Ten tips for getting a flight upgrade without paying for it

Friday newsletters always feature luxury travel conteststipsseries, or news.

Today: How to get a flight upgrade WITHOUT paying for it?

I previously explained how to book the cheapest plane ticket and potentially save (lots of) money. However, while it’s exciting to find an excellent deal, there’s no worse feeling than the prospect of a longhaul odyssey in a cramped Economy Class seat. And unfortunately, most passengers will never fly in anything but cattle class, as Business Class and First Class tickets can be shockingly unaffordable. But that doesn’t always have to be the case as there are ways to score a premium seat in the plane without having to pay for the upgrade. While there are some straight-forward strategies, it will often require a mix of skill, emotional intelligence and a considerable amount of luck if you don’t want to spend a penny at all. But the reward is that flying Business or First Class is a highly enjoyable experience, as you can read in my trip reports.

Here are my 10 best travel tricks to get and/or book an airline upgrade without breaking your wallet! You can share your own tips or upgrade experiences in the comments section.

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1. Keep an eye out for Business Class discount deals

Most of us will completely ignore any Business Class fare as it seems out of reach anyway. However, that’s a wrong assumption. Business tends to slow down during the school holidays and airlines cannot fill their Business Class seats, hence selling them at impressively discounted prices, that – in some cases – match the price of the tickets for the seats in the crammed back of the plane. For example, British Airways had a sale last month in which transatlantic Business Class seats were offered at the same price as Economy Class tickets. I also recently booked a Business Class ticket with Lufthansa to Mykonos, which was cheaper than the cheapest Economy Class seat on the same flight. So subscribe to the newsletter of your favorite airlines and don’t ignore the Business Class sales.


2. Keep an eye out for 2-for-1 Business Class sales

If you are traveling with family or a companion, keep an eye out for 2-for-1 Business Class sales that are occasionally launched by some airlines for a limited time only: you buy one (full-fare) Business Class ticket, and your companion will get a Business Class seat for free. This will cut the cost of flying Business Class, well, in two, often coming close to flying Economy with 2, especially in the more expensive school holidays. Qatar Airways is one of the airlines that regularly announces 2-for-1 Business Class sales.


3. Use your miles to book an upgrade

That’s a classic method of course. You subscribe to the frequent flyer program of an airline, and start collecting miles by flying, staying at hotels, or spending money with the airlines’ credit card. You can then redeem your well-earned miles for free Business/First Class flights or upgrades (in addition to hotel stays, car rentals or shopping). However, you have to fly a lot and/or spend a lot of money with your credit card, in order to collect enough miles for a complimentary premium seat. If you would like to optimize your mileage earning & spending strategy, I advise you to subscribe to the newsletter of some excellent bloggers. Here are my review (with pros & cons) of the world’s best airline loyalty programs:


4. Be loyal to an airline

Loyal customers – who are members of and have status with an airline’s frequent flyer program – will normally be given priority when an airline needs to upgrade a passenger (for example, because of overbooking in Economy Class). In addition, some airlines will reward the loyalty of their most regular travelers with free upgrade vouchers, such as American Airlines (4 upgrades a year), British Airways (2 upgrades a year), and Lufthansa (2 upgrades a year).


5. Ask for an upgrade at check-in

It’s seems too good to be true, but politely asking for an upgrade at check-in desk sometimes does the trick. With online check-in becoming more and more popular, there are fewer people asking the question “if you are upgrading passengers on this flight, I would like to be considered”, hence increasing your chance to score a premium seat on the plane. It will help if you are polite, not overly demanding, dressed neatly, and when you have a good reason (e.g. being pregnant, exceptionally tall, or celebrating a honeymoon). If a free upgrade is not available, the check-in staff might also propose you a heavily reduced rate for an upgrade to the next available class.


6. Complain about a troubling experience

Air travel can be a frustrating experience from time to time, especially when confronted with a delayed, cancelled or overbooked flight, or when your luggage is delayed or lost. The flight itself can also be an unpleasant ordeal when things do not go as planned (e.g. failure of the entertainment system, a defect seat, etc …). When confronted with an inconvenience that is clearly the responsibility of an airline, then complaining in a polite matter – either at the airport, onboard or afterwards through the airlines’ customer service – may be your chance to get out of coach. For example, in 2015, I encountered a 24 hour flight delay with Cathay Pacific, and after filing an online complaint on Cathay’s website, I was given 2 upgrade vouchers to be used on a future flight.


7. Travel alone

It should not come as a surprise that it is much easier for an airline to upgrade a single passenger as compared to a couple or family. So, while it’s tough to leave friends and family behind when traveling around the globe, you may find yourself upgraded to the airline’s premium cabin.


8. Work for an airline or befriend someone who does

One of the key perks of airline employees are buddy passes. These are standby tickets that can be used by the employees, their family and friends in order to travel at a very reduced rate. The terms and conditions are different for each airline, but most airlines will make Business or First Class seats available to these passengers if the cabin is not full at time of departure. However, if the flight is oversold, buddy pass riders are usually last on the priority list for a seat. In addition, it doesn’t hurt befriending check-in agents, gate agents or the airlines’ management as you would be surprised about their powers when it comes to reassigning seats.


9. Take the bump when your flight is oversold

Most airlines oversell flights to maximize their profit, since they know some passengers will always cancel or miss their flights for a variety of reasons. If your flight happens to be overbooked, then tell the gate agent that you are happy to switch flights. You will solve the agent’s problem and there’s a chance that your generosity will be rewarded with an upgrade on the next available flight.


10. Bid against other passengers for a better seat

Well, this may cost you some money, but I mention it nonetheless, since it has proven successful for many so far . Bidding on airline upgrades is basically like a blind auction for unsold seats on a flight. Over 50 major airlines use a platform called Plusgrade to let passengers bid on unused space in their business- and first-class cabins rather than flying with empty seats up front. Among the airlines that participate are Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Hawaiian Airlines, Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, SWISS, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia.

This is how it works: After you have booked your flight on the airlines’ website, you will be invited to make a bid to upgrade to a higher class, from your booking confirmation page and confirmation e-mail. All you have to do is to enter a bid price to upgrade each leg of your flight, along with your credit card information.  Between 72 and 24 hours prior to departure, the airline will notify you via mail if your request for an upgrade has been approved or not. If your upgrade offer has been accepted, your credit card will be billed with the amount you offered, and you will receive your upgraded boarding pass. If your upgrade offer hasn’t been accepted, you pay nothing and keep your original ticket.


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7 Comments

  1. Nos 5 and 6 are nonsense and will actually DECREASE your chances for an upgrade. Check-in staff are known for black marking anyone who asks for an upgrade. 6 is worse than 5.

  2. Agree with above comment. Nos 6 is nonsense!!! With above info every passenger will try to look/creat complains out of nothing and they will ruin their own experience.

  3. or spending money with the airlines’ credit card.

    for a privat person: how much must one buy via credit card to earn the miles neccesary to have free business ticket??50 a 75000 € ??
    very good flight reviews, better if you pay full price like a normal person

  4. A really great post with good information. If I may as an addendum to your ‘gate’ upgrade. To even be considered for a gate upgrade one needs to look like they ‘belong’ in Business. This means no barely there slip dresses, no wife-beater t-shirts, nor board shorts or flip flops. If your face and neck is adorned with tattoos of your mother, these won’t work either. For the men, a proper shirt, jacket, and your best Ralph Lauren trousers significantly increases your chances at the gate. Gate Agents are trained to look for a prospective upgrade based on appearance if they need one.

  5. Some really good points here. And no six is not nonsense. I’ve been upgraded to business when the inflight entertainment in my seat was faulty. I’ve also been a volunteer and had an extra day in LA at the airlines’ expense (plus cash handout) by travelling a day later.

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