They’re the Holy Grail for regular travellers but while rare, flight upgrades do exist.
The chances of getting one can be slim, but here are our top 20 tips for boosting your chances of bagging a better seat. Of course, the bulk of these tips won't be relevant on a budget airline where there is only one class.
Join frequent flyer schemes before you fly
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 equals an upgrade every time one's available. Of course, to get there, you need to fly regularly and airlines can make it tricky to accrue points on discounted flights.
If you don't take to the skies that often, it's still a good idea to join as most are free and you're more likely to get an upgrade than if you've no relationship with the airline at all.
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 who haven't, and nothing stops you signing up for a few different ones.
If you have no luck with a free upgrade, loyalty schemes also allow you to use any points to buy an upgrade for some tickets.
It's not what you know but who you know
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.
Don't waste your time or miles on short-haul upgrades... long-haul is where it's at
There's not much point going to the end of the Earth to wangle a free upgrade on a short-haul flight, and certainly little sense in using your flyer points or cash to pay for one. Often, all you get is a slightly bigger seat and a fancier sandwich at best.
Instead, medium and long-haul flights offer the best value upgrades and you'll have time to enjoy them. You only tend to get the flat beds and all the bells and whistles on a longer journey.
What do I get if I upgrade?
Here we explain the different cabin classes and what you typically get. But before getting into the nitty-gritty, this is about non-budget airline cabins, given the budget carriers only have one class. 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 wi-fi.
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, lounge access
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. You can find quasi-classes, such as Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class, which many say is a cross between business and first.
First class. High-end luxury, exceptional cost, lounge access
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.
Free upgrades do happen – nearly one in five have got one in the last two years
They might be less frequent than they used to be, but free upgrades do still exist. In July 2014 we polled our users who’d flown in the last two years and found 16% had been upgraded for free, though of those on a non-budget airline, the figure is 18%.
Free flight upgrades – what people did who succeeded
|I didn't do anything - no questions asked||7.7% (317 votes)|
|I'm a member of a frequent flyer programme||4.4% (180 votes)|
|There was someone in my seat when I got to it||0.5% (21 votes)|
|Other||1.5% (60 votes)|
|I asked - or talked them into it||1.4% (58 votes)|
|My family/friend works at an airline||1% (43 votes)|
|The flight was overbooked, I agreed to wait||0.8% (36 votes)|
|It was my honeymoon/I was celebrating||0.5% (21 votes)|
|I complained about my broken seat/entertainment system||0.01% (4 votes)|
|*Source: MoneySavingExpert.com poll, Jul 15 2014. Total votes: 4074|
Dress to impress
Remember, an upgrade will put you into the posh cabins, so while an old T-shirt and flip-flops might be comfortable, an airline is less likely to put you in with its top-paying customers if you don't look the part.
Upgrading using loyalty points
Since the early '80s, airlines have used frequent flyer loyalty schemes to keep their customers coming back. These can often result in serious freebies.
Most airlines are happy for customers to use loyalty points to purchase upgrades on tickets bought for cash. If you fly regularly you can use the points you've earned to grab a spot towards the front of the plane. Make sure you get the best value for money and use points on long haul flights where the benefits are worth it.
You can't upgrade all tickets this way. Some cheap tickets, tickets bought as part of a package tour or tickets not bought directly from the airline aren't eligible for upgrade using loyalty points.
These schemes are often intentionally complicated. The reward points earned depend on distance and class flown on previous flights. When spending points, airlines have a set tariff for the number of points needed to upgrade, so you need to research their schemes to find the best value.
When buying flights with reward points, most schemes only cover the cost of the flight and any taxes and airport fees need to be paid separately. These can be pricey.
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 number 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.
Please share your frequent flyer scheme tips, tricks and hints in the Frequent Flyer Schemes discussion.
On honeymoon or anniversary? Let 'em know
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 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.
This trick is well-known and is regularly tried with check-in staff, so it can help to take a copy of your wedding documents.
It won't always result in an upgrade, but you may possibly get a free glass of champagne and some special in-flight treatment.
Say it with a smile
It might be obvious, but if you want the check-in staff to be nice to you, it helps if you're nice to them.
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."
Special meals can ruin upgrade chances
If you order a special in-flight meal in advance- such as vegetarian, vegan, halal or kosher - you may destroy your upgrade potential. Flights rarely carry spares, especially for higher-class seats whose food costs more.
Should you ask or wait to be offered?
This is the thorniest upgrade question around. Are your chances better if you ask, or if you stay humble and wait for one to be offered?
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've paid for.
Asking for an upgrade at every point - or even worse, demanding one - won't win you any favours 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're 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.
On a busy long haul flight think about whether you’re prepared to be bumped
If a flight's completely full, check-in staff will look for people to be "bumped off" onto the next one and offer incentives can make it worthwhile.
To tempt passengers to give up their seats, airlines offer upgrades for the next flight, or even cash, as compensation for those who volunteer themselves.
These offers are popular amongst travellers able to kill some time in the airport and go fast so it worth thinking about it in advance and mentioning to check-in staff if you would consider being bumped.
One MoneySaver reported being offered flights to "anywhere in the world" as compensation for inconvenience.
Got a problem? Tell them, you may be moved
If there's a genuine problem with your seat/seatbelt/seating companion, then get up and discreetly speak to the nearest steward about it. If there's no spare space in your current area, they may move you up a class.
If you've an impressive title, use it
If you're a doctor, professor, judge, councillor, or - especially - a VIP, anecdotal evidence says 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, use your title when booking.
Make sure you only do this if the title matches your passport. Some countries, such as the US, may refuse entry if your the name on your ticket and passport don't match.
Be first or last to check-in to boost your chances
It might be contradictory, but being first or last to check in can boost your upgrade chances.
First in line
It's usually possible to check in online 24 hours or more before the flight departs. Checking in early increases your chances of getting an upgrade from admin staff if the flight's overbooked.
If they know you intend to travel they can upgrade you in advance, so they won't need to shuffle around the upgrades at the airport. It also means if you don't get an upgrade, it's easier to choose the best seat.
Last at the check-in desk
Arriving late also has an advantage, as 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.
Move if the cabin crew ask you
If you're on the plane and the cabin crew ask you to move, there's a good chance you'll get rewarded for being nice.
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.
Flying solo makes an upgrade more likely
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 usually 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.
Pick the right flight to max your chances
Conventional wisdom says your best chances at being upgraded are if the economy section's packed. But it is also true that quieter flights have more room for upgrades.
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.
Use cash to bag an upgrade at the airport
Depending on availability, it may be possible to get a massive discount on the airline's standard cash upgrade price at the ticket desk on the day of departure.
It can be as low as £200 to go from economy to business on a long-haul flight but could cost more than £2,000 more to have bought the more expensive fare in the original booking. This all depends on availability. If airlines have loads of spare room, they're more likely to offer a better price.
Want the airport lounge? Pay without upgrading
The biggest benefit of business class flights for many short-haul flights is access to the airport lounges. But you don't have to fork out for an expensive ticket to get access.
There are about 40 Swissport (formerly Servisair) lounges in the UK and worldwide. Most of them feature air-conditioning, free snacks and drinks including alcohol, wi-fi, free magazines and importantly, some comfortable, available seats. Prices start at around £18 if booked in advance.
The lounges are resold 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 wi-fi. But you have to travel frequently to make it cost-effective if you are paying the annual £50 card fee for an individual membership.
Got to buy premium economy, business or first? Get it cheaply
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 the class you want.
Check which airlines offer the best seats
Different airlines use different planes, often with different seating layouts. This can have a big impact on how much legroom you get and makes a big difference when you're six hours into a 10 hour flight.
The critical measurement is '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
|Airline||Economy||Premium economy||Business class|
Source: Seatguru, Sept 2015. Maximum seat pitch for long-haul cabins, except for Ryanair (short-haul only)
So, of the biggies,American Airlines, British Airways, Delta and KLM offer more than 32" in a standard seat, so simply by booking on them, you can ensure a little more room.
Select seats with more legroom, or use charm to get them free
If you can't get an upgrade, do the next best thing and bag the best possible seats in your cabin.
These are harder to bag than they used to be. Budget airlines pioneered getting passengers to pay for these seats and others have cottoned on to their popularity and have started charging for some flights.
Budget airlines' prices start from £4.99, while prices for long haul seats start from £35 and can be as high as £90 for each flight.
If don't want to pay but are desperate for some extra legroom, put on your best smile and ask at the check-in or once you get on the plane and they may allow you to move to a better seat.
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.
Depending on the plane, emergency exit seats offer a couple of inches more legroom for over-wing exits and up to several feet of extra room if you're at the front of the a section. Only for those who don't mind staring at a sign on a plane that says "emergency".
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).
Pitch perfect sites to grab the best 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, 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.