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Secrets revealed: How to get an airline upgrade

Tom Perry
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Etihad's 'Pearl Business Class': Upgrade, please!
"If there is an old-fashioned 'secret weapon' for anyone aiming for an upgrade, then this is it."
Tom Perry

For most travellers, getting an upgrade is the holy grail of air travel. Yet outside of the airline industry, very little is known about the mysterious world of upgrades, how they work, or who decides why and when they are given. Tom Perry gets the inside word on the much-coveted sky-high perk.

A cabin crew member emerges from behind the curtain. They are carrying a passenger list and scanning the seat numbers. They arrive at your seat and begin to smile. Kneeling next to you, they look you in the eye and ask the question you've spent your travelling life hoping for: "Would you like to join us in business class, sir?"

Surely every airline passenger has dreamed of this moment. I do it nearly every time I shuffle through business class on my way to the back of the plane. No doubt most people have heard a story of a friend, or a friend of a friend, who has told of boarding a flight to London and getting "the nod", before spending the next 20 hours drowning in champagne and caviar, and seeing how many different positions that supremely comfy German-engineered flat bed can be adjusted to.

Yet the disappointing reality is that while upgrades do still happen, these days they are very rare.

VIEW GALLERY: Best airline beds


"The good old days where check-in staff could say, 'Oh, he is a friend of a friend' — and then they are bumped up to business — are over," says Steven Palombo, Australian manager for Air Mauritius.

"Most airlines now have to report to the senior management on every passenger that gets upgraded," he says. "Business class service — with meals, lounge access and all the extras — costs an airline more to deliver. When the passenger has not paid for that service, there needs to be a good reason for them to be up there."

The good news is, however, that upgrades do still occasionally occur. The single most likely reason for passengers to be offered an upgrade is if economy has been overbooked, or the flight has to take on additional passengers, "forcing" a select lucky few to move up the plane.

"If a flight needs to take on additional passengers but is already sold out of space in a particular class, then a last-minute decision may be taken to allow a certain number of passengers to upgrade from one class to another," an Emirates rep tells me.

For Emirates, the upgrade decision is usually always made at the airline's management level, and that priority will normally be given to frequent flyer members, with gold and silver members getting first opportunity.

With that all in mind, here are the best ways to improve your chances of getting an upgrade:

1. Be loyal
They are called loyalty programs for a reason: airlines reward loyal customers. If you fly to Europe twice a year, fly with the same airline each time and rack up some points, it will help your chances of one day getting "the nod".

2. Fly at peak times
Upgrades are most likely to happen at the peak air travel periods of Christmas, Easter and mid-year, when flights are at their fullest.

3. Pay full fare
It's a pretty simple equation: if you are travelling on a low-cost airline or on a sale fare, you are not going to get an upgrade. Airlines will always reward full-fare paying passengers ahead of those who have booked a sale fare.

4. Dress well
As the name suggests, business class is mostly frequented by business people. People who look sharp, or at least look like they are working even when they are travelling. While a suit and tie is definitely not necessary, looking snappy certainly helps.

6. Be friendly
There is something about air travel that turns even the nicest of people into fire-spitting tyrants. And it's because of this that a friendly smile, a polite "How is your day?" can make a big difference. But keep in mind there is quite a fine line between being charming and being obviously-seeking-an-upgrade overbearing.

7. Be unlucky
Bad luck can have its rewards. In the airline industry they refer to it as a "Customer Recovery". Maybe you're flying long-haul economy and your in-flight entertainment system isn't working, or your bag ends up in the wrong destination. For most airlines, this will result in an apology, a voucher or a free pass into their airport lounge. Ever so occasionally however, an upgrade may be the result.

8. Celebrate a milestone
If there is an old-fashioned "secret weapon" for anyone aiming for an upgrade, then this is it. For those who are travelling for a big celebration — a milestone birthday, a honeymoon or an anniversary — don't be shy: tell the check-in staff. They are people too, and they know how much more special a big trip can be with the added luxury of flying business. If the flight does happen to be overbooked, you may just be in luck. But remember not to get caught out making something up: your birth date is listed in your booking and on your passport.

If you do happen to get upgraded, maybe you'll get to experience one of the incredible business and first class beds in the following slideshow.

Have you been upgraded? Share your stories or tips with us below.

User comments
I have to disagree with Alan from Wellington. I work for an airline and I have the privilege to chose the passengers we need to upgrade when we are overbooked in Economy class. Almost every time someone asks for an upgrade I will definitely not chose them as this is very arrogant to expect a free upgrade and I will respond by asking them how they would like to pay for the upgrade. You do not go to Harvey Norman and pay for a 32 inch TV and ask for a 42 inch plasma. The main criteria when deciding who to upgrade are Well dressed, No kids, No special meals (as the upgrade is often done at the last minute and it is impossible to order say a Business Class vegetarian meal at short notice) A friendly and courteous manner goes a long way. The rest is good luck. Of course all of those apply if we do not have any Gold or Silver member on the flight.
My partner and I once scored an upgrade on a flight from Amsterdam to Chicago with United Airlines. Even while this was before the twin tower attacks (only a few months though) the security checks before checking in were so time consuming that we nearly missed our flight, despite being on the airport 3 hours before departure. When we finally checked in we were told that there were no more seats available, but that they would give us a seat number at the gate. Which turned out to be two seats in business class. So my partner and I flew business class to the USA, dressed in our trekking gear and mountain boots. The smartly dressed business woman across the aisle was not amused. Pure luck, but we enjoyed it very much and it made up for the hassle at the airport and the fear of missing our flight.
I was sitting opposite possibly the most complaining passenger (and this is ust while on the boarding phase) On the third bell to the cabin staff she had no blanket, and none were available. I handed mine over (more sick of how she was speaking the attendant). He notified me soon afterwards a first class seat was available and would see if he could get me upgraded. Bad news for me - someone arrived with a broken leg and they decided due to room required that they were more in need. Sadly no Karma, had a moron sit next to me who managed to spill his red wine over me.
The last time I got a free upgrade to business class was two years ago when I was flying back from Singapore on Singapore airline. Yes, I was a frequent flyer and a royal customer flying on Singapore airline three times that year. I asked for a free upgrade at the check in counter but was told that its too difficult to get me one. she took a look at my frequent flyer card and my name tag (It happened that I was a CFO of a substantial NZ company). She did not say a thing to me about about the upgrade other than giving me my economic class boarding pass.I was given a new upgraded boarding card when I got into the lounge for boarding, which totally surprised me.Yes I was looking really tidy like a business man and yes the flight was full. I think the secret is in asking and it pays to be a royal customer.

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