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How to get a guaranteed upgrade on a flight

Forget dressing up or dropping hints about your honeymoon, says expert Gilbert Ott - here's how to really bag an upgrade on a flight 

Gilbert Ott
Tuesday 27 February 2018 11:33 GMT
Travel blogger Gilbert Ott debunks a widely publicised flight upgrading tactic

Sitting in business class is a truly effervescent feeling – and that’s not just on account of the “free” bubbles. Business class no longer means just a wider seat and a larger meal; it’s a truly indulgent experience often involving fully flat beds, top drawer wine and spirits, and the comforts of airport VIP lounges. It goes without saying that everyone would love a slice of the good life – and to your delight, you really can. Sadly, there are no magic words or outfits that will have you turning left, but there are tried and tested tips that will give you the best chance at it.

As a travel blogger, I’m always on the go, flying more than 200,000 miles each year. Sticking to tight schedules and tighter budgets, I’m often unable to book business or first class outright, but without relying on magic words, sharp suits or other gimmicks, I’m almost always able to score a seat in business class or better.

When a story about "the two magic words that will get you an upgrade" went viral last week, I looked into the claims and confirmed that they were bogus with the airline in question.

The truth about upgrades is that every airline is different and each opportunity is unique, but if you’re willing to put in a few minutes of your time to learn how your airline operates, there are ways in which you too can enjoy an elevated travel experience. Here are the most consistent ways to score business class upgrades, and the rules I live by.

Two magic words

There are only two magic words to truly score a seat in business class. Sadly, for our collective wallets, the magic words are “business class”, to be spoken when asked what cabin you’d like to book your ticket in. For your travel sanity and comfort, we suggest skipping the three piece suit, blouse or alternative rumoured “magic upgrade outfit” and sticking to things that really work. Upgrades are possible for anyone, even if they’ve never flown before – they just require a bit of patience and luck.

Collect air miles

The simplest and most effective way to upgrade any plane ticket is to use airline miles. Some airlines (British Airways for example) only allow you to jump one cabin, while others, such as Virgin Atlantic, will allow you to go all the way from economy to business class. Put simply: in most instances if you’d like to upgrade to business class, you’d need to book premium economy. If you’d like to upgrade to premium economy, shoot for an economy ticket. An upgrade to a destination such as New York will generally cost between 20,000 – 30,000 airline miles each way. If an upgrade is not immediately available when you book, don’t forget to check back regularly – airlines tinker with seats available for upgrades on a daily (and even hourly) basis.

And for the pessimists out there, airline miles are surprisingly easy to collect, even without flying. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and others allow you to earn points for any online shopping via their “e-stores”. You shop at your favourite brands and earn miles, just for clicking over from the airline website.

Bid your way up

Many airlines now use a system called PlusGrade to offer upgrade auctions. Customers on airlines such as Swiss, Etihad, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, Singapore, Cathay Pacific and many more may allow you to bid for the good life up front. Simply login to your booking online and look for an offer to bid on an upgrade. If you can’t find it, simply google: “(Your Airline Name Upgrade Auction)”.

It’s important to keep a level head while participating in these auctions, since winning bids can occasionally exceed the price of just paying for business class from the start. Nonetheless they offer great value. Other airlines, such as British Airways and Delta are known to flash upgrade offers in their mobile app. After making a booking, remain on the lookout for exclusive upgrade offers, some of which can be very reasonable. I was recently offered a £296 one-way upgrade from premium economy to business class with British Airways on a flight from London to New York. The difference in price between premium economy and business was over £2000, so it can represent real value.

Volunteer your services

Airlines these days run like hedge funds. When business is good, their mathematical equations to fill planes are pinpoint precise. But why sell 200 seats on a 200-seater plane when you can sell 205? Airlines regularly bank on certain travellers “no showing”, and sometimes they bet wrong. When this occurs, airlines need to bump people up to business class, or need volunteers for a later flight.

Always enter a frequent flyer number for the airline you’re flying, even if you’ve just signed up to the scheme. Doing so will instantly jump you in the queue of people who may be upgraded for operational reasons. If you’re willing to take a later flight, be sure to volunteer your services at check in. Travelling solo and light on luggage can be crucially helpful. If you do volunteer, airlines will often compensate you with vouchers for future flights and upgrade you to business class on the next available flight.

Shop around

In the last two weeks, both major UK airlines have launched business class flash sales. Missed them? You’re not alone. The very best flash sales are almost never officially announced, last mere hours and are gone before many travellers have had a moment to glance at their computer. In these sales, Virgin Atlantic offered return Upper Class tickets for less than £1,000 per person to destinations all over the United States. In a similar sale, British Airways offered £1,000 per person returns in business class from London to Beijing or Shanghai (economy tickets can cost this much, depending on dates). And for the more adventurous lot, heading to Europe to start your trip can often yield incredible business class deals. Qatar Airways sold £560 return business class seats from Brussels or Amsterdam to Tokyo in the last year. Best practice: use Google Flights to set free price alerts for all cabins. You may track as many prices to as many places and dates as you wish. You never know what you may find.

Gilbert Ott blogs at God Save the Points

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