How to get a free upgrade to business class, or even first class

By David Flynn, February 24 2012
How to get a free upgrade to business class, or even first class

It’s a near-perfect start to any flight. You hand over your boarding pass at the check-in counter or gate desk, only to have the machine spit it back out with a beep and a blink of its little red light.

The attendant glances a computer screen, taps a button and a new boarding pass appears. But instead of an economy seat this one is for business class or, even better on an international flight, first class.

Yes, you’ve been upgraded. More precisely, and in airline argot, you’ve received an on-the-spot operational upgrade or ‘op-up’ for short.

This is the sweetest type of upgrade because you don't have to pay for it. There's no parting with a fistful of dollars or frequent flyer points: it's a freebie in its purest and most delightful form.

Little wonder, then, that travellers are keen to learn the tricks and tactics for blagging an upgrade. Who wouldn’t want their cut-price economy ticket to magically transform, like caterpillar to butterfly, into a first-class boarding pass?

The sad and bad news is that there’s no foolproof formula for getting an upgrade. It’s a mixture of art, science and a dollop of luck – and the ratio varies not only between airlines but according to which routes you fly and even when you travel.

About all we can guarantee is that the best way to get an upgrade it to pay for one. (And even that won’t always get over the line – for example, Qantas doesn’t confirm a points-based upgrade until shortly before you travel.)

But if you want to play the odds for a free upgrade, here’s what you need to know.

Why do upgrades occur?

A free upgrade – in airline argot, an operational upgrade or ‘op-up’ for short – typically happens when the cabin you’re booked into is actually over-booked.

Airlines usually sell more tickets than they have physical seats, based on each flight’s historical record of a certain number of last-minute rebookings and cancellations.

But sometimes the numbers run the other way. The airline ends up with an excess of paid passengers in economy, premium economy or even business class.

The easiest way to make room is to upgrade some passengers from the over-sold cabin, most commonly cattle-class, into empty seats in business and/or first class.

A change in the aircraft used on the flight can also affect the number of seats in each class, necessitating a seat shuffle between the cabins.

All of this juggling is taken care of by the airline’s computers in the hours before your flight departs.

How are upgrades allocated?

There are a few exceptions to the overbooked cabin rule. Some airlines give their frontline staff the latitude to upgrade passengers on a per-case basis, which opens the door towards you asking for a bump-up if one’s available.

But the trend in recent years has been towards tightly-controlled upgrade criteria, with the passenger’s status in an airline’s frequent flyer scheme being the primary factor. We asked several major airlines to detail their upgrade policy.

Qantas plays it cards close to its chest, saying “this information is confidential and not something we would be able to talk about”.

Virgin Australia is more open, with travellers upgraded “based on their tier status with the Velocity Frequent Flyer program.

However, a Virgin Australia spokesperson also volunteers that “from time to time we invite high value guests to sample a new product offering” such as the airline’s recently-introduced domestic business class on its Boeing 737 fleet.

Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines toe the hard line.

Forget about asking for an upgrade, says AirNZ: you pay with money or points, and “when an upgrade is required for operational purposes the seat is automatically allocated, it’s not available by request.” Similarly, Singapore Airlines “has a stringent no upgrade policy” an SQ rep told us.

Cathay Pacific is more easy-going, with upgrades based on each passengers’ “tier status with the Marco Polo Club and oneworld frequent flyer programmes.” (This will be played out in March during the first month of Cathay's new Premium Economy service).

On-the-spot upgrades at Emirates “normally go to Skywards Members in order of Gold, Silver or Blue tier priority”, although additional “upgrade decisions usually happen at a managerial level within an airline.”

So if you want to plan for snaring an upgrade, ensure your chosen airline is upgrade-friendly and work your way to top-tier status in its frequent flyer program. The higher you are in the frequent flyer food chain the better your chance of a bump into business class or even first class.

Once you’ve got serious status, there's something to be said for choosing flights that are likely to be crowded and thus, potentially overbooked.

This typically means Fridays, weekends and Mondays for international routes, and flights with onwards connections (such as Sydney-Singapore-London) instead of a point-to-point service.

The downside of this gambit is you could end up stuck in a fully-booked economy cabin with a few squealing babies to boot.

Beyond status: tactics for upgrade success

While status is the trump card for upgrades it’s not the only card you can play. This is where blagging an upgrade involves a little art.

First up, there's no harm in simply asking if there's an upgrade available. Do it nicely, and do it at the check-in counter or the airport lounge’s service desk, not when you’re on the plane or about to board (by which time the crew have more than enough on their hands.)

Perhaps comment on how you’ve heard great things about their premium economy or business class, and you’d love to try it out if they have a spare seat and could wrangle an upgrade. Most of the time this won’t work, but if it does, then you're set!

There are other ways to try your luck. A recent survey conducted by American Express reported that while in addition to asking straight out for a free upgrade at check-in, a quarter of Aussie flyers say they dress smartly “to give the impression of wealth and importance”.

This dress-for-success maxim is one of the biggest myths of scoring an upgrade.

Most airlines rely on their booking system to juggle the seats in over-booked flights, and the computer is more interested in your status than your sense of style.

Dressing well doesn’t hurt your chances where there’s a human factor involved in the upgrade equation, but it's not the silver bullet to business class.

So why be stuck on an 8-12 hour flight in dress pants with your best shirt and tie? Take a look around business class cabin and you’ll find more people dressed down than up.

(Check out our tips on how to dress smart and comfortable yet sans suit for business casual and what some call 'start-up casual'.)

Almost a fifth of respondents to the Amex survey said they'll make special mention at the counter that their trip is for a special occasion such as a honeymoon or birthday, before turning to flattery to charm those behind the desk (17 per cent). But others are more cunning, with five per cent of those surveyed confessed to pretending to be famous or friends with a celebrity.

Such cheek at the check-in desk is not a purely Australian trait. Virgin Atlantic reveals that “Sir Richard Branson is my friend” and “Sir Richard Branson promised me an upgrade” are the two excuses most often trotted out by passengers hoping for a bump into business class, along with an extraordinary number of people claiming to be Sir Richard Branson’s dentist!

How often have you received a free upgrade, on which airline, and why? And what are your upgrade strategies?


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 527

I've had a few upgrades, but I assume that it is because of my FF status more so than anything else. 

I know various people in the airline industry - There is no point having a strategy - Upgrades are based on factors such as status, fare base (whether its a discount ticket or not) and sometimes you may be priortised based on how much money you have spent with an airline. 

Asking at the desk may work.. but unlikely and as for dressing smartly - that is definitely a myth as is talking airline talk and all the rest of it.


19 Dec 2011

Total posts 49

it is true that it doesn't hurt to ask, recently when travelling business with ba on the singapore-london route I was commenting to one of the cabin crew after take off that business class was not very full & would love it if my daughter, who was in economy could join me. When saying this I had no expectation at all, after my previous experiences with ba, that anything would happen. However to my surprise she said "where is she sitting I'll go & get her" which she did. She was Irish & the cabin manager & I am oneworld emerald which all helps- sometimes you do get lucky.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2551

I happened to score a 'human intervention' upgrade to QF First Class on an A380 from London to Singapore - this was before AusBT, so no special favours at work there! I was in business class LHR-SIN-SYD, was chatting to the QF lass at Heathrow check-in about business class and perfumes (those who know me will understand!), handed a few small sample bottles to her and the check-in team, and somewhere in the conversation (not connected to the free perfume bottles, I swear!) as we chatted about travel classes she asked if I'd ever been in 1st - I replied no but I live in hope for a random upgrade one day - two hours later, I'm boarding the plane, she's at the gate and when I hand over my boarding pass i hear that delightful 'alert' sound, she hands over a new boarding pass and I'm in First for the London-Singapore leg. :)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

19 Nov 2011

Total posts 244

I had an upgrade from BA's World Traveller to Club World just by luck on a flight from SYD - SIN. I approached the check-in counter and handed my itinerary and told I got a free upgrade. Exciting travel experience I must say as I am not in the profession where I travel for business (love to one day). This happened back close to Christmas in 2009. So, I started to think of all the possibilities why the luck came my way that day:

1. BA Cabin Crew threatened to strike one week prior to my departure but called off few days before. Hence, cancellations? BA did not announce refund of tickets as the strike never happened. There were quite a few Club World seats available and the flight was not full. So, excess paid and no show up from customers.

2. I flew BA the same year few months prior from SYD - LHR for a vacation. Recognised for being a loyal customer?

3. My sheer good looks? I like to think that helped but I dressed in a polo shirt, golf shorts and casual shoes on that day.

4. Flew alone. Easy upgrade for solo travellers instead of group/family travel?

Frequent flyer did not help as I was a QF Flyer Bronze member anyway.

05 Jul 2012

Total posts 13

My brother and his wife are both corporate travel agents selling hundreds of thousands of dollars of fares for Qantas.

When they travel Qantas themselves, although they ask their QF rep to help with an upgrade, it NEVER happens.

I have been waiting for an upgrade for so long.  I have read many articles and techniques to have an upgrade....unfortunately not one is a 100% way for that elusive free upgrade. So,,, on my Singapore Airlines flight back home this December.. I just did the usual routine that i usually do..  6 Months ahead i already bought my round trip ticket with my Krisflyer number encoded in it  (i already have more than 20,000 credit miles). I also booked it online and grab my self an isle seat, to have provide myself extra space just in case my flight mate is big enough for his seat...I also do an internet check in to avoid the long queue on the check in counter.  My flight day comes, I check in three hours before my flight, so i can stay longer on my free access to a lounge (courtesy of my credit card).  Although i have a 30kg baggage allowance i choose not to check in anything, because my plan was to do my shopping in my stopover in Singapore.  I was issued my boarding pass for both johannesburg singapore and singapore manila flight.  When i check it, it is still an economy class.  (as expected, because i buy an economy class ticket).  On the final boarding check.  I hand over my boarding pass to the steward, and was immediately scanned.   OOOLLLAAAHHHHH, the red blink that i was waiting for long is in front of me.   "Houston, we have a problem" are the nice words that keeps passing on my brain.  The Steward tell me nicely to seat for a while because there is a problem with my boarding pass.  Seconds later, she came back and told me that they gave me an upgrade to BUSINESS CLASS.  I did not dare to ask why, thinking that they might change their mind.  I still cant believe it, until the steward show me my assigned seat and oollllaaaahhh it really is a Business Class seat.  Wow, the best 12 hour flight i have in years...   To get an upgrade without doing nothing to get it is pure LUCK, nothing else

06 Jan 2014

Total posts 1

You sure are right about the Qantas upgrade for points, it is simply not possible to confirm until just before the flight, and even then, no guarantee at all.  I had a terrible experience with this when my wife and I were flying from London to Singapore.  As I was flying business class already (business trip), we booked a ticket for my wife in economy, and used points to request an upgrade to business.  When we went to check in, we were refused the upgrade to business class for my wife.  To add insult to injury, they would not permit my wife to join me in the Qantas lounge, even with an offer to pay something as a visitor (naturally I therefore passed on it too).

So, then getting on the plane, the doors close and we take off.  I am sitting in business class that is crowded, but not full - why was my wifes upgrade refused?  The cabin crew were sympathetic, but could not help.  My wife had never flown business class, so it was very dissapointing not to be able to get the upgrade.  At least the cabin crew allowed me to swap seats with my wife after the plane had levelled out.

I haven't flown Qantas since, and will not unless there is no option, or a HUGE price advantage in doing so.

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