They’re the Holy Grail for regular travelers but while rare, flight upgrades do exist.
The chances of getting one can be slim, but here are our top 20 tips for boosting your chances of bagging a better seat. Of course, the bulk of these tips won’t be relevant on a budget airline where there is only one class.
Join frequent flyer schemes before you fly
The best way to get regular upgrades is to join a frequent flyer scheme and diligently build up points/miles.
Getting to top levels like ‘Gold’ or ‘Premier’ (varies by airline) gives you huge status at check-in, putting you at the front of the line for any spare expensive seats, and sometimes even equals an upgrade every time one’s available. Of course, to get there, you need to fly regularly and airlines can make it tricky to accrue points on discounted flights.
If you don’t take to the skies that often, it’s still a good idea to join as most are free and you’re more likely to get an upgrade than if you’ve no relationship with the airline at all.
Even if you have no intention of sticking with the airline you’re flying with, it could still be worth joining its scheme to leapfrog people who haven’t, and nothing stops you signing up for a few different ones.
If you have no luck with a free upgrade, loyalty schemes also allow you to use any points to buy an upgrade for some tickets.
It’s not what you know but who you know
If you’ve got close friends at the check-in desk, or better still, higher up in the airline, they may be able to wangle you occasional special privileges. Some airlines also give their staff upgrade vouchers, which effectively buy you an upgrade if there’s a higher-class seat available.
Don’t waste your time or miles on short-haul upgrades… long-haul is where it’s at
There’s not much point going to the end of the Earth to wangle a free upgrade on a short-haul flight and certainly little sense in using your flyer points or cash to pay for one. Often, all you get is a slightly bigger seat and a fancier sandwich at best.
Instead, medium and long-haul flights offer the best value upgrades and you’ll have time to enjoy them. You only tend to get the flatbeds and all the bells and whistles on a long journey.
What do I get if I upgrade?
Here we explain the different cabin classes and what you typically get. But before getting into the nitty-gritty, this is about non-budget airline cabins, given the budget carriers only have one class. The four main classes are…
Economy class. Small seat, basic food, basic service.
Premium economy / executive class. Bigger seat, basic food, basic service
Business class. Big and possibly fold-flat seat, luxury food & service, lounge access
First class. High-end luxury, exceptional cost, lounge access
Free upgrades do happen – nearly one in five have got one in the last two years
They might be less frequent than they used to be, but free upgrades do still exist. In July 2014 according to a poll by money saving expert users who’d flown in the last two years, the poll revealed that 16% had been upgraded for free, though of those on a non-budget airline, the figure is 18%.
Free flight upgrades – what people did who succeeded
|I didn’t do anything – no questions asked||7.7% (317 votes)|
|I’m a member of a frequent flyer programme||4.4% (180 votes)|
|There was someone in my seat when I got to it||0.5% (21 votes)|
|Other||1.5% (60 votes)|
|I asked – or talked them into it||1.4% (58 votes)|
|My family/friend works at an airline||1% (43 votes)|
|The flight was overbooked, I agreed to wait||0.8% (36 votes)|
|It was my honeymoon/I was celebrating||0.5% (21 votes)|
|I complained about my broken seat/entertainment system||0.01% (4 votes)|
|*Source: MoneySavingExpert.com poll, Jul 15 2014. Total votes: 4074|
Dress to impress
Remember, an upgrade will put you into the posh cabins, so while an old T-shirt and flip-flops might be comfortable, an airline is less likely to put you in with its top-paying customers if you don’t look the part.
Upgrading using loyalty points
Since the early ’80s, airlines have used frequent flyer loyalty schemes to keep their customers coming back. These can often result in serious freebies.
Most airlines are happy for customers to use loyalty points to purchase upgrades on tickets bought for cash. If you fly regularly you can use the points you’ve earned to grab a spot towards the front of the plane. Make sure you get the best value for money and use points on long-haul flights where the benefits are worth it.
You can’t upgrade all tickets this way. Some cheap tickets, tickets bought as part of a package tour using loyalty points or even an AD ticket known as staff tickets given to travel service provider and travel agencies
These schemes are often intentionally complicated. The reward points earned depend on distance and class flown on previous flights. When spending points, airlines have a set tariff for the number of points needed to upgrade, so you need to research their schemes to find the best value.
When buying flights with reward points, most schemes only cover the cost of the flight and any taxes and airport fees need to be paid separately. These can be pricey.
British Airways Executive Club
Virgin Flying Club Miles
KLM/Air France Flying Blue Club
These are the tip of the iceberg. If you’re going to fly often, working out which frequent flyer scheme is best for you will quickly pay dividends.
Please share your frequent flyer scheme tips, tricks, and hints in the Frequent Flyer Schemes discussion that will be coming up soon on our launched websites
On honeymoon or anniversary? Let ’em know
If you’re off on your honeymoon, getting away to get married, on the 70th birthday or other special occasion, let the airline staff know.
If you know a member of the airline staff, tell them, otherwise, do it via a travel agent or drop it in while at the check-in.
This trick is well-known and is regularly tried with check-in staff so it can help to take a copy of your wedding documents.
It won’t always result in an upgrade, but you may possibly get a free glass of champagne and some special in-flight treatment.
Say it with a smile
It might be obvious, but if you want the check-in staff to be nice to you, it helps if you’re nice to them.
Airline staff is more likely to give treats to people they like and who treat them with respect.
A friendly, relaxed demeanor is more likely to get you an upgrade in the rare event that check-in staff has the power to give one.
One MoneySaver who works for BA notes:
“Sitting on a check-in desk for four hours gets very repetitive, so getting a passenger who doesn’t have a list of demands and issues is very refreshing.” Our contact adds: “Happy customers tend to make for a happy flight.”
Special meals can ruin upgrade chances
If you order a special in-flight meal in advance- such as vegetarian, vegan, halal or kosher – you may destroy your upgrade potential. Flights rarely carry spares, especially for higher-class seats whose food costs more.
Should you ask or wait to be offered?
This is the thorniest upgrade question around. Are your chances better if you ask, or if you stay humble and wait for one to be offered?
While some travelers claim to have charmed their way to a top seat, many check-in staff say there’s nothing more irritating than people nagging for more than they’ve paid for.
Asking for an upgrade at every point – or even worse, demanding one – won’t win you any favors and puts you at the back of the list.
Remember, they’ve checked in thousands of people before. So whatever carefully contrived cock and bull story you use, chances are they’ve already heard it, and it’s annoying.
If you’re going to ask, being polite and un-demanding and doing it with a cheeky smile is the best way. And be prepared for them to answer that you can pay for an upgrade; if they do, try haggling down the price. Some airline staff report that very occasionally, even when they have to upgrade because of space shortages, they’re told to ask people to pay – and if they won’t pay, they give the upgrade anyway.
On a busy long haul flight think about whether you’re prepared to be bumped
If a flight’s completely full, check-in staff will look for people to be “bumped off” onto the next one and offer incentives this can make it worthwhile.
To tempt passengers to give up their seats, airlines offer upgrades for the next flight, or even cash, as compensation for those who volunteer themselves.
These offers are popular amongst travelers able to kill some time in the airport and go fast so it worth thinking about it in advance and mentioning to check-in staff if you would consider being bumped.
One MoneySaver reported being offered flights to “anywhere in the world” as compensation for the inconvenience.
Got a problem? Tell them, you may be moved
If there’s a genuine problem with your seat/seatbelt/seating companion, then get up and discreetly speak to the nearest steward about it. If there’s no spare space in your current area, they may move you up a class.
If you’ve an impressive title, use it
If you’re a doctor, professor, judge, councilor, or – especially – a VIP, anecdotal evidence says you’ve a stronger chance of getting an upgrade.
You have to let them know beforehand for it to work. So if you’re booking through a travel agent, ask them to note this on a file.
If you’re booking on the web and are a doctor or reverend, use your title when booking.
Make sure you only do this if the title matches your passport. Some countries, such as the US, may refuse entry if your name on your ticket and passport don’t match.
Be first or last to check-in to boost your chances
It might be contradictory, but being first or last to check in can boost your upgrade chances.
First in line
It’s usually possible to check in online 24 hours or more before the flight departs. Checking in early increases your chances of getting an upgrade from admin staff if the flight’s overbooked.
If they know you intend to travel they can upgrade you in advance, so they won’t need to shuffle around the upgrades at the airport. It also means if you don’t get an upgrade, it’s easier to choose the best seat.
Last at the check-in desk
Arriving late also has an advantage, as check-in staff can upgrade you at the desk. There’s more chance all the economy seats have been filled already, so you might get put into a better seat.
Of course, here you also run the risk of being kicked off the flight entirely if it’s overbooked, so it’s not a good technique if you can’t afford to miss the plane.
Since in this situation, it’s up to check-in staff to choose suitable candidates, how you dress and act may well make a difference too.
Move if the cabin crew ask you
If you’re on the plane and the cabin crew ask you to move, there’s a good chance you’ll get rewarded for being nice.
If you’re asked to move, or the cabin crew asks for a volunteer to move so a family can sit together, or for a particularly tall or large passenger, always agree to it.
Often this is how you’ll be upgraded, but you won’t necessarily know that’s where you’re going beforehand.
Flying solo makes an upgrade more likely
Lone travelers are much more likely to be upgraded than any others as they can be put anywhere without fuss.
Couples have slimmer, but still-existent chances, but large groups and families with kids usually have a better chance of winning the lottery.
Therefore, if you’re travelling with a group and don’t care too much about sitting with them, ensure you’ve a separate booking to increase your upgrade odds.
Pick the right flight to max your chances
Conventional wisdom says your best chances at being upgraded are if the economy section’s are packed. But it is also true that quieter flights have more room for upgrades.
The most likely upgrade scenario is if the economy section is full and the class above it isn’t, so flights in school holidays to popular holiday destinations are a good bet, though that’s also one of the most expensive times to fly.
By the same token, early morning routes between city business hubs are hellish to get upgraded on; business class is likely to be packed already.
You’ve twice as much chance of finding a spare seat in a business cabin that has 40 seats than one that has 20, so it’s worth investigating what’s on offer in advance
Use cash to bag an upgrade at the airport
Got to buy premium economy, business or first? Get it cheaply
The only way to completely guarantee a business class seat is to buy a business class ticket. But the same flight will be on sale through different places for different prices.
As an example, for one transatlantic business return the airline charged £3,800, but our flight-finding computer reservation system (CRS) had the same seat on sale for under £2,000. Use the comparison services by your travel agent as a guide and just select the class you want.
Check which airlines offer the best seats
Different airlines use different planes, often with different seating layouts. This can have a big impact on how much legroom you get and makes a big difference when you’re six hours into a 10 hour flight.
The critical measurement is ‘seat pitch’. This is the distance between any part of one seat and the exact same part of the seat in front/behind. The table below compares the average measurements for some of the main airlines in economy and business classes:
Seat pitch comparison
|Airline||Economy||Premium economy||Business class|
|Source: Seatguru, March 2015. Maximum seat pitch for long-haul cabins, except for Ryanair and Thomas Cook (short-haul only)|
So, of the biggies, only American Airlines and Delta offer more than 31″ in a standard seat and often their prices are roughly similar to the others, so simply by booking on them, you can ensure a little more room.
Select seats with more legroom, or use charm to get them free
If you can’t get an upgrade, do the next best thing and bag the best possible seats in your cabin.
These are harder to bag than they used to be. Budget airlines pioneered getting passengers to pay for these seats and others have cottoned on to their popularity and have started charging for some flights.
Budget airlines’ prices start from £4.99, while prices for long haul seats start from £35 and can be as high as £90 for each flight.
If you don’t want to pay but you are desperate for some extra legroom, put on your best smile and ask at the check-in or once you get on the plane and they may allow you to move to a better seat.
If you’re over 15, physically fit, able to communicate effectively and, heaven forbid, able to operate the emergency door, you meet the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) requirements to sit next to the emergency exits.
Depending on the plane, emergency exit seats offer couple of inches more legroom for over-wing exits and up to several feet of extra room if you’re at the front of the a section. Only for those who don’t mind staring at a sign on a plane that says “emergency”.
A bulkhead is a physical partition in the plane segmenting different areas, so sit in a bulkhead seat and you’ll have a wall in front of you. Sometimes these have cut-out sections at the bottom for your feet to go in, but usually they simply offer extra legroom. And nobody can recline their seat into your precious space.
On the downside, bulkhead seats are often where parents with small babies are placed, and they’re right by the loo. So if loud crying and occasional wafts when the WC door’s open aren’t really your scene, it may be best to look elsewhere (or get some decent nose and ear plugs).
Pitch perfect sites to grab the best seat
The simplest way to find out which seats are available on your flight, and what the seat numbers are, is to use SeatGuru or SeatPlans’ interactive seating maps (the range is fairly comprehensive). Simply choose the airline you’re flying with from the left hand menu, and it’ll list all the planes it uses.
To find out which model of plane you’ll be on, look at your travel itinerary; there should be a three-digit aircraft code on it, which can be matched with the codes in brackets on SeatGuru’s list. If you can’t find it, you can ask your travel provider/Travel agent for details.
Reserve it as soon as possible
Ensure you grab these seats by checking in online as soon as it opens. However, if this is a long time before departure, always double-check your seats are still confirmed a week before you fly. If any of the flight’s details have changed, it’s likely they’ll reorganise the seating order completely, and you may miss out.
Your best bets is ask your travel agent to reserved your specific sit for you before checking in which can be placed on hold ,this could be aisle,window,middle or even a bulksit.