Why free flight upgrades are a thing of the past

Gone are the days of the surprise upgrade at the check-in counter – Alamy

When you walk up to the airport check-in counter, there’s always that faint hope that you’ll hear those magic words: “I’m glad to say we were able to upgrade you on your flight today. »

My own attempts at leveling up over the years have included showing up late, smiling sweetly, pointing out my partner’s excessive size, hinting at special occasions, and ultimately just asking outright. A cashmere sweater and a smart blazer have long been my flying uniform in a sad attempt to show that, really, I should turn left. Alas, my success rate with these tactics was zero – although there was once an extra seat for Bangkok’s legs.

Unfortunately, new airline tactics and technologies mean that it is increasingly rare to make the jump from economy to the promised land of business or first class. So while you may dream of sipping champagne, handling proper cutlery, and enjoying some serious sleep, economy class is still your likely destiny.

“Airline systems are increasingly designed to limit ‘discretionary’ upgrades,” says Gilbert Ott, aviation expert and founder of God Save The Points.

“I estimate that over 90% of all upgrades are done through pre-travel instruments, either with upgrade vouchers or using points. All day upgrades are usually reserved for operational needs (oversold cabin) or goodwill for service failures.

Nicky Kelvin, head of Points Guy UK, agrees that standard passengers are rarely lucky when it comes to premium cabins. “Major UK airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are trying to protect their premium cabins. As such, they tend not to offer free upgrades to passengers. They prefer passengers to pay for upgrades and want to avoid premium cabins being full of upgraded passengers, which could potentially upset travelers who paid full fare (or used points) for their premium ticket.

As for those rumors about the success of smiley, smart clothes and false claims about honeymoons? “Dressing, all that nonsense – save it. Traveling is hard enough these days without wearing uncomfortable clothes,” says Gilbert Ott, who thinks such methods rarely work.

Similarly, Nicky Kelvin pours cold water on the myth that not checking in online and showing up late at the airport on a full flight means airlines will upgrade passengers: “It’s a somewhat dangerous game to play, as you might find yourself in the least desirable central seat.Also, BA, for example, gives priority to those who have used online check-in – in other words, those who definitely present.

But why are upgrades so elusive these days? Technology is likely to be the main factor, according to aviation experts. “The days of check-in agents personally selecting passengers for upgrades are over. Before sophisticated computer systems, airline staff would indicate whether a passenger was SFU or NSFU – Suitable for upgrade or not suitable for upgrade,” Kelvin explains, making those antics at the check-in counter rather futile.

Newlyweds were routinely offered upgrades in the past - Alamy

Newlyweds were routinely offered upgrades in the past – Alamy

Technology has also helped carriers become more efficient at filling their cabins and matching supply and demand on their routes, making empty business class seats less likely. And in a difficult post-pandemic landscape, where every ticket counts, we’ve seen companies like American Airlines take the bold step of scrapping first class entirely to maximize profits.

Gilbert Ott suggests that the only real chance of an impromptu upgrade is to volunteer for a later flight in a situation where your purchased flight is oversold: “Very often airlines sweeten the deal with upgrades, if possible, to encourage people to volunteer. ”

However, while simply requesting an upgrade at the airport is increasingly a mad dash, there are still ways savvy travelers can increase their odds – if they plan ahead. Basically, having frequent flyer status or sticking with an airline can be a differentiator.

“Airlines are notorious, particularly at this time of year, for surprising and delighting customers they wish they had more business from. If you hold even lower level status, you can be chosen for an upgrade as an olive branch and show what’s behind the curtain,” Ott advises.

“If that happens, it will definitely give someone a better chance than a general customer without a frequent flyer number. At the very least, signing up for a loyalty program helps get you started and earn points for better upgrade strategies in the future.

Even if you are not offered a free upgrade, there may be a decent point offer for those who have joined rewards programs. With the likes of Emirates, members can sign up to receive upgrade alerts on their flights and will usually be offered a cash or points offer a few days before the flight, if applicable. A common practice with some Asian airlines is to simply set a cash price at check-in, which can be worth it on the day.

Traveling alone can also increase your chances of getting an upgrade, as airlines tend to keep groups together and there may only be one seat available in the back of business class.

Overall, the message from industry insiders is that while upgrades are rare, it’s worth investing the time and effort to figure out what might maximize your chances.

Ott gives the example of where research can pay off: “It’s very common to find flights where premium economy class is a good value buy with cash, but seats are available in business class using point upgrades. You can then pay for premium economy class and travel business class, just by doing a little Google research and learning how to play this game.”

So, in a lesson that can be applied to other areas of life, smiling kindly might not work, but being savvy — and parting with a little money — might.

Five tips for getting a flight upgrade

  • Join Loyalty Programs and Loyalty Programs. Not only will you be first in line for free upgrades, but you’ll likely receive points or cash offers for premium cabins.

  • Travel alone. While this one obviously depends on your situation, it’s worth remembering that solo travelers are more likely to be upgraded due to availability and the tendency of airlines to keep groups together.

  • Choose routes that are usually very busy or very quiet. On overbooked flights, you may be offered a premium seat if you volunteer to wait for a later flight. Quiet flights naturally mean more chances of being pushed around, especially if the airline wants to ensure your loyalty.

  • Do not opt ​​for special meals whenever possible. If you have requested specific meals in advance, airlines will be reluctant to change your seat as they may not have the requested catering available in other cabins.

  • Just ask. Although this approach rarely works these days, you never know. And even if a free upgrade isn’t an option, you can still be offered a great value cash or points offer.

Have you ever received a free flight upgrade? Let us know in the comments below

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