How to Ask for an Upgrade on a Flight

Avalon Harris-Trussell, 08.08.19
Alternative Destinations

Today, the chances of being upgraded to the luxury of Business Class is, unfortunately, unlikely. However, unlikely doesn’t mean impossible, and there certainly are ways of increasing your chances. Check out our top tips below to discover how you can try and earn yourself a well-deserved upgrade!

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You might have noticed that all things flight-related now seem to carry an additional price-tag. Gone are the days when an airline ticket would simply equate to sitting in either the ‘Economy’, ‘Premium’, ‘Business’ or ‘First’ class cabin. Today, the introduction of airline fare tariffs, or fare tiers, mean that many (once complimentary) benefits carry an extra cost. This might include the privilege of speedier check-in/security/boarding, a few extra inches of legroom, increased baggage allowance and many other add-ons. All of which can make a massive difference to improving your experience both at the airport and in-flight, by the way, and in many cases upgrading your ticket tariff is definitely worth the small fee difference!

Fuller flights and digitized operations—most airlines now offer the opportunity to pre-book your seat and check-in online, rather than seats being delegated at check-in like they used to be—has led to what has been dubbed in the industry as a ‘zero upgrade’ environment. However, although rare, free upgrades do still happen, and our top tips below will definitely increase your chances!

Did you know? When searching for flights through Alternative Airlines, it’s easy to see if tariff upgrades are available! To find out more, check out our full guide to Airline Fare Families.

So, if I do so nicely, can I ask for an upgrade on my flight?

Magic Words: Truth or Myth?

Every now and then, rumours of magic words to be quietly but knowingly whispered at check-in like to circulate. As it turns out, there are two words that will result in you indulging in the upper-class cabin. Unfortunately, they’re ‘Business Class’, which is to be answered ‘yes’ (or clicked) when asked which cabin you’d like to sit in during the booking process.

Today, many airlines state in their policies that it is prohibited to arbitrarily upgrade passengers, either at check-in or onboard a plane. For many airlines, this will be a very firm rule. So, if you want to absolutely 100% guarantee flying in style, you're going to have to pay up-front.

Top Tips

The key word from above is ‘arbitrarily’. Undeserved upgrades are almost impossible. Therefore, you just need to give your airline a justified reason to upgrade you, and these top tips are your best bet!

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1. Join a Frequent Flyer Scheme

This is by far the most effective way to gain an upgrade on your plane ticket. Before flying, join a frequent flyer scheme and start collecting points. Reaching the top levels of a frequent flyer scheme, such as the 'Gold' or 'Premier' levels (terminology varies by airline), will go a long way towards boosting your status at check-in.

Loyalty does not mean having to stick with just one airline. Many airlines operate under a shared alliance, meaning you can earn frequent flyer points for a single account on several different carriers. Some of the biggest and most popular airline alliances include Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance. You simply enter one frequent flyer number during the booking process and earn your points from flights on any of the airlines under the alliance. What’s more, it’s a super quick process to sign up to most frequent flyer programs. Even if you don’t fly often, just signing up could give you leverage against passengers who haven’t if the airline you’re flying with needs to decide who to upgrade.

If you’ve built up your points, this could be the one time when it is actually possible to ask for last-minute upgrade options, if you’re an ‘elite’ customer with miles or upgrade certificates to use.

To find out more about the best program for you, check out our blog: The Best Frequent Flyer Programs.

Did you know? It’s easy to search and buy flights and collect frequent flyer points when you book through Alternative Airlines—simply apply the airline alliance filter when searching for flights! A full guide can be found here.

2. Choose your Flight Strategically

Most free upgrades given will be done so for ‘operational reasons’—this is what’s known as an ‘op-up’. It’s becoming increasingly common practice for airlines to oversell airplane tickets and then bank on a number of travellers no-showing. However, sometimes they bet wrong, and will then need to bump-up passengers from an oversold cabin to a higher class, if there is room available. For example, when seats in the Economy cabin are oversold but there are seats available in Premium Economy.

Choosing to travel on a busy route and during busy periods (such as Thanksgiving in the US, for example) means op-ups are more likely to occur. It’s worth noting here that many will only let you jump up one cabin class, so if you’re hoping for an upgrade to Business, your best bet will be to book Premium Economy. These upgrades will usually be decided automatically by computer algorithms, well before the flight departs.

3. Volunteer your Services

For the reasons discussed, simply asking for an upgrade at check-in is unlikely to get you anywhere. However, if you’re looking to win favour, you can volunteer your services instead. If a flight has been overbooked, but there aren't any seats in a higher class to upgrade passengers to, the airline may then need to ask for volunteers to catch a later flight. If you volunteer, you may be thanked by the airline by being given vouchers to use in the future, as well as being upgraded to a higher class on the next available flight.

4. Fly on a Wide-Body Aircraft

This is an interesting fact. The chances of an op-up are generally greater on a wide-body aircraft (Boeing 747/767/777/787 and Airbus A330/340/350/380), as these planes tend to have plenty of premium cabin seating. Premium seats on standard narrow-body planes don’t tend to offer such an ‘upgrade’ in terms of experience, especially on planes where the divider between economy and premium is movable.

5. Fly Solo

As already explained, airline algorithms are more likely to prioritize those who are already members of its frequent flyer scheme. The chances will also be higher if you have just one seat booked, perhaps if you are flying for business or traveling solo. Airlines also like to upgrade VIP’s. There have even been cases of individuals having been upgraded because they happen to have the same name as celebrities!

Conclusion

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Everyone loves an upgrade. However, not many are prepared to put in the minimal amount of work required to actually get one. If you really after the free upgrade, you need to be strategic, and point-building is the best place to start. For most flyers, reaching top-tier status in your chosen frequent flyer program is going to be the single best way you can try and increase the chances of a free upgrade.

Looking for more tips to get your holiday off to a good start?

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