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How do I get a free flight upgrade?

So you want an upgrade? Well, by far the best way of getting one and the only way to guarantee one is to pay for it. Simple.


Surely there is a free way?

Sometimes, airlines DO upgrade people quite often for various operational reasons. These are called Operational Upgrades (OpUps) and there are some things you can do to give yourself a better chance.

Firstly you need to remember that a lot of airlines prefer to keep their premium cabins premium. By that I mean that they realise that they get most of their revenue from the expensive seats up front and not from the fully discounted economy seats, and they understand that nothing annoys someone who has paid 2000 for their business class seat more than loads of people being upgraded having paid 300 for their own economy seat. Now many will disagree with this, however airlines always want to keep their business passengers sweet as they are the ones who tend to pay the most for their seats.


So why do OpUps exist?

Primarily because many airlines, especially popular airlines on popular routes, tend to oversell their seats. Essentially if they have 180 economy seats to sell, they will not stop selling until they have sold say 200 seats. They know from their historical data that a small %age of passengers will not turn up so they try and cover all eventualities by ensuring that every seat is taken - an aircraft with empty seats is not making as much money as it can! If your flight is oversold then OpUps can happen as the airline have to try and create space for the additional passengers - they do this by upgrading some passengers.


How do I get an OpUp then?

Well firstly, most airlines no longer allow their check-in staff to upgrade passengers. Check-in staff can however mark you as suitable for upgrade SFU in some circumstances but this changes from airline to airline. Recent posts by airline employees on forums such as Flyertalk however seem to say that most if not all OpUps are done in the back room prior to check-in opening. You can ask at check-in but your chances are close to zero and don't forget that the staff hear the begging 'its our wedding anniversary/birthday/honeymoon' a million times every day - the chances of this working are also pretty much zero.

Now, after saying all that, some people DO get upgrades. It isn't that uncommon and it does happen as many people on Dibb have mentioned, but most airlines tend to choose who gets an OpUp based on certain criteria:

  1. Premium loyal passengers (those for example in the invite only Premier level of the BA Executive Club [BAEC])
  2. Gold card passengers (those in the highest frequent flyer [FF] band of the airline)
  3. Silver card passengers (those in the middle FF band)
  4. Alliance card passengers (those who are in high FF bands of whatever alliance the airline belongs to)
  5. Basic card passengers (those in the lowest FF band)

In addition, OpUps tend to go more to passengers who are in a full price seat (ie. 1000 economy) over a fully discounted seat (ie. 400 economy).

It also helps if:

  1. you are flying alone or with just one partner/colleague
  2. you check-in online as soon as possible (apparently the dispatchers try and do OpUps as soon as possible and knowing who is definitely turning up for the flight helps them out)
  3. you have no special requirements such as special meals, as they may not be able to get a new special meal for the upgraded cabin for you

Things that don't seem to make any difference:

  1. turning up in a suit and looking smart (I fly BACW and always look scruffy - and I tend to be the best dressed in there!)
  2. telling everyone you are on your honeymoon/anniversary/birthday
  3. begging the check-in staff

I'm not a Frequent Flyer - what other options do I have?


Some airlines also have a 'score' assigned to their FF passengers. Whilst this is mainly based on the amount of revenue their flights bring in, it also covers such things as purchasing influence hence it has been known that PA's of businessmen who fly a lot can have a high score as they can influence the airline the businessman/company puts its revenue at. Also, some US airlines guarantee upgrades for some of their FF bands but as these are guaranteed, they don't really come into the OpUp situation.



Many things happen when upgrades are given out and most of the time you will only know if you get called to the boarding gate for a new boarding pass, or when you are told during boarding that your seat has been changed.

The general thought is that if you are not happy with the cabin you are in, pay to upgrade. If you get a freebie upgrade then enjoy it - just don't expect it!
Page created by on 15-11-2010 17:05.
+ Last editted by Stu on 14-07-2011 13:40. View History

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