Since the tips you may have heard don’t actually work…

Thinking about upgrades after check in is like trying to qualify for the Olympics while eating potato chips after watching the opening ceremony. You missed the boat. Upgrades are not the mystifying things which they’re made out to be – they’re actually pretty simple. And if you really want to get one, they are not about: what you wear, two magic words or any other (idiotic) tip. Upgrades are all about elbow grease – and by elbow grease, we mean a bit of research. Here’s every realistic chance you have of scoring an upgrade, even if you’re just an ordinary traveler.

Best Bet

Tools Needed: Credit Card Points, Frequent Flyer Miles Or Certificates.

Probability: High.

How: Call the airline before booking a ticket, ask about upgrade space using points or an upgrade certificate. If you have flexibility, book onto a flight that has upgrade availability. If there is none, use these tools to get alerted when upgrades become available. Always be sure to double check you’re booking an upgradeable ticket before forking the money over. With some airlines it’s easier than others.

Your best bet for upgrading a flight is using points. By doing so, you can confirm your upgrade far in advance, sidestepping all the panic. Airlines make it easier than ever to upgrade almost any flight using points, so the key here is collecting them. You can earn points for every day things you buy, using your credit card and for every flight you take – so don’t miss out on this and get started early. The more points, the easier it is to upgrade.

Good Bet

Tools Needed: Money.

Probability: The more you spend, the higher the probability.

How: Use airline upgrade auctions to bid for upgrades. Airlines hate seeing empty seats go to waste, and would never miss an opportunity to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a flight. Airlines such as Qatar, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Etihad, Qantas and many more offer upgrade auctions. Keep your bids within reason.

The key strategy here is trying to identify flights which are often fairly empty in business class. Using the seat map tool on ExpertFlyer, you can get an idea how many business class seats are sold. Do research before booking, checking out which flights each day of the week are more empty than others. By booking one that is more empty than others, you increase your chance of scoring a reasonably priced upgrade via the auctions. Always aim for non business travel days, when business class is least full. 

Reasonable Bet

Tools Needed: Flexibility, Luck.

Probability: The more you search, the better.

How: Oversold flights always need volunteers to take a later flight or sometimes to be bumped up to business to make room. Check in early, be proactive to register yourself as a volunteer with check in and gate staff and hope for the best. You can often score not only enough vouchers for a free business class flight in the future, but the airline will often upgrade you to business class on the next available flight – as a gesture of thanks.

For someone with no miles, credit card points or cash to score an upgrade, this really is your best bet. Leave the fancy suit or zippy dress behind. They’re never going to get you an upgrade. Upgrades happen most frequently to everyday travelers for operational reasons, such as needing to move passengers forward to make space for others, or because a flight is oversold. By being easy, flexible and generally traveling solo (no bags helps too) you can work this system to your advantage. You can use ExpertFlyer to check availability to see if a flight is sold out in advance.

Worst Bet

Tools Needed: Blind Luck, Sympathy.

Probability: Unlikely.

How: Since people will tell you it works, and the world is full of mysteries – we’ll say go ahead, mention your honeymoon, birthday, divorce or anything else thats cause for a moment. By asking, you’re assuming that the airlines frequent flyers who spend more than $20,000 a year with the airline should be skipped for upgrades on your special day, but if you get the right person on the right moment it may work out.

Life is short, so why not try. You’re going to hear a lot of no, and you’re going to get a lot of requests for a large sum of money, but go for it. Every blue moon you may play the right heart strings and the magic may happen, just don’t bank on it. This is the lowest priority, so instead – focus on learning more about earning miles and credit card points.

Here are the airlines that make it easiest to upgrade international tickets.