give it up – although surely they’d be offered a refund of the premium they paid for it?

          • I have flown internationally a lot and yes, these seats all cost extra on every flight I’ve been on.

            Sucks because I am super tall and also hardly fit in the normal seats.

  • As some who fly’s regularly I have never once received an upgrade except when using points to do so.

    Honestly I think the only time you will ever receive a complimentary upgrade is when the flight is full as quite often then tend to overbook slightly – the later you check in the better chance you have of scoring a business upgrade.

      • I got an upgrade from economy to business on the 1st leg of a BA / quantas London to Sydney flight, because I turned up late, & they had over-sold, which they often do for long-haul flights. They told me that if they couldn’t upgrade me, they would give me £400, and if they couldn’t get me on a flight the same day, they would pay for a 4-star hotel as well. So either way, I was happy. I didn’t have to be in Sydney for anything important, so £400 and a night in a hotel was actually even more attractive than a business-class upgrade. I’m not sure if they still offer the same sort of compensation. But it’s definitely worth a spin, if you’re not in a hurry to get somewhere.

  • Interesting that you mention that there is minimal chance of an upgrade on a Qantas South American route – my return leg from Buenos Aires is the only time I’ve had one. The plane was only half full, and passengers were sleeping across three seats in Economy.

    Even more interesting was that I received the upgrade by simply selecting a Premium Economy seat on the internet the night before I was due to fly out! Not sure if it was a bug, but I certainly appreciated it. I should point out that it was a ‘regular’ economy ticket, not a Red E-deal.

    • You didn’t get an “upgrade” as such in that case, you were just lucky to get a PE seat. You were still in “economy” class and would have had the economy service. Qantas have rejigged some of the seating on some of their planes as part of getting rid of first class on some routes. On these flights, the first class seats are sold as business class, a couple of rows of business class are sold as premium economy, and a couple of rows of premium economy are sold as economy.

      It’s a nice bonus – my partner and I got business class seats on a premium economy fare to Buenos Aires this way.

      Unfortunately it will only last as long as it takes Qantas to re-do the seating on these planes.

      • On a work trip to Brasil via Argentina, my PE seat was bumped to full business and on the return it was business seats with PE service.
        To be fair, I was traveling alone to Brasil and returned with my colleague.

        Must be a good route for Upgrades at the moment.

  • I’ve been offered a full credit and a later flight when virgin was trying to squeeze a cancelled flight onto mine. Wasn’t worth the $80 to sit in the airport for five hours.

  • I’ve managed a Business to First Class upgrade.. but that was pure luck. Angus.. you were there on the same flight.. the one from Singapore to Sydney, way back when. I can’t justify the spend on the prices they charge for 1st class but boy, it sure was nice sitting up front. 🙂

    The best I’ve managed is free emergency exit rows on the majority of my international flights.

  • My husband travels Qantas 4 x a year to London (normally Prem Econ), is a platinum member and has only ever been upgraded without points on one leg in 3 years! so much for your theories. Hes 6′ 2″ and all bar 3 trips was travelling alone.

    • The post does point out that nothing guarantees upgrades. In the grand scheme, getting upgraded on 1 flight out of 12 is quite a good ratio.

      • Don’t forget there are at least 2 legs Mel – London and its a return trip, so thats 12 x 2 x 2 = 54 plane flights so its actually about a 1 in 54 ratio (not to mention a couple of trips to the US and internal which have never been upgraded). I’m not saying your points don’t have merit but with approximately 60,000 (estimated) Platinum flyers upgrades without points are really a lottery.

  • it’s ironic the photo of the business class seat is for the new Singapore Airlines as they are well-known for not offering upgrades. i get upgraded a class on average 1 in 10 flights i take on star alliance carriers, but never once on Singapore Air

    • btw, that seat (available on A380 and newer 777) is imo the best current business class seat.

  • Apparently for BA, the code phrase “What’s your load like today?” is a prompt for the check-in attendant to see if you’re eligible for a bump. Haven’t personally experienced, but heard tell from elsewhere 🙂

  • Bonx says the only true way to get an upgrade it to tell them at check-in that you are heading to a funeral… or you could simply be Bronx Rocker and they will upgrade you automatically when they see you headed you way…

  • Depending on how dedicated you are to getting the upgrade wearing a neck brace during check in pretty much guarantees an upgrade.

  • I’d always heard that the way you dress for the flight is one of the most important factors. It does seem to make sense that if the check-in staff are on the look out for upgrade passengers, they will pick out those in “business casual” rather than ripped jeans and a footy shirt.

  • Looking as though you’d fit in with business class helps also.
    I have checked in for 2 airlines, neither having business class (not then anyway) but exit row seating is actually required to be occupied on all services for safety reasons. Being fit and able to assist in case of an emergency is a question you’d do well to say yes to. A word of warning, if there are 2 consecutive exit rows, the one in front won’t recline. The worst seats are those normal ones just in front of overwing exits.

  • Be under 18 and travelling alone… worked for me both ways from Syd – LAX then from LAX – Dulles in D.C.

    In all serious though, just after I turned 18 I was flying to meet family in Dubai. Got a business class seat upgrade at the check in counter cause I was only going half way.

    Though i was travelling alone, well dressed and I’m quite tall so the above points do apply.

  • Here is a factor that will PREVENT you getting an upgrade every single time….. that is if you have ordered a special meal.
    They will not serve an economy class meal in business class or first class.
    I am vegetarian, and have not had an upgrade in more than twenty years for this reason.
    (also, if you happen to be traveling with someone who has ordered a special meal.)

  • I have only ever flown on a few flights, and been upgraded to First Class on Singapore air because of me and 2 others being Minors 😀

    11 hour flight in first class, it’s amazing.

  • Be the first to check in. The manifest is printed in sequence number, so they scan down the list for passengers to upgrade. The first person they get to who meets their requirements (ff status, no special meal, travelling alone…) gets the upgrade.

  • There are a few things I always do when flying and since I’ve had two upgrades to business class in the last year on two different airlines I like to consider them as my pre-flying routine:
    – I always dress comfortably but well.
    – I always wear all my jewelry on the plane. This stops me from bringing too much jewelry when I’m traveling but also guarantees I won’t lose it if my baggage gets lost.
    – I aim to arrive at the airport at least thee hours ahead for international flights. This way I’m calm and served at a time when the staff are less likely to be rushed and more likely to accept any requests I have.
    – This one may only apply to girls and drag queens, but I look young for my age (24) so I play that up when I travel by not wearing makeup. It saves my skin on long haul flights and it’s amazing how many people will offer to help a young 16-18-year old girl travelling all by her lonesome with big heavy bags.
    – lastly be nice to your fellow travelers people! Last time I got upgraded I had helped a nun with her carry-on baggage on the previous leg of the trip from Rome-Dubai. Flying business on Emirates from Changi to Brisbane sure was nice and im convinced it was karma.

  • You won’t likely to get upgrade but if you are sitting next, you do have chance to move to other seat. When you move, you are not limited to Economy class but Business class too

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