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 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.

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