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.