How to be sure to be upgraded on a plane?

Today we are going to talk about one of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to air travel:how to get an upgrade!

Whether we are talking about airplanes or hotels, upgrades are often the benefit most appreciated by travelers and the number of sites and forums where the subject is discussed is simply staggering.

However, what I read can only make me smile in view of my past experiences: it would be enough to board in the last ones, to make a big smile to the flight attendant or anything else totally crazy to hope to be propelled in the upper class.

So let’s be frank: if you’re not the spouse of the pilot or a staff member, the grand nephew of an influential member of the executive committee, a world-famous actor who mistakenly booked a flight in economy, your chances of getting an upgrade are slim if you don’t have any status on the frequent flyer program or don’t intend to use your credit card, your chance of being upgraded is close to absolute zero. Try the lottery and you will have more chances to win the jackpot.

For others your chances will depend on one simple factor: how much you spent before or how much you plan to spend now.

But let’s try to take things in the right order. There are several types of upgrades and I will first distinguish between paid and free upgrades.

A paid upgrade is when, at some point in the travel process, you are offered an upgrade for an additional fee.

And there are as many practices as there are airlines, or almost.

On British Airways you will be offered an upgrade to business class for a fee before paying for your economy ticket. But even if you pass up the opportunity you will be able to upgrade later from your customer area or the mobile app within the limit of eligible/available seats. The same goes for Lufthansa and Swiss.

At Air France it is random. Or rather, it is proposed according to well-defined rules, but from the passenger’s point of view, sometimes it is proposed, sometimes it is not. It simply depends on how full the cabin is If there is a way to sell more tickets by freeing up seats in economy class by “pushing” passengers towards business class, then before upgrading passengers for free at the boarding gate, they will try to sell them a paid upgrade that will allow them to “secure” the operation. And of course we will first push the offer to the most loyal passengers who will generally be the only ones eligible. If you are a low tier member of the loyalty program, no matter how much you are willing to pay, you will not be offered anything.

Upgrades can also be purchased, depending on the airline: at the check-in counter, at the boarding gate or even on board!

Some like Garuda Indonesia or Swiss also offer auctions : you “bid” the price you are willing to pay and the highest bidder wins the auction...and the upgrades. You are informed of the result of the auction one or two days before: if your bid passes you are debited otherwise it does not cost you anything.

Finally, there is the paid upgrade because the fare at which you bought your economy ticket allows it. This is possible for tickets purchased at full price (sometimes even economy tickets almost as expensive as discounted business tickets) and for a price that can vary.

I might as well tell it like it is: Paid upgrades are the only way to guarantee that you will be upgraded. They are by definition against the payment of a certain amount (more on this later) payable in cash or in miles/points/avios etc. depending on how the airline calls the award miles in its loyalty program.

How much to pay for a paid upgrade?

The next legitimate question is: is it worth it? The answer is worth what it is worth: it depends.

It depends on the service offered in the higher class, the flight, the aircraft etc.

To go from a “standard” economy to a “real” business on a medium-haul airline in Asia I am ready to pay much more than on a European airline where the seat is the same and the service is not significantly better. In short, I would never spend 200 euros or more to fly on Air France in medium-haul business on a 2 or 3 hour flight. Recently I bought an upgrade on a Paris-Barcelona flight for less than 100 euros: same seat as the one behind (but central seat neutralized), and a light meal: that was not worth more and I even felt remorse. And sorry for those who paid full price for their business… it must be painful.

On the other hand I have already put 200 or 300 euros on an auction. For a long time, Garuda Indonesia offered very competitive fares on the London-Jakarta in business class flight because the flight was not fully booked. We speak about 1200/1400 euros for a flight of 15h and an excellent service (see here our report out of Amsterdam). So I pay(without any remorse this time) the 1200 euros requested and make a bid of 200 euros to go to First class. The bid is successful. A second time, I see that the occupancy rate of the First cabin is higher so I go up to 400. And it passed again. Considering the price at which the First class ticket was sold (in the 4000s according to my memory) you understand that the game was worth it. (See the report of the flight in First on Garuda Indonesia).

When it comes to upgrades purchased at the gate, or worse, on board, you really have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. You have missed out on a large part of the benefits of travelling in superior class: priority lanes, access to the lounge… so you only pay for the seat and the service in flight. Worth it? It’s up to you to decide.

As for the upgrades provided for in the conditions of the fare of your original ticket, you must bear in mind thatyou have already paid a full price for an economy ticket, so it may be unreasonable to overinvest in an upgrade.

How many miles do I earn for a paid upgrade?

Last but not least, will you earn the award miles and status of your origin or destination class? This can make a big difference.

Here again, the rules differ from one airline to another and the system is so complex that it is impossible to be exhaustive.

On Air France and KLM you will keep the miles and XP of your original class (in theory because you will soon see that in practice it is partly wrong). One more reason not to overinvest. On Swiss you will have the miles of the destination class if it is an auction upgrade and Original class miles if it is a fixed price upgrade. On British Airways you will get the miles of the destination class.

But in practice we can have good surprises. We realized, for example, that at Swisson we could get the miles of the destination class if we credited the points on the program of a partner airline. It’s a question of information systems that don’t talk to each other very well, in my opinion.

Better yet, my famous auctions at Garuda. The rule at Flying Blue is that you get the miles and XP of the original class. But what happens if you buy the ticket on a partner airline? Garuda “re-tickets” me a First class ticket, so for Flying Blue it is a “real” first class ticket: So I take the 60 XP. Moreover, as this is a partner airline, I earn award miles according to the distance flown and not according to the price of the ticket like on an Air France or KLM flight. Jackpot.

In fact, as soon as two information systems have to talk to each other, there can be good or bad surprises. Here they were good.

Is a paid upgrade a good deal?

So there is no rule, only what you think it is “worth” in relation to the benefit gap. I am therefore very vigilant about the business class of European airlines on medium-haul routes which often do not deserve it. On the long haul, the advantages are much more tangible but, again, it all depends on the price requested.

One of my criteria of choice is of course the gain of miles. On Garuda you understood that the operation was juicy and I just did it again on a British Airways flight. Going from 10 to 80 status points on the round trip for less than 200 euros was perfect to boost my Executive Club status.

So it’s up to you.

When can I get a free upgrade?

That’s the Grail! The subject that fuels all the discussions on the forums. Well, you’re going to be disappointed if your goal is to fly business without a solid history with the airline or even with the alliance. I’m sorry to put a stop to rumors, fake news and other grandmotherly advice, but it’s time to set the record straight.

The free upgrade can be done at different times:

– At check-in: bingo you learn that you are upgraded.

– At the boarding gate: you hold out your eco boarding pass and you hear a beep announcing good news.

– In between: you see your updated boarding pass in Apple Wallet. Most of the time this is what happens from a technical point of view but it is simply that the boarding pass has not been updated automatically on your smartphone and you discover it when boarding with the famous beep or if you hold up a paper boarding pass which by definition is not likely to be updated.

Why do we get a free upgrade?

Contrary to what many imagine Free upgrades are not part of the benefits of the airline loyalty program. A high status gives you priority if any upgrade need to be made but in no way, an airline that doesn’t need it is not going to say “well, what if we upgrade people today?”.

So it begs the question “why does an airline need to upgrade passengers?

Most often it is because of an operational constraint. For example, a last minute change of aircraft or a rebooking means that there is not enough room in economy to fit everyone. If the business class is empty, some passengers will be sent to the premium-eco or business class in order to free up seats in the eco class.

It can also be due to commercial factors. The eco is full, the business relatively empty, there is still a way to sell eco tickets and logically much less chance to sell business at the last minute. Once again, passengers will be moved up to the next class in order to sell economy tickets and optimize the aircraft’s load factor.

Who gets a free upgrade?

So you’re dreaming of being one of the lucky ones to get a free upgrade? Please be aware that free upgrades are subject to strict rules that may slightly vary depending on the airline, but overall there is an established order of priority as to who can be upgraded. And this order of priority depends on :

– Your status in the airline’s loyalty program.

– Your status on the loyalty program of a partner airline.

– Your booking class (not travel class).

In general it is applied in this order and it is the same that prevails in case of rebooking following a cancelled flight for example.

So if you’re traveling in economy at a low fare and have little or no status on the airline’s frequent flyer program your chances of an upgrade are close to nil.

On the other hand, if you bought an economy ticket at full price (upgradeable, exchangeable, refundable, flexible) and have little or no status, you will probably be overtaken by a platinum traveler who travels at a low fare.

Last but not least, some airlines offer “upgrade vouchers” to their most loyal customers that allow them to request a certain number of free upgrades. But this remains very marginal in volume.

What else should I know about free upgrades?

Needless to say, in this case, you will only earn the bonus and qualifying miles of your original class.

And most of the time you are only upgraded by one class. In other words, you will move from eco to premium eco if there is one and a premium eco passenger will move to business if necessary. Although with a big status you can still sometimes skip a class but it is rare.

The subject is so vast that it is impossible to deal with all the particular cases, but I think we have a fairly complete picture.

Well, that’s it. I’m sorry to have crushed some people’s dreams, but an upgrade never happens by chance and is never free: either you pay for it or you are considered to have paid enough before to deserve it. As far as loyalty programs are concerned, clients who spend the most are the most favored.

Photo : Upgrade by Aris Suwanmalee via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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