It’s a near-perfect start to any flight. You hand over your boarding pass at the check-in counter or gate desk, only to have the machine spit it back out with a beep and a blink of its little red light.
The attendant glances a computer screen, taps a button and a new boarding pass appears. But instead of an economy seat this one is for business class or, even better on an international flight, first class.
Yes, you’ve been upgraded. More precisely, and in airline argot, you’ve received an on-the-spot operational upgrade or ‘op-up’ for short.
This is the sweetest type of upgrade because you don't have to pay for it. There's no parting with a fistful of dollars or frequent flyer points: it's a freebie in its purest and most delightful form.
Little wonder, then, that travellers are keen to learn the tricks and tactics for blagging an upgrade. Who wouldn’t want their cut-price economy ticket to magically transform, like caterpillar to butterfly, into a first-class boarding pass?
The sad and bad news is that there’s no foolproof formula for getting an upgrade. It’s a mixture of art, science and a dollop of luck – and the ratio varies not only between airlines but according to which routes you fly and even when you travel.
About all we can guarantee is that the best way to get an upgrade it to pay for one. (And even that won’t always get over the line – for example, Qantas doesn’t confirm a points-based upgrade until shortly before you travel.)
But if you want to play the odds for a free upgrade, here’s what you need to know.
Why do upgrades occur?
A free upgrade – in airline argot, an operational upgrade or ‘op-up’ for short – typically happens when the cabin you’re booked into is actually over-booked.
Airlines usually sell more tickets than they have physical seats, based on each flight’s historical record of a certain number of last-minute rebookings and cancellations.
But sometimes the numbers run the other way. The airline ends up with an excess of paid passengers in economy, premium economy or even business class.
The easiest way to make room is to upgrade some passengers from the over-sold cabin, most commonly cattle-class, into empty seats in business and/or first class.
A change in the aircraft used on the flight can also affect the number of seats in each class, necessitating a seat shuffle between the cabins.
All of this juggling is taken care of by the airline’s computers in the hours before your flight departs.
How are upgrades allocated?
There are a few exceptions to the overbooked cabin rule. Some airlines give their frontline staff the latitude to upgrade passengers on a per-case basis, which opens the door towards you asking for a bump-up if one’s available.
But the trend in recent years has been towards tightly-controlled upgrade criteria, with the passenger’s status in an airline’s frequent flyer scheme being the primary factor. We asked several major airlines to detail their upgrade policy.
Qantas plays it cards close to its chest, saying “this information is confidential and not something we would be able to talk about”.
Virgin Australia is more open, with travellers upgraded “based on their tier status with the Velocity Frequent Flyer program.
However, a Virgin Australia spokesperson also volunteers that “from time to time we invite high value guests to sample a new product offering” such as the airline’s recently-introduced domestic business class on its Boeing 737 fleet.
Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines toe the hard line.
Forget about asking for an upgrade, says AirNZ: you pay with money or points, and “when an upgrade is required for operational purposes the seat is automatically allocated, it’s not available by request.” Similarly, Singapore Airlines “has a stringent no upgrade policy” an SQ rep told us.
Cathay Pacific is more easy-going, with upgrades based on each passengers’ “tier status with the Marco Polo Club and oneworld frequent flyer programmes.” (This will be played out in March during the first month of Cathay's new Premium Economy service).
On-the-spot upgrades at Emirates “normally go to Skywards Members in order of Gold, Silver or Blue tier priority”, although additional “upgrade decisions usually happen at a managerial level within an airline.”
So if you want to plan for snaring an upgrade, ensure your chosen airline is upgrade-friendly and work your way to top-tier status in its frequent flyer program. The higher you are in the frequent flyer food chain the better your chance of a bump into business class or even first class.
Once you’ve got serious status, there's something to be said for choosing flights that are likely to be crowded and thus, potentially overbooked.
This typically means Fridays, weekends and Mondays for international routes, and flights with onwards connections (such as Sydney-Singapore-London) instead of a point-to-point service.
The downside of this gambit is you could end up stuck in a fully-booked economy cabin with a few squealing babies to boot.
Beyond status: tactics for upgrade success
While status is the trump card for upgrades it’s not the only card you can play. This is where blagging an upgrade involves a little art.
First up, there's no harm in simply asking if there's an upgrade available. Do it nicely, and do it at the check-in counter or the airport lounge’s service desk, not when you’re on the plane or about to board (by which time the crew have more than enough on their hands.)
Perhaps comment on how you’ve heard great things about their premium economy or business class, and you’d love to try it out if they have a spare seat and could wrangle an upgrade. Most of the time this won’t work, but if it does, then you're set!
There are other ways to try your luck. A recent survey conducted by American Express reported that while in addition to asking straight out for a free upgrade at check-in, a quarter of Aussie flyers say they dress smartly “to give the impression of wealth and importance”.
This dress-for-success maxim is one of the biggest myths of scoring an upgrade.
Most airlines rely on their booking system to juggle the seats in over-booked flights, and the computer is more interested in your status than your sense of style.
Dressing well doesn’t hurt your chances where there’s a human factor involved in the upgrade equation, but it's not the silver bullet to business class.
So why be stuck on an 8-12 hour flight in dress pants with your best shirt and tie? Take a look around business class cabin and you’ll find more people dressed down than up.
Almost a fifth of respondents to the Amex survey said they'll make special mention at the counter that their trip is for a special occasion such as a honeymoon or birthday, before turning to flattery to charm those behind the desk (17 per cent). But others are more cunning, with five per cent of those surveyed confessed to pretending to be famous or friends with a celebrity.
Such cheek at the check-in desk is not a purely Australian trait. Virgin Atlantic reveals that “Sir Richard Branson is my friend” and “Sir Richard Branson promised me an upgrade” are the two excuses most often trotted out by passengers hoping for a bump into business class, along with an extraordinary number of people claiming to be Sir Richard Branson’s dentist!
How often have you received a free upgrade, on which airline, and why? And what are your upgrade strategies?
About David Flynn
David Flynn is the editor of Australian Business Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.