Plane Insider: how do you get an upgrade when you fly?

Everyone wants a free upgrade when they fly. But will you be bumped up if you dress up and ask nicely? Probably not, I’m sorry to say. But you almost certainly won’t be upgraded if you look like a scruff and are impolite. Airlines don’t want their paying premium passengers disturbed by people who are going to be necking the free wine and making a nuisance of themselves.

You’re unlikely to be able to sip champagne in first class for free. Photo by Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek

The days when free upgrades were there for the taking at the check-in desk are, mostly, long-gone. (So, too, is the check-in desk, since most airlines let you do that online now.) Mostly, that’s because airlines are managing to sell more seats in the top end and because they’re getting better about not overbooking planes.

They’re also using computer algorithms to figure out who to bump up, based on a combination of ticket price, frequent flyer status, and passenger profile (you have the best chance as a single traveller without any special meal requests, which are hard for the airline to cater last-minute). But there are a few ways to maximise your opportunities for an upgrade, either for cheap or for free.

First is one of the most effective but least helpful suggestions: upgrade yourself, by seeing whether premium economy is available. If you’re using a flight search engine, this is a single click away, and for a relatively small investment at booking you might get a whole lot more legroom and other fringe benefits, like airport fast-track and more luggage.

Dressing well will certainly help you blag an upgrade. Photo by Caiaimage/Agnieszka Olek

If you’re craving some extra room and on a budget, consider how much it’s worth to you to buy one of those extra-legroom seats. Often, especially on low-cost airlines, other passengers won’t want to fork out the 10-20 smackeroos for a spacious seat, and cabin crew discourage self-upgraders on the plane, so you might even have a whole row to yourself! Voilà: do-it-yourself European business class!

Next up: join the frequent flyer programme when you book your ticket. Even if you’re a lowly base member, you’re more likely than someone who isn’t a member to be upgraded. Once you have those miles, you can even see about using them to upgrade, which is often a really good value, much better than spending them on an economy reward flight. Note that you may need to call your airline to upgrade using points, and upgrades may not be available from the cheapest tickets.

Another tip: have the airline’s credit card. Not only will it earn you miles on every purchase, it often comes with a shortcut to a higher tier of frequent flyer status, meaning you’ll be going up the upgrade list.

The old rules for getting a flight upgrade are sadly no more. Photo by Douglas Miller

It never hurts to do what frequent flyers call ‘gardening your reservation’, especially if you booked a few months before flying. That means logging into the airline’s system and checking that your reservation is all correct, that you haven’t been moved to a worse seat as the result of a change of plane type — and, crucially, whether there’s an upgrade offer available. These are a really cost-effective way of travelling better, for less.

Once you get to the airport, it absolutely doesn’t hurt to ask for an upgrade, especially if you’re willing to pay for it. Economy to premium economy can be a great deal at the last minute. And even if you’re at the back of the plane: smile. You’re travelling at nearly the speed of sound across the planet, comparatively cheaper than at any point in human history. Happy travels!

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Plane Insider: how do you get an upgrade when you fly?
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