We all love the idea of getting something for nothing but the chances of getting a free flight upgrade these days are slimmer than Kate Middleton’s waist. Fluttering your eyelashes or flashing a Bond-like smile at check-in just won’t cut it. But it’s not impossible to work your way up from crushed cattle class to something a little cushier, especially if you know how to work the system.
Airlines always overbook so you may be asked at check-in if you’re willing to be bumped to another flight, and be offered cash for your trouble. If you accept the alternative flight, now is a good time to politely ask if you could possibly be upgraded as well, which sometimes works. If you don’t want to change flights however, ask if there’s any chance of an upgrade on the current flight instead.
This did the trick for Sue Jones, an office manager on her way back from vacation: “They offered me a different flight but I told them I just had to be on the one I’d booked to make a business meeting next day and they bumped me from economy to first class, which was brilliant!”
Sue’s case is rare however. I tried it once on my way to the Cannes Film Festival, having turned down the airline’s offer of around £300 compensation to fly next day. No luck. They managed to squeeze me onboard in my booked economy seat.
As with everything else, it’s often about who and not what you know and networking at 30,000 feet is no exception. If you have a family member or friend or even a friend of a friend who works for the airline, it can be worth its weight in gold so butter up those contacts.
You can also become ‘friends’ with your favourite airline. In fact, frequent flyer programmes are among your best chances of getting an upgrade, especially at check-in. Frequent flyer Richard Ellis, who’s had some success, said: “Show your frequent flyer card at check-in and politely ask if they are upgrading passengers that day. Offer to pay. Go to the business class queue. Explain that you’d like to get some work done and ask if there’s a waiting list you can go on. It helps if you are carrying a laptop.”
At the booking stage, you can often trade your reward points for a cabin upgrade – this feels like it’s free, even though it isn’t really.
Honeymooners, pregnant women, birthday celebrants are all more likely to get an upgrade if they are part of a frequent flyer programme. Having said that, some major airlines are notoriously stingy even with very loyal customers so it’s worth doing a bit of research before you commit to one airline.
Solo travellers stand the best chance of an upgrade, or couples willing to sit separately. Families with tons of kids, or groups, have less than a cat’s chance in hell.
Food flexibility also increases your chance of a move. Airline meal numbers are pretty rigid and special meal requests won’t travel with your upgrade, so fruitarians, vegans, and kosher diners are not as likely to get upgraded as omnivores. Just remember not to specify a special meal request when you book.
If you are going to get bumped up, looking the part doesn’t hurt. Bear in mind that no matter how big your Ray-Bans or your designer handbag; shorts and ripped jeans won’t wash unless you’re an internationally recognised celebrity.
Titles used to go some way towards getting an upgrade and if you’re a doctor, peer of the realm, judge or professor, it still doesn’t do any harm to list this when you book your ticket as airlines will often do a pre-flight trawl though the passenger list for suitable upgrade candidates, who would fit in with business or first-class passengers.