The Ultimate Upgrade Guide for Air Travellers

The beginning of the 21st century has seen a change in airline policy. September 11th 2001 threatened to change the world of aviation “forever”. Of course it did not but it did hasten a move around all airlines to become much more hard-nosed about their commercial reality. If there has been a change it is…

The beginning of the 21st century has seen a change in airline policy. September 11th 2001 threatened to change the world of aviation “forever”. Of course it did not but it did hasten a move around all airlines to become much more hard-nosed about their commercial reality. If there has been a change it is in the much greater commercial focus of virtually every airline. Nowadays, they have to make sure they look after their best customers. Inevitably, this has a knock-on effect to the way in which they upgrade passengers.

So let's be sensible about this. Getting an upgrade is getting something for nothing and, as we all know, nothing comes completely free. We are talking about substantial amounts of money. The difference between an Economy and a Business ticket or between a Business and a First Class ticket can be a thousand pounds or more. Which other commercial organization can you visit and expect to be given goods worth a thousand pounds for free?

But passengers get upgraded every day – some individual passengers seem to manage it on almost every flight – and airlines accept that the upgrade is part of their commercial life. I would guess that by far the majority of long-haul flights have a number of upgraded passengers on board. Getting an upgrade is part of the game of air travel. The object of this report is to show you how to play the game.

So, as in any other game, the only way we will come out on top is to get into the mind of the other side – the airline. We need to understand why an airline might give an upgrade, so we can make sure we are in the right position to get it. There might be nearly 400 passengers on a Boeing 747 and only 80 or so if them in premium cabins. Clearly, not everyone can be upgraded so how do you make sure you are one of them? The answer is to plan in advance – it might not always work, but if you want to play the game you have to have a strategy.

The first thing is to understand why an airline should upgrade at all. Why do they give away expensive seats? They are not mad, but they are very commercially driven organizations. Broadly, there are two reasons:

1. To optimize aircraft capacity and revenue

If an aircraft has 320 seats in Economy, 75 in Business and 14 in First that means it can carry a total of 409 passengers. The aim has got to be fill as many seats as possible and get the maximum revenue. What do you do if you can sell 360 seats in Economy, 40 in Business and 8 in First? Do you actually turn away the last twenty in Economy and let the plane go with empty seats? No, of course not – you juggle the passengers around to make sure you get everyone on board and the maximum revenue. In the past, a couple of airlines have claimed they never upgrade but I am afraid I just do not believe them. If you have a full aircraft leasing Singapore for London and you have a waiting list in Business and empty seats in First do you turn away passengers who are offering to pay £ 1,500 per seat? Somehow, I do not think so.

2. To please individual passengers

If an aircraft has free seats in both Economy and Business then it does not actually need to upgrade anyone. However, they may choose to do so for their own commercial reasons.

The way the airlines behave in these two circumstances is quite different. Let's look at how they do it.

To Optimise Aircraft Capacity and Revenue

If the airline knows the booking situation in advance they can plan rationally and will probably look at the following factors:

  • Holders of the airline's loyalty card – obviously taking higher-status cards in order. They may also look at employees of large corporate clients.
  • In theory, they should look to upgrade those with full fare Economy tickets but there are so many fare codes that this could prove too difficult to do in a hurry.
  • It is easier to move single passengers around the aircraft. A couple or a group of three or more who have reserved together could prove harder to move.
  • Passengers who have requested special catering will probably be ignored – it is just too much trouble to provide the special catering for the upgraded class.

You should note that some airlines offer special corporate deals to large customers which may mean that the company pays for Economy but its staff are put in business on an “as available” basis.

Some airlines seek to reward their best individual customers by upgrading on a semi-official rota basis. They might look at a passenger's history and see if it is their turn for an upgrade.

If airport staff have to juggle passengers at the last minute because too many booked passengers have turned up then they might not have time to assess everyone logically.

In this instance, single travelers will certainly have an advantage and especially high-status cardholders. Whether you asked about upgrades or not at check-in, a clerk might have marked you as “SFU” (Suitable for Upgrade). Contrary to popular belief this does not necessarily mean wearing a suite and tie but it does mean you should be reasonably dressed for the circumstances. Jeans might well be acceptable whereas track suits are clearly not. For most airlines, “SFU” means someone who dress and manner would not look out of place in a premium cabin. Put yourself in the position of the check-in staff; they will ask themselves if the passenger appears polite. Someone who is going to make a fuss about seating is illegally to be upgraded because they are just as likely to make a fuss about the upgraded seat. In other words, “SFU” is a person who is polite, easy-going and unilaterally to give anyone a problem!

To Please Individual Passengers

When an aircraft is not full an airline may still upgrade depending on some of these factors:

  • If you have a high-status card, your number might just come up! In other words, the airline has decided that today is the day to be nice to you.
  • Your company may have a corporate deal which allows for regular upgrading.
  • The airline may have noticed that you used to be a regular passenger but have not flown with them for some time. There could be perfectly innocent reasons but they might decide to make a special effort to welcome you back. This would particularly apply to an upgrade from Business to First.
  • If you have had a problem with a previous flight (which you have complained about in a sensible way without getting hysterical as some passengers do) then the airline might make a note to upgrade you on the next possible occasion.
  • The late arrival of a group of four passengers traveling together (especially a family) may mean the staff desires to juggle passengers. Rather than just remove you from a seat you have been allocated, it is easier to upgrade you!
  • You need to remember that there are no hard and fast rules. Airlines differ as do staff within them. In particular, staff at an out-station may be much more customer-friendly than those at its base where it has a dominant position.

Putting Yourself at the Top of the List

So, how do you make sure that the person the airline wants to upgrade is you?

Be Important

The first rule is that an airline has to regard you as commercially important. There are basically two ways of doing this.

The most obvious is by using an airline's frequent flyer scheme and obtaining the highest status you can in that scheme. Quite simply, if you travel once a month to New York and divide your flights between the various airlines on that route you will be quite lucky to even get one upgrade. If you stick to one airline, you might get at least a couple of upgrades. Decide which airline you like and go for the highest status you can! Gold has to be the aim.

With airline alliances now so common, it is much easier to obtain gold status than it used to be. This can be a bit of a problem for gold cardholders who will have found their exclusivity under the many new members – they have had their upgrade capabilities reduced. Once you have chosen your preferred airline then try to make sure as many as possible flights are made either with that airline or members of the same alliance.

When upgrading passengers, staff certainly look for high-status cards because this not only indicates you are a good customer but also someone who is likely to be knowledgeable about traveling and there “SFU”. Logic would suggest that they would also look at members of other airline schemes within the same alliance. However, since these alliances do not always involve cross-shareholdings and are pretty loose arrangements, an airline might not want to waste a valuable upgrade on a good customer of another company. On the other hand, a quick-thinking manager might just think this is a perfect time to impress a good customer of another airline in the hope of getting more business!

Some airlines pay great attention to their corporate passengers. If you are an employee of one you might try to find out what the deal actually is, and if it evolves upgrades. If you are a private individual or work for a smaller company you might consider touting your business around to an airline that would regard you as a good future prospect. Foreign airlines are always more aggressive than the local flag-carrier. Some airlines now have specific schemes for smaller businesses to encourage them to make themselves known. Any British passenger introducing themselves to a foreign airline as a regular passenger on a certain route with BA could be an interesting customer for the company to win over. You would probably need to use a specialist business travel agent to help you with this. Foreign airlines recognize that they have to try harder against a strong local carrier and offering regular upgrades to targeted customers is one way of doing this.

Be There

There is no alternative to being in the right place at the right time. If a flight is full in a particular class, no airline is going to bump-off paying passengers to upgrade someone. You have to choose flights where there might be free seats or, preferably, a discrepancy between passengers booked in individual classes and overall capacity. Flights that are totally full are not a good idea.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Flights to and from the States on a Friday evening are more or less certain to be full in Business and First.
  • Flights to the Middle East are often more full in First Class than they are in Business.
  • Flights to business destinations during holiday periods may well be overbooked in Economy but have plenty of seats in Business.
  • Off-peak flights may have room in all classes. This reduces the possibility of an airline having to upgrade but means that they have the ability if they want to.

How you play this depends on what you are looking for. Upgrading from Economy to Business or Business to First means looking at different flights and booking patterns.

A word of warning before you start: phoning an airline to check the number of free seats available on a flight is illegally to work. Very few people in an airline know the actual number of passengers booked on a flight until check-in. This is for reasons of commercial sensitivity and also because airlines overbook and will happily continue to take bookings long after a flight is “full”. The actual or anticipated load is not known by reservation staff. If you telephone to ask if there are free seats in First Class and are told there are, you might turn up at the airport and find that First Class is full!

Only personal experience will tell you which particular flights are likely to produce a useful miss-match between passengers in different classes.

There are a few occasions when it is possible to “do a deal” with an airline when you know they have a problem with a particular flight. This will normally mean contacting a check-in supervisor. For example, there might be two flights leaving Singapore or Hong Kong for London within a couple of hours of each other. It is quite likely that the first flight will be overbooked and the second one will have seats available. Your offer to swap a confirmed seat on one flight for an upgraded one on the next flight might well be accepted. I know of someone who had a confirmed Business Seat on the 19.00 flight from New York to Heathrow on a Friday night. The flight had a huge wait-list and he was not really worried when he arrived in London since he had to wait for a connecting flight. His offer to give up his seat on the flight in return for a First Class seat on a later one was not only accepted with alacrity but he was able to persuade them to give him First Class frequent flyer points too!


Some Other Points


This is a whole new concept and is both a blessing and curse for the regular traveler who tries to get upgraded. Virgin started it several years ago with their Premium Economy cabin – basically a standard Economy food and drink service but with larger and more comfortable seats. The original idea was that this class should be offered at a small supplement to full fare Economy passengers or actually given automatically to all passengers with more flexible and expensive tickets. Over the last couple of years this has really talked on. British Airways now has its World Traveler Plus area which is available for quite a modest supplement on even the cheapest tickets. This cabin features a seat that would have been considered as “state of the art” for Business Class some years ago! If you shop around, you can buy tickets with either BA or Virgin for not much more than £ 500 return on some routes. Package holiday companies also regularly offer low- priced supplements for these cabins.

Other airlines have joined in the game in different ways. SAS has a Premium Economy cabin. Air France offers it on some routes. United and KLM do not offer this product as such but do have “preferred seating”. In the case of United, this is a few rows at the front of Economy which have more leg-room. These “preferred seats” are generally offered to passengers of higher tier loyalty cards, those who have paid higher fares or employees of big customers. No doubt quite a few people just “get lucky” as well. Some other airlines, while not offering such a cabin or space in its own right, are nonetheless aware that a particular area of ​​the aircraft is preferred by regular travelers (the Upper Deck of a 747 where it is in use as an Economy cabin, for example) and they will try to put their best passengers here.

The reasons that this is both a blessing and a curse are all too obvious. As I have said elsewhere, airlines normally only upgrade by one class – you would very, very rarely be upgraded from Economy to First. One passenger would be upgraded from Economy to Business and then another from Business to First. By introducing this new “in between” class some airlines thought that they could counter the problem of upgrading. Now, it is terribly easy for BA to upgrade a regular passenger who is traveling in Economy – they just put him in their premium economy section! No doubt, this is not really what the regular traveler was expecting for. Some airline staff actually refer to these cabins as the “upgrades' cabin”. It is a very useful way of segregating their better customers and giving them a bonus without going the whole hog and offering them a Business Class seat.

I think these cabins are generally a very good idea and if you get a good price for a ticket or think you meet the likely criteria for being upgraded into one then you are going to get a good deal – but it is not Business Class!

Now, those of you who have been reading carefully are probably ahead of me at this stage. There is a good way of getting a Business Class seat and that is actually to buy a premium Economy seat on a service that will be heavily booked in Economy. The airline will have to move some Economy passengers to premium Economy and, with any luck at all, those passengers who have actually paid the premium Economy fare will get a Club seat. This does not always work but you would be surprised how often it can succeed.


Business Seats and Economy Service

Most European flights are made with aircraft that have a simple curtain divider between Business and Economy. The size of the two classes alters depending on demand and there before there is much less need to upgrade passengers. However, some airlines have given a little more legroom to the seats in the front of the aircraft (perhaps as much as two thirds of the plane) as these are seats that can sometimes be sold as business. If you are traveling in Economy in Europe you might find it better to sit at the front of the section if there is a small Business load. The service will be Economy but you might get an extra inch or two space.

Long-haul aircraft have fixed cabins so when demand is low in Business (especially during holiday periods) the airline may have to upgrade quite a few Economy passengers to Business. Another option is that they simply shut down a whole section of the Business cabin and make it part of the Economy cabin. An airline that has 30 seats in Business on the Upper Deck and another 26 downstairs may make the downsections section Economy for one flight. Again, the service is standard Economy but the seating much better. Seats here would probably be given to priority passengers.

From time-to-time on long-haul flights an airline may decide it is simply going to partially close down a cabin and not use all of it. On some flights a First Class cabin with 14 seats may operate with only eight seats for sale. The aircraft will have less crew and the saving in weight from the passengers might be used to carry extra cargo. On occasions like this you might see a premium cabin half empty but it is, in fact, “full”.


“VIPs always get upgraded

No they do not. Of course, who is and is not a genuine VIP is in the eye of the beholder. Airlines tend to be just as commercially-minded in upgrading so-called VIPs as they are with ordinary passengers. In other words, if they know an MP is traveling and is in a position to be of influence, he might well get favorable treatment but a soap actor will probably be left in the seat they have booked. Pop stars and film actors might be well known to the public but might not have made it to any centrally-held list. Usually they will be looked after on normal commercial grounds ie, if they are good customers, which many tend to be, they will get the perks.

I have seen a company advertising British titles for sale with the suggestion that calling yourself Baron Brian of Billericay, or whatever, will lead to airline upgrades. Airlines are not likely to be fooled by this and nor are they particularly impressed by titles.

All airlines have some form of platinum card, issued at the airline's invitation, to its special friends. These can not be obtained by e-learning points in a frequent flyer scheme. They may be given to genuine captains of industry, very friendly politicians or show business people who have done the airline favors. Such people would expect to get the best seats, but if First Class is full and they only have a Business ticket then that is where they will travel.


Honeymoons and Special Occasions

Unfortunately, airlines have been fooled a few too many times to be very helpful on this. If you are traveling on a celebration you can always mention it to reservations and at check-in but do not expect too much.


Getting a Confirmed Upgrade

Obviously, this has to be a preferred option because it avoids any uncertainty and messing around at an airport. Some of these methods require a form of payment but all can be a very economic way of traveling in comfort.

Using Frequent Flyer Points

Many airline schemes allow you to upgrade an economy ticket into Business using your Miles. The conditions for this need to be looked at very carefully since the individual schemes vary quite a lot. In particular, some will only allow more expensive Economy fares to be upgraded. You need to check and it can be easier to make the booking for the ticket (which is to be upgraded) and the upgrade direct with the airline's telephone sales center to avoid any disappointment. This can work out to be a very cost-effective way of traveling. Typically, a frequent flyer scheme would charge 10,000 Miles for an Economy flight, 20,000 for a Business ticket and 10,000 for the upgrade between the two classes. Since a business fare is very often more than twice the cost of an Economy fare the upgrade option represents very good value. For the same reason, if you have enough Miles, it would certainly make sense to use your Miles for a free business flight, rather than an Economy one. Quite simply, you get far more for your Miles, in terms of cash equivalent, and it can be easier to get redemption seats in Business than Economy because demand is less.

Airport Upgrades

A number of airlines also offer upgrades at the airport, or even at the Gate, in return for a fixed number of Miles. It is really important that you understand in advance if your fare code is eligible for a points upgrade since it is quite common for some airlines to restrict this to the most expensive fares in Economy. You should also be aware that even if the airline was happily selling Business Class seats right up until the day of departure, it does not necessarily mean that they have any free seats since they are allowing for overbooking. You may arrive at the airport expecting to be able to purchase an upgrade with your Miles only to be told that there are no seats available.

Do not pay too much for an Economy ticket

This sounds pretty obvious advice but if you are faced with buying anything other than a rock-bottom Economy fare it really is worth searching to see if Business is available for a little extra. With some European fares, the difference between an expensive Economy ticket and a Business ticket might be just a few pounds. A few airlines, such as BMI British Midland, will give Business Class seats to passengers paying the standard Economy fare on other airlines. On long-haul flights you might find that a premium economy ticket is available for the same, or even less, than an Economy ticket. Remember also that some foreign airlines sell discounted tickets in the UK at fares which are very similar to the non-discounted Economy fare. You need to be very careful when you use the internet or even with a travel agent because when you ask for an “Economy ticket” that is what you get – you need to ask for a Business ticket separately and see what the difference is. Quite simply, if you have a good travel agent you might not need to bother asking for an upgrade because you will get one automatically!

Look out for promotions

Some foreign airlines occasionally advertise upgrade offers, for example, buy a Business Class ticket and travel in First Class. American Express has a year-round upgrade offer on a number of airlines which is available to holders of their higher-tier cards. Some business travel agents also have access to guaranteed upgrades. In reality, these are rather a marketing gimmick because the fares charged end up being very similar to the discounted deals available from many large agents. Nonetheless, it is worth keeping any eye out for them.


Deals at the Airport

Do not even think about doing this with a large airline at its home base but, just occasionally, you might have some luck in buying an upgrade at a highly discounted price from an airline ticket office at the airport. Some smaller airlines (especially from the Third World) have been known to do deals if they have seats available. I know of someone who used to have a very good arrangement with Garuda at Amsterdam where they seemed happy to upgrade for a small payment. That particular supervisor has moved on now but you never know if it will work with other companies. Some airlines will occasionally have limited promotions to upgrade at the airport for a small supplement – Austrian Airlines and Thai have done this recently in certain countries. It does not hurt to ask.


How Not to Get Upgraded

It is just as important to understand the things you should avoid. When an airline has to upgrade, it has a choice – you do not want to be at the bottom of the list!

Some basic points:

  • Make sure you are “SFU”. You do not have to be ridiculously smart but presentable – and be nice!
  • Do not travel in a group or with children. Single passengers are easier to upgrade.
  • Do not order a special meal.
  • If your idea for an upgrade involves a change of booked flight do not have checked baggage – once the baggage is checked in you are stuck with that flight.
  • Do not get yourself on an airline black list. Of course, airlines do not have black lists of passengers but … If you are a member of their frequent flyer program and have been persistent complainer over trivial issues and have become known as an “awkward so-and-so” there could be a remark by your name to suggest you should be treated with care. Such people are unilaterally to be upgraded because they might be more trouble!

And do not bother getting on the aircraft and telling the crew the ground staff told you to ask about an upgrade. They will not believe you! Aircraft seating and catering is the job of the ground staff and is only likely to be changed if there is a genuine problem. Some airline staff traveling as passengers do get moved around after boarding but passengers, generally, do not.


No one has an automatic right to an upgrade. Quite literally, it is something for nothing and if you are lucky enough to get it then enjoy it but do not be too miserable if you do not succeed. I have seen countless people present their basic tier frequent flyer card and imperiously request an upgrade. Frankly, they would be very lucky indeed – especially given the manner some of them use! Airline crew frequently say that their worst passengers are those who were expecting to be upgraded and were unlucky. Complaints departments are littered with letters from passengers who are complaining about everything being wrong with the flight when what they really mean is they were annoyed they were not upgraded.

If it matters that much, there is one very easy way to make sure you travel in Business or First Class, and that is to buy a Business or First Class ticket!