We’ve heard the rumours of those sly and savvy women who manage to wrangle a seat in first or business class while the rest of us slum it in coach – and she didn’t even have to pay for it.
Well, the truth is, it’s not just the stuff of legend. People actually CAN get upgraded on their flight for free, even though those tickets most customers paid for cost twice the price or more.
But as you may have heard, you mustn’t directly ask to be upgraded, especially without a genuinely good reason. So how does it work? Read on for our top tips…
Be nice as pie
Sounds simple enough but it can make all the difference. Be nice to everyone – especially officials – from the moment you walk into the airport. Gate agents, flight attendants, superintendents and check-in staff hold the cards.
If you don’t get your way immediately, take the hit gracefully and you could get lucky later on down the line. You may have the opportunity to be super nice and offer your single seat up so a family can sit together.
The lucky few who actually managed a free upgrade by simply asking for it were probably very polite and discreet.
Look like you belong there
Dress in your Sunday best for travelling: Look neat and smart.
If your upgrade attempt fails you can always chuck on your leggings and bed socks once you get on the plane.
But to up your chances of bagging a seat in First, look the part.
If the crew let a casual and sloppy-looking coach passenger up to the upper classes, it can make paying passengers resentful, so they wouldn’t risk upgrading you.
Finally, travel alone (or at least check in alone and say you're travelling alone). If there is just one seat available up front, it will probably go to a single, smartly-dressed passenger.
Time your flight right
One strategy is to opt for an emptier flight, such as those at the crack of dawn, or mid-week. Gate agents may feel less pressured early in the day and more likely to upgrade you if they can.
Alternatively, busy flights can work well too – if you’re not in a rush.
If you check your flight 24 hours before departure you can see how full it looks. If it’s oversold and the airline is looking for volunteers to catch a later flight, you can negotiate for an upgrade.
Furthermore, if economy is oversold but business is not, an upgrade may be offered for this so-called ’operational reason’.
For your best chances of scoring an upgrade in this scenario is to follow the steps above and to travel on a busy holiday destination route during the school holidays, when the majority of passengers will be families with children.
Spend a little more and be loyal (or at least look loyal)
Upgrades usually get filled up by loyal frequent flyers and those with fully-flexible full-price tickets.
Signing up to an airline’s loyalty scheme can make you more likely to receive a free upgrade as well as earn free flights. If you follow the steps to earning elite status, this can take you above the ranking of the average frequent-flier member.
People who fly more are rewarded more, so customers who travel most will normally be given priority when an upgrade is available.
If you fly frequently, get to know the staff. If an official recognises you, you could be bumped up for an upgrade. Gate agents can do anything.
Have a genuinely good reason
If you’re celebrating, uncomfortable, unlucky or disadvantaged, this will help you.
Declare if you’re exceptionally tall, pregnant, off on honeymoon, or if it’s your birthday or anniversary, and you would love a more comfortable seat if one should become available. It won’t hurt to ask with a reason such as these, as they would improve your chances.
If you’ve been disadvantaged on the plane, especially on a long-haul flight, do say so, but be nice about it too. Make sure you report any faults or grievances so you can be relocated. If it’s a busy flight in coach and all the seats are taken, you may well be taken to the front.
If there’s been a weather delay and you're rebooked on another flight and the only seats available are in the upper classes, that’s a guaranteed upgrade right there.
Relay the message
The people on the plane have the power to upgrade you.
If you prepare the check-in official with your reason for requesting this as early as possible, they can leave a note next to your name for the information of officials at the gate and on the plane.
You can double-check this with the corresponding members of staff to make sure.
Officials on the plane have the power to upgrade you, so if they've been pre-warned you're a special case and you've followed the tips above, you may be in with a chance of being bumped up.
While it is a fairly rare opportunity, these steps should give you the best possible chances of being one of the lucky few to get a free upgrade and see how the other half live, if just for a few hours!