How to get an airline upgrade without relying on luck

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Image: Reuters/Fabian Bimmer
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There is an old piece of advice that prevails when it comes to air travel: If you dress professionally, arrive early, and enquire ever so politely, you might just be that lucky person who gets bumped from the doldrums of economy class to the perks of premium, business, or first class. 

However, if you’ve been on a plane in the last decade, you might’ve noticed: Air travel has changed quite a bit. The glamour and personalized service has been replaced by algorithms, surcharges, and a de-bundling of even the most basic of services. Free upgrade? A more realistic aspiration might be a free ginger ale after takeoff.

“Airlines have their upgrade process down to a science,” Emily McNutt, global news editor for the aviation website The Points Guy, told Quartz. “Just because you’re wearing a suit doesn’t mean you’ll get an upgrade when you approach the gate agent. Because of things like airline elite status, upgrades often happen for those who are most loyal to the carrier.”

That’s not to say that if you’re not an elite status-bearing frequent flier there is no hope for you getting an upgrade. There are plenty of ways to buy yourself an upgrade that can be a good deal. But Gilbert Ott, upgrade enthusiast and founder of God Save the Points, says the problem is most people are thinking about airline upgrades in the wrong order.

“They think nothing about upgrades when they buy their ticket,” Ott said. “All the time in the world goes by. It’s like 24 hours before the flight and that moment happens where you think, ‘I don’t really want to fly in the back of a metal tube in a tiny little seat for a long time—maybe I can upgrade.’ And at that point, you’ve already lost.”

So how can the average traveler who is willing to spend a little for an upgrade win? It’s all about setting yourself up for success at the time of booking—and has very little to do with whether or not you’re wearing a tie.

“Everyone looks for the exception to the rule,” Ott says. “Rather than just looking for the rule that helps you win.”

Here are some of the rules.

Be sure you’re booking an upgradeable ticket

Airline cabins have gotten increasingly segmented over the past half decade, meaning that even within economy, there can be several classes of tickets for sale. It’s often the case that the cheapest basic economy ticket isn’t even eligible to be upgraded once booked, so if you’re eyeing the chance to sip complimentary bubbles in premium or business, then it’s best you check with the airline to see if your ticket is of the upgradeable variety.

Ott says that airlines are getting better at indicating this at the time of booking with the “emojification” of the booking process, indicating with icons and symbols what flights are eligible. But when in doubt, give the airline a call. And a reminder, when eyeing an upgrade—and as a general common sense rule—you should be booking directly through the airline, not through a third-party online travel agency (OTA).

Cash upgrades

The simplest way to pay for an upgrade is via the airline at the time of check-in. But keep in mind: “Airlines love it when you do this,” as Ott puts it, because it’s a way to squeeze out extra money for what may not necessarily be such a great deal. That’s why you need to do your due diligence.

Even if you’re not sure you will upgrade, it’s worth surveying the landscape when you book. What’s the price difference of an economy class ticket versus a full-fare business class ticket on the day you’re flying? If the difference is, say, $500 round trip, then you will have a baseline idea of whether the upgrade offer you’re being given at check-in is worth it.

Ott says paid-in-cash upgrades at check-in are often not a great deal. “I hear from check-in people all the time saying ‘you wouldn’t believe that this guy just paid £1,000 to upgrade from economy to business on this one-way flight.’” So proceed with caution. 

Let the airline come to you

A better time to buy an upgrade from the airline is in the weeks and days running up to the flight. Ott suggests downloading the app of the airline you’re flying with. It will not only keep you abreast of any flight changes, but you’ll often also find flash upgrade offers, which can very often be a better deal than what you’d get at check-in on the day of your flight. Keep in mind that on some airlines, like British Airways, you can only bump yourself one cabin up (so no going from economy to first). 

Equally, dozens of airlines offer for you to “bid” for an upgrade, a process powered by a system called Plusgrade. These offers will sometimes come via email, but also via the website or app, so it’s a good idea to check on your booking in the run-up to your flight. If you offer only what you can afford—and you have an idea of what a full-price premium ticket would’ve cost, so you don’t over-offer—you have a good chance of snagging a sensible deal.

A lesser known upgrade engine is Optiontown, which partners with about a dozen or so airlines, mostly in Asia. Even though the airline will offer you an upgrade using the service (as with the fifty or so airlines who use Plusgrade) it has a slightly more complicated process for approval: You are approved by Optiontown, and then subject to approval by the airline at check-in. So if you’re looking for a fuss-free upgrade, this might not be the way to go. 

Use miles or points to pay for an upgrade

Of course, it’s possible to use airline miles or points to buy an upgrade as well. If you’re not a frequent flier, you can amass points on a rewards credit card and then transfer them to any number of airline partnerships to redeem.

The most straightforward way to do this, Ott says, is to call the airline at the time of booking to confirm that the flight for which you are about to buy a ticket is upgradeable by points, and to see what upgrade offers they can give you on that basis. He advises doing this at least seven days before the flight; the longer you wait, the less likely there will be discount premium fares still available. Upgrading via points on the day of the flight, while sometimes possible, is less likely to land you a good deal, Ott says. (Some airlines won’t even allow you to buy upgrades with points less than 24 hours before the flight). 

Try your luck (sort of)

Technically, there are still a couple ways to get a free upgrade. The first is spending some time sitting around waiting for another flight. McNutt says, “If a flight is overbooked and you have flexible travel plans, use that to your advantage. Negotiate with the desk agent to not only get you on the next flight with some compensation, but also ask for a bump on your next flight. It never hurts to ask.” (You can start this negotiation by asking “Is the flight full?” when you check in.)

The other way isn’t really luck at all; it’s status. “When it comes to getting a magic upgrade at the airport … the agent doesn’t even have the discretion to really make that decision,” Ott said. “For most airlines they have an algorithm rating their highest-status customer to the person who didn’t even enter a frequent flier number on their reservation.” This will usually be based on a combination of your history with the airline and the amount you spent on your ticket. 

In short: You don’t want to be that person who didn’t enter a frequent flier number. Even if you’ve never flown with the airline before, just registering for their program will put you higher in the ranking.