So you’re saying there’s a chance…

Any upgrade is nice, but few upgrades rival a long haul business class upgrade, especially on a flight crossing an ocean, when seats aren’t just bigger, they’re bedder – as in – they have actual beds.

With round trip economy fares between the US, Asia and Europe regularly dipping below $400 and premium economy fares found under $800 from time to time – it’s harder and harder for travellers and corporations to justify spending $3000 or more for business class.

Assuming there aren’t any brilliant business class deals to be found, there’s one great strategy for scoring free upgrades to business class that arguably works better than any other – other than paying for business class in the first place, of course…

Who This Upgrade Strategy Is For

If you don’t hold elite status with an airline, you’re totally welcome to read on – but the chances of this strategy working effectively are much lower. This is for the savvy road warriors who have put their butts into way too many airline seats, and have separated themselves from the general pack. If you haven’t yet, here’s a great starter guide to elite status, and the fastest ways to get it.

If you don’t have elite status, this strategy still can work, but unless you were planning on buying premium economy anyway, it may not worth the extra investment just to improve your upgrade odds. Now that-that’s out of the way, it’s time to dive in.

Ready? Let’s do it.

The Smallest Cabin

Premium Economy fares represent increasingly fantastic value for all travelers. In many cases, premium means two “complimentary” checked bags for travellers, versus no free checked bags in economy. In addition, premium economy brings up to 10 extra inches of legroom, improved food and beverage and priority check in, boarding and all that stuff..

Also – and most crucially – it’s the smallest cabin.

The smaller the cabin, the higher the chance it fills up with passengers, and we’ll get to why that matters in just a second. At the right price, premium is a great investment over economy anyway, but it instantly leap frogs frequent flyers far closer to upgrades, because it places you in a seat that airlines would love to sell twice.

Incremental Revenue, Oversold Cabins

Every economy passenger is tempted to peak through the curtain into premium, or secure that six plus extra inches of recline and big wide seat. Airlines know this, so even if premium economy is full, they’ll often send upgrade offers to economy passengers.

They’ve already made money from you, and from the economy passenger, so why not make more from the economy passenger by getting them to buy up for even more for your seat? All they need to do is move someone like yourself from premium to business class to create the space. Right?

When this happens, you, the premium passenger are happy because you got an upgrade, and really, the airline loses nothing. In fact – they earn extra money because someone has paid to take your old seat, meaning they’ve now sold it twice. In a similar twist, flights also get oversold in economy and premium, so when that happens- someone needs to get bumped from the tiny premium cabin up to business to create the same room.

If you’re an elite flyer, you’ll be toward the top of the list.

Find Full Flights For Upgrades

ExpertFlyer.com is a truly invaluable resource. If you’ve heard it mentioned before, it’s because everyone who uses it loves it. Not only can you set seat and upgrade alerts, you can also see how full virtually any flight is.

If you have flexibility as to what time to leave or which flight to take, you can search which flight has the greatest chance of filling up, by seeing which are closest before you book.

By seeking full flights either in your cabin, or the cabin behind you, you greatly increase the chance of passengers needing to be upgraded to make room for the overflow. In an ideal world, both economy and premium are oversold, which means lots of people need to get bumped up to business.

These are the kind of upgrades that you magically find when checking in online, or via the last minute “double beep” in the boarding line, where they tear up your boarding pass and give you a brand new, better, business class pass.

Extra Tips

The higher your elite frequent flyer status the better, and you’ll almost always do better with upgrades when flying on the airline you hold your elite status with. There are exceptions.

Every airline has a system of ranking upgrade priority, so the more you travel and the more precious of a metal your frequent flyer card represents, the better the results. Traveling with other passengers on the same reservation can greatly decrease your chances of success here, especially if they don’t hold status themselves..

If you want to make this strategy work while traveling with others, stay on your own reservation, even if traveling with friends, family or colleagues. Well, if you are the type of person that’s fine with leaving them behind on the plane, of course! Finally, special meals have been known on some airlines to hold up upgrades in the past, so unless you have a true dietary requirement, stick to standard meals. This is less of an issue than before, but worth mentioning.

On full flights, as a top tier flyer, this can easily work out more than 30% of the time. 1/3 ain’t bad!

Featured image courtesy of Cathay Pacific.

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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20 Comments

  1. I was holding Cathay silver status sitting in Y and flying out on Christmas I was upgraded to PE then to J. On the return I was just upgraded to PE.

  2. Had an experience with Premium Economy upgrades on Lufthansa —
    originally booked in Economy
    Online check in: cash upgraded to PE but did not get seat assignment (presumably oversold)
    Airport check in: still no seat assignment, was told to get seat at gate
    At gate: “Hey we upgraded you to Business” 🙂

  3. I was extremely disappointed to learn that, after buying an AA-issued ticket for Premium Economy travel on Iberia that there is no mechanism in place to upgrade from PE to Business. I was told the ONLY way to upgrade is to DOWNGRADE to coach, then get on the list to upgrade. Apparently, they have no chart for PE to J, only from Y to J. Once downgraded to Y, I could pay cash to upgrade to J but the cash upgrade cost more than throwing away my PE ticket and straight up buying a J ticket. How F’d up is this?

    1. I do always appreciate feedback, but this is a 50% success rate or better for me. And if you look on our FB page, you’ll see almost everyone chiming in with similar results. I’d hardly call that air in the wind. I’d call it a pretty damn good strategy. Cheers.

    2. Not sure where your input comes from, experience? I for one can say this is definitely true. As a BA gold card holder I very frequently get upgraded from PE to business. I would say as much as 30-50% of the time, and that’s WITHOUT using expert flyer, so imagine what you could get when you do.

      I would say try first before you comment.

  4. It just worked for me some days ago. Unfortunately it was just an hour flight AA MIA-NAS but anyway the upgrade to Business was nice.
    btw I’m BA Oneworld Emerald

  5. One possible exception to the “travelling with others harms your chances” rule: BA trying to fill up their central pair of seats in J. Given the almost uncomfortable proximity to one another.

    Last year I was upgraded WT+ to CW flying LHR – JFK early on a Saturday morning. My friend was BA Bronze, I was a BA newbie. Consulted ExpertFlyer for seat maps and saw the plan gradually filling up – did not deserve a seat, whether that made a difference or not?

  6. I travel between the US and the UK a few times a year and since I’ve started booking PE I’ve been upgraded about 85% of the time. I always fly with BA because the food and service is better and one of the few airlines that can get me to my US destination with only one layover. When it comes time to check-in, I always change my seat because that’s when they unblock and blocked seats that they have in PE. Every time since I’ve started doing this I’ve been upgraded. Hasn’t failed me yet. I’m guessing it’s because they open those seats at the last minute and probably overbook the cabin, and since I’m silver status (I think Emerald for One world) I’m lucky enough to be a good choice to upgrade.

    1. Love this. Brilliant stuff and congrats on the upgrades. Just to clarify, BA Silver is Sapphire. Gold is Emerald.

      1. Never happened to me… I have taken 8-10 flights in PE in the last year as OWE (IB Platinum), but any of them with my airline (mainly BA, AA or CX), maybe is that the reason? Just difficult to start over with BA (although I’m based in London, I’ve status for long time and don’t want to start from scratch…

  7. Yes, has worked for me on several occasions. I’m BA silver and usually try and fly JFK-LHR on the same BA flight number as have been bumped from WT+ to CW over 60% of the time over the past few years.
    First time it happened was an extra-busy flight just after Christmas and I was only bronze exec club at the time, myself and my parents (who were on my booking but had no airline status) all got upgraded which was a bit lucky, given the usual comments that travelling with others significantly reduces the chances.

    The other jammy upgrade I got last year was LHR to JFK the day after they launched the new CW dining service. The flight wasn’t full and nor was WT+ from what I could see, however I was upgraded to CW and I think they were actively trying to fill the cabin a bit more to test out the service on what would otherwise have been a quieter flight (Saturday so less business travel). The crew went round after the meal seeking reviews and opinions, this however I assume was a one-off until they next revamp the menu so I’m sticking to trying to pick flights carefully and making sure I retain silver to maximise upgrade potential.

  8. I’ve benefited from this strategy before realising it was one. Since then I’ve tried it a few times. It worked on Open Skies every time, and I’m very sorry to see them go.

  9. i dont care if a person is lucky and it worked 100% of the time, its extremely far from full proof. Especially since Ive been on many a flight that was way Oversold only in the end to go out with emptys in all the cabins

    2ndly the best chances will be very close in to the flight date but by the the ElCheapo fares will be long gone

    3rd with SDC to help you it has to be on a routing where the Carrier has more them 1 flight per day

    That said I recently had 2 OPUPs myself, 1 accepted into PE the 2nd into PE I did not as it was a middle seat and I had an aisle seat in the extra room section and preferred that over Middle PE

    Its a better chance of an UPOP happening during Peak times, but highly doubt anything will help during the off peak times when you end up sitting in the cabin you paid for

    No way would I play this game on a TPAC flight , a TATL flight from the EC where its a short flight is OK but not from The WC. For those extra loing flights it pays to pay up if you need the space

    1. I kind of get what you’re saying, but nothing is foolproof in life, nor does anyone claim that this is. Anything with a roughly 1/8-1/3 chance of happening is a gamble by nature. I must say, you’re also kind of contradicting yourself here.

      You’re doubting the efficacy, while at the same time saying “I recently had two free upgrades” from basically this exact strategy, one which you turned down and another you didn’t. Nonetheless, they were offered.

      You’re also saying you wouldn’t “play this game”, because you can buy business class on longer flights. For many, that’s simply out of the question, so it’s a game they’re not playing by choice, but because it’s better than no chance whatsoever.

  10. This has happened to me too years ago.
    CX Tokyo to HKG was in paid economy on a full flight and upgraded to business class.
    SQ HKG – SFO was in paid economy and upgraded to Business Class.

  11. It’s happened to me a number of times on BA (I’m BAEC Silver) from Premium to Business. LHRDXB has been my most successful, and although I’ve only done the route half a dozen times, almost every flight I’ve taken to and from has been bumped to business. I think that PE cabin gets hugely oversold!

  12. As a TK Elite Plus/Star gold, I’ve gotten upgraded from Y->J about 70-80% of the time on TK short haul flights, and about 30-40% for long hauls. About half those percentages when on other Star Alliance airlines.

  13. My wife and I were on BA Avios Club World tickets, London to Sydney return last year…(and boy was that a challenge) At Sydney check-in on the way home after three months or so, we were flabbergasted to be given First Class boarding cards…no status, no request, and all the way through. To this day I know not why but it was certainly appreciated.

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