It’s something we all dream of when staring down the barrel of a long-haul flight in economy: an out-of-the-blue upgrade that whisks you out of cattle class and into the pointy end of the plane.
Few of us have ever actually experienced it, so it can seem that it’s merely the stuff of legend.
But it certainly does happen, especially when a flight is overbooked (which happens more often than you may think, as they tend to factor in some last-minute cancellations and no-shows for each flight).
Every airline has a different protocol when it comes to upgrading people and filling the seats in the upper classes.
There are plenty of rumours around about how you can schmooze your way into an upgrade, so we decided to speak to our contact at one of the major airlines (who preferred not to be named) about how much truth there is to these tips and tricks.
Show your loyalty
One thing that is certain is this: The most likely reason you’ll get upgraded is if you are part of the company’s frequent flyer program, and you have a high status.
Upgrades usually go to frequent flyers as a reward for their loyalty.
Be charming to airline staff on the ground
It never hurts to be nice to people and some higher-up ground staff certainly have the power to upgrade. But largely this one is a bit of a furphy.
If a flight is overbooked any upgrades have most likely already been decided by computer algorithms well before the flight departs and human discretion has very little to do with it.
Check your seat when you sit down
If you’re on a full flight, as soon as your butt lands in economy, check your seat.
If the chair doesn’t recline or there is a faulty entertainment unit (or God forbid, some kind of unidentifiable stain around your seat), let the crew know.
Sometimes if your complaint warrants it and there’s a spare seat in a better part of the plane, you might get moved up. Or at least score an extra dessert at meal time.
Dress the part
Some say that if you dress well, you have more of a chance of being upgraded. And yes, it doesn’t hurt to look the part.
But if you’re donning your one piece of Gucci and hoping that’ll do the trick when you front up to the check-in counter, you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed.
As previously mentioned, most flight upgrades are done by a computer according to frequent flyer status, and the computer doesn’t care what you’re wearing.
Use your points
It’s a widely held belief that one of the best ways to use loyalty points is on flight upgrades. And it’s definitely an excellent way to get good value from your points when you consider the high retail price of some business/first-class airfares.
Some airlines also offer a “bid to upgrade” option, which kind of turns it into a fun game.
It’s more likely that there’s going to be a single seat here and there available for upgrades, not so much clumps of seats. If you’re flying as a couple or a family, your chances are less likely.
The moral to the story? Cut everyone loose and look after numero uno.
Let the staff know it’s a special occasion
Every now and then you hear of someone telling check-in staff they are on their honeymoon and being gloriously upgraded for their flight to the Maldives/Fiji/Hawaii.
According to our contact, upon sharing this sort of news it’s more likely you’ll get a free glass of Yellowglen or a little congratulatory cake. Not to be sneezed at.
Volunteer to be bumped if the flight is overbooked
This is something that tends to happen more in countries like the US, but sometimes a flight will be so overbooked that people will be asked to volunteer to be bumped to a later flight.
Occasionally – very occasionally – you’ll be rewarded with a flight upgrade if you take one for the team in this manner.
One final note
The number of vacant seats available for upgrades on the day of flying may actually be dwindling.
Rather than offering free operational upgrades, many airlines are now selling cheap upgrades to flyers in the days leading up to the flight.
So don’t be disheartened if you try one of these methods and still find yourself with your knees around your ears in economy – these magical upgrades are becoming more and more of a travel unicorn.