Eva Air Business Class Rimowa Amenity Kit

Travelers view upgrades like roulette wheels. You spin, you hope and most of the time you are left with nothing. That’s not how upgrades really work, at least not how they *should* work. Upgrades are too often a last minute thought at the gate when it’s all but too late, and rarely the methodical, well orchestrated hit they should be. If you want to analyze the most overlooked step of scoring flight upgrades, you need to start at the beginning…

American Airlines Business Class Seat 787-8We’ll start with an anecdote. This week I was bound by a tight travel budget. Business class wasn’t in the budget, but I had an upgrade certificate earned from frequent flying I was itching to burn. Miles would’ve worked here too, which is probably what many of you would be working with. It’s safe to say 90% or more of all upgrades happen because of miles, cash or upgrade certificates.

This is where the magic happens…

Before booking, I took a look at every flight on every possible day I could fly. Before booking, I happened to find a flight with upgrade availability I could instantly confirm using points or certificates. I did this using ExpertFlyer, a paid tool which allows you to see these sort of things.

I was booking with American Airlines, so I needed to find a flight with “C” space, which signifies business class upgrades are available. I searched, and I found one flight where I could instantly book economy and upgrade to business.

Guess which flight I booked?

It sounds simple enough, but so many people book a flight first and then think about upgrades and “how to” later, or way too late at a time like check-in. That’s amateur hour and happens every single day. It should be the opposite. Sure, there are plenty of days where no upgrades are available when you book but, whenever possible, this is the first crucial step.

The next? Booking through the airline whose points you wish to use. If I had booked this American Airlines flight via British Airways, I wouldn’t have been able to use an upgrade certificate.

a row of monitors in an airplaneThe next step: setting alerts to let you know if an upgrade becomes available at a later time. More often than not, an upgrade does become available at a later stage and it’s always first come first serve, so the person who sets the alerts and calls first gets the comfy seat.

Let’s recap…

  • Always look for upgrades before booking a flight.
  • Book a flight with upgrades available, using any and all flexibility. 
  • If no upgrades are available, set alerts to find out if an upgrade becomes available. 
  • Do this over and over again. 

Booking first, then asking upgrade questions is the wrong way to do this. Finding upgrade space is different on each and every airline, as are the rules for doing so, but in the most general terms, calling is the most low fi but effective approach. Ringing up an airline and saying, “Hey, I’ve got miles or an upgrade to burn, are there any flights with upgrades I can book right now?” can go a long, long way.

Pro-tip: Use this guide to find out which airlines allow you to upgrade international tickets.

Keep in mind, with most airlines you can only upgrade one cabin using points so, if you want business, you might need to book premium economy. Just like upgrade availability, it’s best to figure that out before you actually book.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Now do this from a small island in the middle of the Med … not so easy. I set you a challenge to fly to Malta to Dubai and get a fresh upgrade! Never happen !

  2. well, maybe not, but just being in Malta, you upgraded your life! Beautiful place, nice weather, great architecture, good food…

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