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Flight Upgrades Try for free or buy business class on the cheap

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The only certain way to get a flight upgrade is to pay for it. Yet free upgrades DO happen. Of course they're rare, but there are ways to increase your chances.

This step-by-step guide includes grabbing free upgrades and buying cheap ones - plus how to get the best possible economy seats if all else fails.

Before I start, a quick thanks to all MoneySavers, especially those who work at airlines, whose tips and tales have helped nurture this guide.

The levels of flying luxury

Most modern non-budget airlines operate up to four classes of travel on long-haul flights. Most upgrades are only up one level, as airlines are more likely to move someone in the class above up too, though occasionally if you're a single traveller, you can get a big upgrade. The four main classes are...

  • Economy class. Small seat, basic food, basic service.

    With limited legroom on most long-haul carriers, 'cattle class' offers the most basic service, and is primarily the domain of leisure travellers.

    What's included can vary widely, though. Nifty website SeatGuru shows whether an airline includes in-seat video and games, and if there is a power socket and wifi.

  • Premium economy / executive class. Bigger seat, basic food, basic service

    Not on every airline, premium economy offers a similar overall service to regular economy, but around six extra inches of legroom with seats that fold back further, making sleeping much easier - especially if you're tall.

  • Business class. Big and possibly fold-flat seat, luxury food & service

    Flying business on European short-haul flights isn't so exciting; many book it to get access to the lounge (see cheap lounge access instead). Going long-haul business class is a different story, with all sorts of benefits.

    This highly profitable class is made to impress, so travellers get faster check-in, top quality menus, and many long-haul business class seats can be rendered totally flat for sleeping.

  • First class. High-end luxury, and exceptional cost.

    True first class only exists on premium commercial routes, so beware as a few airlines call their business class "first". It means the crème de la crème of comfort, both on the plane and at the airport. Often the seat can be replaced by a full bed with bedding. Massages may also be available, as well as the highest quality of personal concierge service.

    Of course, this level of luxury comes at an eye-watering price. For a transatlantic return, £6,000 isn't surprising.

How to get a free flight upgrade

There are a huge number of urban legends about flight upgrades. We've all heard someone boast that having bought a New York return for £2.20, they sweet-talked the check-in staff and were bumped up to first class on every flight for the next 17 years.

Sadly it's not true. If you want to guarantee an upgrade, then forget this section and just jump straight to buying cheap upgrades, as...

Free or 'operational' upgrades do happen, but it's rare. If you're lucky enough to get one, consider it a privilege.

However, there are a host of hot tips to boost your chance of a free upgrade from minuscule to just unlikely. As most are neither arduous nor difficult, why not give them a go?

How rare are upgrades?
upgrade3 poll, June 2008. Total votes: 8,806

Boost your chances before you book...

It's possible to steal a march on the competition even before you've decided on a flight. Anything that gets you nearer the front of the queue for the front of the plane's a good thing.

  • Ask friends who work for the airline to pull some strings

    The old adage it's not what you know, but who you know applies here. If you've got close friends at the check-in desk, or better still, higher up in the airline, they may be able to wangle you occasional special privileges. Some airlines also give their staff upgrade vouchers, which'll effectively buy you an upgrade if there's a higher class seat available.

  • Use your title

    If you have an impressive title, be it Doctor, Professor, Judge, Councillor, or especially if you're a VIP, there's a mountain of anecdotal evidence to back the idea you've a stronger chance of getting an upgrade. You have to let them know beforehand for it to work.

    So if you're booking through a travel agent, ask them to note this on a file. If you're booking on the web and are a Doctor or Reverend (and it says so on your passport), use your title when booking.

  • Don't order special meals

    If you order a special in-flight meal - such as vegetarian, vegan, halal or kosher - you may destroy your upgrade potential, as flights rarely carry spares, especially for higher class seats whose food costs more. So you're likely to be overlooked for someone less picky.

  • Ensure the airline knows you're on a special trip

    If you're off on your honeymoon, jetting away to get married, on a 70th birthday or other special occasion, let the airline staff know if possible. Preferably if you know a member of the airline staff, tell them, otherwise do it via a travel agent or drop it in while at the check-in. It won't always result in an upgrade, but you may possibly get a free glass of champagne and some special in-flight treatment.

  • Travel alone

    Lone travellers are much more likely to be upgraded than any others as they can be put anywhere without fuss. Couples have slimmer, but still-existent chances, but large groups and families with kids have a better chance of winning the lottery. Therefore, if you're travelling with a group and don't care too much about sitting with them, ensure you've a separate booking to increase your upgrade odds.

  • Join the frequent flyer clubs

    The best way to get regular upgrades is to join a frequent flyer scheme and diligently build up points/miles. Getting to top levels like 'Gold' or 'Premier' (varies by airline) gives you huge status at check-in, putting you at the front of the line for any spare expensive seats, and sometimes even meaning an upgrade every time one's available.

    Yet unless you can count on business trips to pile on the miles, it ain't easy to get up there, and savvy carriers often make it tough to accrue points on discounted flights at all. See the Frequent Flyer Schemes section below for full details.

    Even if you have no intention of sticking with the airline you're flying with, it could still be worth joining its scheme to leapfrog people that haven't, and nothing stops you signing up for a few different ones.

  • Pick your flight carefully

    The most likely upgrade scenario is if the economy section is full and the class above it isn't, so flights in school holidays to popular holiday destinations are a good bet, though that's also one of the most expensive times to fly. By the same token, early morning routes between city business hubs are hellish to get upgraded on; business class is likely to be packed already.

    You've twice as much chance of finding a spare seat in a business cabin that has 40 seats than one that has 20, so it's worth investigating what's on offer in advance. The websites SeatGuru and SeatExpert catalogue the seating plans of all planes used by major airlines.

  • Paying full fare?

    Tickets bought at discounted rates tend to have a different ticket code to full price tickets, even if they're both economy. Airlines are more likely to upgrade full-price ticket holders, as it's bad for their reputations to have somebody in the business cabin spouting that they only paid £200 for their long-haul ticket to people who paid many times that.

    So if you've got a full price ticket, either because you need cancellation flexibility or it's all that was available at the last minute, be aware you're in the upgrading frontline. In fact on some American and Canadian routes, full price economy ticket holders can bizarrely be guaranteed an upgrade if they've special tickets.

Boosting your chances when checking in

Having chosen a likely-looking flight, it's important to check in the right way. The best chance is for those who check in as early or as late as possible.

  • Check in early...

    Nowadays it's usually possible to check in online around 24 hours or more before the flight departs. This increases your chances of getting a backroom upgrade, given by backroom staff the day before take-off. That's because they now know you intend to be on the flight in question, so they won't need to shuffle around the upgrades later. It also means if you don't get an upgrade, it's easier to choose the best seat.

  • ...or at the last minute.

    Arriving late also has an advantage; check-in staff can upgrade you at the desk. There's more chance all the economy seats have been filled already, so you might get put into a better seat. Of course, here you also run the risk of being kicked off the flight entirely if it's overbooked, so it's not a good technique if you can't afford to miss the plane.

    Since in this situation it's up to check-in staff to choose suitable candidates, how you dress and act may well make a difference too, as detailed below.

Boosting your chances at the airport...

Even when you arrive at the airport, there are a few ways to render yourself, in airline parlance, more 'SFU' ('Suitable For Upgrade').

  • Be flexible

    If a flight's completely full, check-in staff will look for people to be 'bumped off' onto the next one. Since this is hardly an appetising prospect, an upgrade on the next flight may be offered as compensation for those who volunteer themselves. It isn't guaranteed though, especially if you arrive at the check-in desk late, so wait for the offer before jumping at it.

    In more pressing situations these incentives can stretch as far as offering upgrades and free flights on top; one MoneySaver reported being offered flights to "anywhere in the world" as compensation for inconvenience.

  • Dress respectably and cleanly

    One of the oldest and most commonly suggested 'tricks' to getting an upgrade is to dress very smartly, yet this is a little dated. Most first-class long haul travellers these days aren't in suits - they dress smart casual for the plane, and then change just before landing or in the airport lounge on arrival.

    However, looking scruffy is a big no-no. The best tactic is to look clean and respectable in nice clothes, and make an effort to look like you'd fit in.

  • Be friendly, polite and charming

    Airline staff are more likely to give treats to people they like and who treat them with respect. A friendly, relaxed demeanour is more likely to get you an upgrade in the rare event that check-in staff have the power to give one.

    One MoneySaver who works for BA notes: "Sitting on a check-in desk for four hours gets very repetitive, so getting a passenger who doesn't have a list of demands and issues is very refreshing." Our contact adds: "Happy customers tend to make for a happy flight."

  • To ask or not to ask?

    This is the thorniest upgrade question around. Do you stand more chance of getting an upgrade if you ask for one, or if you stay humble and wait for one to be offered?

    There's no fixed answer, and airline staff and regular upgradees often give different answers. While some travellers claim to have charmed their way to a top seat, many check-in staff say there's nothing more irritating than people nagging for more than they paid for.

    Asking for an upgrade at every point - or even worse, demanding one - won't win you any favour and puts you at the back of the list. Remember they've checked-in thousands of people before, so whatever carefully contrived cock and bull story you use, chances are they've already heard it, and it's annoying.

    If you are going to ask, being polite and un-demanding and doing it with a cheeky smile is the best way. And be prepared for them to answer that you can pay for an upgrade; if they do, try haggling down the price. Some airline staff report that very occasionally, even when they have to upgrade because of space shortages they're told to ask people to pay, and if they won't pay they give the upgrade anyway.

Boosting your chances on the plane...

The chance of getting upgraded once you're on board are even slimmer, but there are still a few chinks in the armour.

  • If they ask you to move... move!

    If you're asked to move, or the cabin crew ask for a volunteer to move so a family can sit together, or for a particularly tall or large passenger, always agree to it. Often this is how you'll be upgraded, but you won't necessarily know that's where you're going beforehand.

  • If you've a problem, discreetly point it out

    If there's a genuine problem with your seat/seatbelt/seating companion, then get up and discreetly ask the nearest steward about it; they may move you up if the problem warrants it and there's no spare space in your current area.

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MoneySavers' upgrade tales

While rare, upgrades are real, and many regular MoneySavers have experienced them. Here are some of their high flying tales:

Frugalpam is a leisure flyer who’s been upgraded once: "I've been upgraded once, without asking. I'd flown from Manchester to Atlanta cattle class, but was offered a free upgrade from Atlanta to Tucson, to business class. It was HEAVEN to lie flat and sleep - but by doing so I missed out on the free drinks and good food!"

Bunking-off is a regular flyer who’s been upgraded six times: "I used to have a BA silver card and flew about 10-15 times a year. I once got upgraded on a return from Paris after my getting down on one knee for the missus. I didn't even ask for an upgrade that time, it was either happy coincidence or they spotted I was travelling on leisure for once. We got upgraded from premium economy to business both ways on the honeymoon."

Villanova is a regular flyer who’s been upgraded twice: "Once was from business to first flying to Jo'burg - what luxury! I've still got the free pyjamas! The other time was on (Polish airline) LOT, and the cabin crew refused to believe it was legit. Luckily the other passengers refused to let me return to the back of the plane!"

Been upgraded? Report successes/failures here
And discuss free upgrade techniques

Buy upgrades on the cheap

The prices of paid-for upgrades vary enormously, and there are many ways to cut the cost. Before paying to upgrade, it's worth examining exactly what it means.

Long-haul upgrades mean luxury and comfort, and help you hit the ground running, so to speak. But at the other end of the scale...

Don't pay for a short-haul upgrade. Business class is rarely that different to economy.

In fact the main advantage is that you can use the business class lounge before your trip, however if that's what you want, use the tricks for cheap airport lounge access instead.

  • Buy a business class ticket on the cheap

    The only way to completely guarantee a business class seat is to buy a business class ticket. But the same flight will be on sale through different places for different prices.

    As an example, for one transatlantic business return the airline charged £3,800, but a flight-finding website had the same seat on sale for under £2,000. Use the comparison services listed in the Cheap Flights guide and just select 'business'.

  • Look for US/Canada economy tickets with special GUARANTEED upgrade codes.

    If you're travelling within the US and Canada there are special economy tickets which actually book you a seat in the first class cabin (though check there is one first!). They're usually flexible one-way fares, bearing codes Y or Q and usually referred to as "Y-up" or "Q-up" tickets (different letters are often used by different airlines). As many of these fares aren't discounted, you'll pay more, but still a lot less than you would for a first class ticket.

    If you want to land one, the best way is to ring up and find someone that knows how to book one, or to use 'select fare class' on advanced booking pages.

  • Use frequent flyer points

    The cheapest way to get a guaranteed upgrade is by using frequent flyer points, so it's well worth joining a scheme (see the frequent flyers section below). Even if you don't build up enough points to pay for the upgrade outright, most airlines will let you supplement the points with cash to arrive at the full amount.

  • Ask about the cash price at the airport

    Depending on availability, it may be possible to get a discount on the airline's standard cash upgrade price at the ticket desk on the day of departure. It's unlikely you'll be able to haggle down the cost, but if your heart's set on riding up front, it's certainly worth a try.

Frequent flyer scheme flight upgrades

Since the early '80s, airlines have used frequent flyer loyalty schemes to keep their customers coming back. These can often result in serious freebies.

Schemes are deliberately complex

The way these schemes work is intentionally complicated. The first thing to note is that where 'miles' are concerned, the final figures earned seldom equate to actual miles travelled; usually the remuneration level depends on class flown as much as distance.

  • British Airways Executive Club

    BA's club is the toughest of the major schemes to grab points in from a MoneySaving perspective. To gain rewards and move up the ladder you need to earn both Avios points and tier points, the latter building up your status in the scheme. As you move up the tiers you earn more Avios points per flight.

    Previously even to join the scheme you had to buy an expensive qualifying flight; thankfully this has changed and you can now join free on the BA site.

    In fact, you don't have to join BA's Executive Club to buy an upgrade on the airline. The Avios points scheme allows members to gain points on spending with a number of retailers and points can be redeemed on flights and upgrades on BA and Iberia.

    Another way to join is to get a BA American Express card which automatically lets you in. It's also one of the best-paying reward schemes on the market, paying points for normal spending on the card, and if you hit a certain amount, giving a free 'companion flight' on top. Always set up a direct debit to pay it off in full each month - otherwise it's 15.9% representative APR. See the Airline Credit Cards guide for more details.

    Quick stats: BA Executive Club

  • Virgin Flying Club Miles

    Virgin's club is one of the more popular ones amongst travellers, and offers points to people on discounted economy tickets. Plus, building tier points here is based on how frequently you fly rather than how far, which is good news if you're a regular domestic flyer, but seldom get to go long-haul.

    Progressing up to the top levels of membership still ain't easy though; no surprise given the outright glamour of Virgin's executive airport 'clubhouses' and top-level perks.

    Quick stats: Virgin Flying Club

  • KLM/Air France Flying Blue Club.

    KLM and Air France's Flying Blue Club benefits from a decent amount of partner airlines/companies, and a wide variety of award options to choose from if you've built up enough miles, but falls down due to the mind-boggling complexity of its earning structure.

    Since KLM only operates two classes, economy and business, it's cheaper to get to the top, but there's also less luxury when you get there. Nonetheless, business flyers will benefit from the wide array of hotels and rental services affiliated with the scheme.

    Quick stats: KLM and Air France Flying Blue

These are the tip of the iceberg. If you're going to fly often, working out which frequent flyer scheme is best for you will quickly pay dividends.

Frequent Flyers Discussion

Top economy seats: The poor man's upgrade

The likelihood is, unless you've paid, you're not going to be upgraded. Yet don't despair, the poor man or woman's version of an upgrade is to try getting one of the best seats in economy.

Pick an airline with more legroom

The number one concern of most air travellers is legroom, which is measured by airlines as 'seat pitch'. This is the distance between any part of one seat and the exact same part of the seat in front/behind. The table below compares the average measurements for some of the main airlines in economy and business classes:

Seat pitch comparison
Premium Economy
Business class
American Airlines
British Airways
Thomas Cook
Source: Skytrax, July 2014. Seat pitch for long-haul cabins, except for Ryanair (short-haul only)

So, of the biggies, only American Airlines offers more than 31" in a standard seat and often its prices are roughly similar to the others, so simply by booking on it, you can ensure a little more room.

Pick a seat with more legroom too

Even on a specific plane, different seats have varying legroom due to the actual structure of the plane. If you can, grab one of the better seats, but they have their downsides too.

  • Bulkhead seats

    A bulkhead is a physical partition in the plane segmenting different areas, so sit in a bulkhead seat and you'll have a wall in front of you. Sometimes these have cut-out sections at the bottom for your feet to go in, but usually they simply offer extra legroom. And nobody can recline their seat into your precious space.

    On the downside, bulkhead seats are often where parents with small babies are placed, and they're right by the loo. So if loud crying and occasional wafts when the WC door's open aren't really your scene, it may be best to look elsewhere (or get some decent nose and ear plugs).

  • Emergency exit seats

    If you're over 15, physically fit, able to communicate effectively and, heaven forbid, able to operate the emergency door, you meet the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA) requirements to sit next to the emergency exits. Seats here usually offer a couple of inches more legroom, and have no other drawbacks (if you're not the type of person for whom staring at a sign on a plane that says "emergency" is an issue, anyway).

How to grab a better seat

The simplest way to find out which seats are available on your flight, and what the seat numbers are, is to use SeatGuru or SeatPlans' interactive seating maps (the range is fairly comprehensive). Simply choose the airline you're flying with from the left hand menu, and it'll list all the planes it uses.

To find out which model of plane you'll be on, look at your travel itinerary; there should be a three-digit aircraft code on it, which can be matched with the codes in brackets on SeatGuru's list. If you can't find it, you should also be able to get the info by getting hold of the airline's flight schedule, which should be downloadable from its site.

Reserve it as soon as possible

Ensure you grab these seats by checking in online as soon as it opens. However, if this is a long time before departure, so always double-check your seats are still confirmed a week before you fly. If any of the flight's details have changed it's likely they'll reorganise the seating order completely, and you may miss out.

Some online check-in services 'black out' bulkhead seats, stopping you from selecting them at the check-in. This is either because the airline wants to hold them back for on-the-day allocation to baby-swaddling or especially tall passengers, or because they're reserved for those with some frequent flyer status, another reason to join those schemes.

In this situation, use SeatGuru again to find the best available alternative on your flight. You may be able to switch to another on the day if it remains unbooked - just make a polite request when you get to the airport. Since frequent flyers are top of the list for upgrades anyway, if any happen it's also likely the bulkheads'll empty out for you.

Use airport lounges on the cheap

Among the major airlines, there's often big competition over who can make their lounges the most opulent. On rare occasions, some throw in full day spas and even swimming pools on top of the usual food, drink, internet access and seating.

It's no surprise then that the only way to get into exclusive retreats like Virgin's Clubhouse or BA's Executive Club is by buying a top-price ticket or upgrade, or getting top frequent flyer status; they want to keep them exclusive.

Yet not all lounges are off-limits; if you've got to spend more time than you'd like at an airport, you can often get access a bit more cheaply.

  • Servisair lounges

    There are about 50 Servisair lounges in the UK and worldwide. Most of them feature air-conditioning, free snacks and drinks including alcohol, wifi, free magazines and importantly, some comfortable, available seats. Prices start at £18 if booked in advance. The lounges are re-sold by a number of other websites, including Easyjet, but it's cheaper to book direct.

  • Diners Club International Lounge access

    If you happen to have a Diners Club charge card, discounted access to airport lounge access is available at around 450 airports worldwide, whatever airline or class you're flying. Lounge access costs £15 per visit and this gives access to refreshments, newspapers and often wireless or internet access. But you have to travel frequently to make it cost effective if you are paying the annual £50 card fee for an individual membership.

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