Remember that quote from Jesus, about how it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven? It's almost that tough to score an airline upgrade.
Before considering some strategies that might or might not work it's useful to know how airlines think about who deserves the champagne treatment, and although airlines might play on different fields the rules of the game are about the same.
Airlines won't upgrade just because there are unsold seats in the class above the one you're sitting in. In the past, maybe, but freebies like that just don't happen these days. If airlines offered upgrades that some passengers could count on, what would be the point of charging a premium price for nobs' class?
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In order for a passenger to get an upgrade there has to be either the push factor or the pull factor in play. The push factor happens when a particular class on a flight is overbooked and the class above has empty seats. The airline will then decide to offer op ups – operational upgrades in airline parlance – to a favoured few.
Loyalty gets a big tick. Airlines smile upon those who choose to fly with them regularly and flyers with a bundle of loyalty points and status credits are front of the queue if the airline is handing out upgrades.
Next in line are passengers travelling on full flexy fares rather than discounted tickets, and that's about it. From these categories, airlines have more than enough candidates to take care of any overbooking situation.
The pull is all about those strategies a passenger can employ to get themselves into the world of soft linen napery and lie-flat seating.
Since your points balance is crucial it pays to fly with the same airline or just a couple of airlines within the same alliance as far as practical. It might also be worthwhile signing up for an airline-affiliated credit card, which might come with 50,000 or even a Godzilla-like 100,000 points if you qualify for the American express Platinum Card, but beware the annual fees and minimum spend. Become a diligent reader of Point Hacks (see pointhacks.com.au).
Check the Plusgrade website
Plusgrade gives you a hotline to the relevant seat auction sites of leading airlines including Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Etihad, which all put unsold premium seats up for bids. You need a confirmed booking in the class below the one you're bidding for and you'll get notification a few days pre-flight if you're in the sweet zone. Prices and qualifications vary from one airline to another and route to route, but these airlines are ready to bargain.
Fly with an airline that sells Optiontown upgrades
Optiontown sells unsold premium seats aboard a small number of international carriers including Air India, AirAsia X and Vietnam Airlines at a big discount. You might have to wait until the check-in desk to find out whether you're in. If not you'll get a full refund. Optiontown is more likely to deliver if you're travelling alone. If you're travelling as a couple or a family, book each flyer as a separate entity. If the upgrade comes through for some but not all you can duke it out at the check-in desk.
Ask how much an upgrade is going to cost when you check in
It might be a major burn, but maybe not. In February this year, standing at the Singapore Airlines check-in, the chap next to me asks for an upgrade, economy to business on the Sydney-Singapore sector. "That'll be $2000," says the manager behind the service desk. His face turns a shade of white that approximates his linen shirt. "But I paid just $1000 last time for an upgrade," he says. Manager consults screen. "No that was because you paid for a premium economy seat on that flight so the upgrade was less." See? They know everything, might as well sprinkle your bulldust on the sea. On the other hand, I once got an upgrade with Thai Airways, Bangkok to Sydney, for $800. Almost what the return airfare cost me but I was unwell and would not have been a happy camper in economy. Some flyers have reported upgrades on Emirates on long-haul sectors costing as little as $US200.
Fly with a budget airline that has a premium cabin
Those who fly with a budget airline are looking to fly at the lowest possible cost, which is a no brainer since the comfort/service/satisfaction levels are all close to zero. Some of those budget carriers offer a premium cabin but only rarely is it filled with full-fare paying passengers. These airlines are not interested in protecting their reputation for premium service - they don't have one – they're only interested in revenue, and that means any marginal income they can pocket is a win. Thus a small cost might get you a much better seat. It's not going to be fantastic. You're not getting Emirates business class, but it's better. Approach the airline's premium counter at the check-in desk with your let's-make-a-deal face and smile like a winner.
Buy an upgrade on points
Using your points to buy an upgrade is a roll of the dice, and it excludes you from buying the cheapest airfares. On Qantas for example, only passengers who purchase economy "Flex" and "Saver" tickets are eligible for points-based upgrades, not those with the cheapest "Sale" branded fares. If you pay more for your ticket and but don't get the upgrade, you'll probably be sitting next to someone who paid about a third to a half less than you, and that's a nasty thought.
If you think you've got a shot at an upgrade avoid flights with lots of business travellers. Chances are their premium cabins will be full, or else your fellow travellers will have the kind of loyalty points balance that puts them way ahead of you in the upgrade queue. Avoid flights that depart early or late in the day and go for midday, midweek and Saturdays.
See also: How to travel the world on $50 a day
Contrary to popular myth, dressing like George Clooney – or Amal - won't get you an upgrade. But if the cabin you're booked in happens to be oversold and the airline is looking to upgrade, look like you belong and you just might qualify. Wear cargo shorts, thongs or a singlet and your chances are zip, even with a Kanchenjunga of loyalty points.
What won't get you an upgrade? "Because today is my birthday", "because didn't you see me on MasterChef"? "because here's a box of macarons my mother just made for you", "because my dog died and I'm really feeling it", – the staff at the check-in desk have heard it and then some, and it never works.
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