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Quick Guide to Free Upgrades at the Airport

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Having worked for several international airlines, I have an insider perspective on many of the seemingly mysterious sides of the industry.

Learn why free upgrades happen and how you might be able to increase your chances of getting one.

Learn why free upgrades happen and how you might be able to increase your chances of getting one.

A free upgrade to business class is something almost everyone dreams of before boarding a crowded flight. When you hand your passport to airline staff during check-in, you may be wondering whether you might be the lucky one who gets a free upgrade to the business class. Let me tell you—it will never happen by accident.

So why do these upgrades happen in the first place? And what you can do to increase your chances of being getting one?

Why Do Free Upgrades Happen?

First things first. It is important to know why an airline would upgrade someone for free while they could have sold the seat for a much higher price. After all, an airline is not a charity, and like other businesses, they want to maximise their profit.

Reasons Why Airlines Give "Involuntary Upgrades"

That's right. A free upgrade is not something to be given out casually—it happens for a reason. The following are considered involuntary upgrades because the passenger does not book the upgrade themself.

  • Overbooking: Flights are often overbooked in the economy class while seats remain available in the business cabin. Airlines like to do this in order to sell as many economy tickets as possible when the demand for business class is weak. In the end, airlines can simply upgrade their economy class passengers to business class without needing to give up that extra revenue.
  • Aircraft Change: An airline may operate with multiple types of aircraft, and each type may have a different cabin configuration. In an ad hoc aircraft change, the new aircraft may be equipped with a smaller economy cabin but a bigger business cabin. So airlines would have to upgrade some of their economy passengers to the business class.
  • Disruption: Sometimes there are operations disruptions and passengers miss their flight as a result. The airline would protect these passengers by placing them on another flight, but that flight may only have business class seats available. This is somewhat like a "last-minute" overbooking scenario.

Of course you can always pay for an upgrade or book business class directly, but that kind of misses the point. You'll only get that excitement and element of surprise with an involuntary upgrade. Plus, you may not want to shell out the cash to buy a business class ticket.

You won't get this kind of meal in economy class!

You won't get this kind of meal in economy class!

How Do Airline Staff Pick Who Gets an Upgrade?

Everyone wants to get that upgrade opportunity, so airline staff can't just look for volunteers to get upgraded. They pick someone to get upgraded. But how?

Frequent Flyer

Airlines want to keep their frequent flyer members engaged, and a free upgrade once in a while can help serve that purpose. Therefore airlines tend to upgrade their frequent flyer members ahead of other passengers. The higher the membership tier, the better the chance of getting upgraded.

Airline Staff

Oftentimes, airlines upgrade their staff for free under such circumstances as a way to motivate their employees. The other reason is because airline staff are more familiar with the etiquette and rules so they will cause less disruption to the other business class passengers.

Passenger With High "Future Value"

Airlines are beginning to evaluate "customer value," and one dimension of that is "good potential." Airlines analyse the customer's travel behaviour and previous trips with the airline to determine their value. Passengers with high value or potential are more likely to get an upgrade. This is a slight alteration of the frequent flyer criteria, but the concept is similar.

While a suit might be overkill, dressing well can help increase your chances of being selected for an upgrade.

While a suit might be overkill, dressing well can help increase your chances of being selected for an upgrade.

How to Improve Your Chance of Being Upgraded

You may be asking whether being well-dressed or being nice to the staff will give you a better chance of being upgraded. Based on the above, these are actually less relevant than certain other criteria (e.g., frequent flyer status). But the following tips are still important because they can prevent you from being disqualified from getting an upgrade.

Follow the Dress Code

Many airlines still have a dress code in the front-end cabins (i.e., first class and business class). So being well-dressed is a prerequisite of being upgraded. For more details, you visit the airline's website to learn about their dress code.

Be Polite to Staff

Airline staff cannot just randomly pick someone to be upgraded. However, airlines do give a certain degree of discretion to their staff when they come across someone on the list that is (or is not) suitable for getting that upgrade. So be polite!

Volunteer to Be Rebooked

Airlines often give free upgrades as a service recovery (i.e., if they failed you in the first place and are making it up to you). For example, if a flight is heavily overbooked and they need some volunteers to get off the flight, the volunteer often gets decent compensation and a chance to be upgraded on a future flight. In this case, you are given a voucher and you can actually book your upgrade when you use the voucher.

Good luck getting that upgrade!

Good luck getting that upgrade!

Is There an Easier Way to Get a Free Upgrade?

There is, but it won't happen as a random free upgrade at the airport.

In some scenarios, airlines give upgrades when handling a complaint. This is subject to the airline's policies and can deviate quite a lot across different airlines. It's certainly far from a sure thing, but in some cases, a well-expressed (and reasonable) complaint may work out in your favor.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 KC Chung

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