Tips on How to Score an Upgrade

4 May 2015

We often get asked how to score an upgrade. Let me tell you now: there's no foolproof strategy. But I'll give you the inside scoop on how to increase your chance of securing a free business class upgrade.

Firstly, it is important to understand why airlines need to "upgrade" passengers on ocassion. Many people think that flirting with the check-in staff or wearing your best suit is a good way to be upgraded. The simple fact is that airlines will not upgrade passengers unless there is a commercial reason to do so.

The main reason for the need to upgrade passengers is that the airline has oversold seats on the flight. As they know that on average, 5-10% of passengers will either not turn up for the flight (in travel lingo, this is what we call a no-show), change their plans at the last minute or miss their connection.

Business-Class-Boarding-Pass

So let's do the maths:

 EconomyPremium EconomyBusiness
Available seats2003020
Sold seats210305
Difference10 (oversold)015 (free seats)

Let's assume in this example that everyone turns up for the flight. The airline has a bit of a problem. They only have 200 seats in economy, but have sold 210 tickets - whoops, where is everyone going to sit? In this situation, they will need to upgrade 10 economy passengers into a higher cabin.

The next question is where to put them? What happens, in reality, is that airlines will only offer a 1 cabin upgrade. So they will move 10 economy passengers into premium economy, and then 10 premium economy passengers into business class. So if your original ticket was purchased in premium economy, in this example, you have a 33% chance of being upgraded to business class.

Additional tips on increasing your chance of getting an upgrade

Be a loyal frequent flyer.

Top tier frequent flyers will be upgraded first. From an airline's point of view, this is an easy way to keep their high spending members happy.

Travel Alone.

On the 5 occasions that I have been upgraded from premium economy to business, I have been travelling alone. It's much easier to move 5 single travellers around than a family or a couple.

Travel on busy flights.

If economy class is not "oversold", then upgrades are much less likely to happen.

Be flexible (or be a good samaritan).

I once saw a passenger being upgraded from premium economy to business class on the plane for offering to move seats so a family could all sit together. The purser rewarded this kind person with a business class seat - good karma!

Check in late or check in early?

The airline will tend to wait until they know how many people have turned up for the flight before they start moving people around. We can safely say that a late check in can be a good way to score an upgrade on a busy flight... BUT, it can also be a good way of being offloaded on certain situations. It's up to you to take that risk.

Paul Jeffels

With over 10 years of experience, Paul is a luxury travel industry veteran. His knowledge on First and Business Class is unmatched. Paul's travel career brought him to Hong Kong in 2011, and since then he’s travelled extensively in Asia, staying at many of the region’s best hotels and resorts including The Sarojin in Khao Lak, Amanpulo in the Philippines, and Six Senses properties amongst others.