a seat in a plane

So you’re saying there’s a chance of a “free” upgrade?…

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

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.

The catch? It helps to be a frequent flyer with status on the airline, or airline alliance you happen to be flying. And like any upgrade tip other than the words “charge it”, it won’t work every time.

The good news is that most of what you need for this to work is taking care of itself right now. Business class is super expensive and premium economy continues to be a bargain in the return of travel.

a seat with headphones on it

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, and somewhat often, are lower. That’s not to say it won’t ever work, it’ll just be a lot less frequently.

This tip is for the savvy road warriors who put their butts in way too many airline seats, and have separated themselves from the general travel 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.

a plane with seats and windows

The Smallest Cabin

Premium Economy fares represent increasingly fantastic value for all travelers. Fares in economy have reached “full gouge” level in this budding summer rebirth of 2022. For a bit more, and generally way less than business class, premium brings so much more.

In many cases, premium economy means two checked bags for travelers, versus no free checked bags in economy. In addition, premium economy brings up to 10 extra inches of extra legroom or recline, improved food and beverage options and priority check in, boarding and all that stuff.

These days, any opportunity to avoid economy check in queues is worth something all on its own.

And most crucially – Premium Economy is the smallest cabin.

The smaller the cabin, the higher the chance it fills up with passengers. The higher the chance a cabin fills up, the higher the chance it’ll be oversold, and someone will need to move.

At the right price, premium economy is a great investment over economy anyway, but it instantly leap frogs you over frequent flyers in economy far closer to upgrades, and that’s because it places you in a seat that airlines would love to sell twice.

a bed and chairs in a plane

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. It really starts to set in on the day of travel, when that spontaneous long haul trip in economy sets in as real.

Suddenly, those extra inches feel like they matter — and people want premium.

Airlines know this, so even if premium economy is full, they’ll often send upgrade offers to economy passengers, if they know they have seats still open in business. They want people to trade up, and it’s easy to double leapfrog people.

They’ve already made money from you in premium, and from the economy passenger, so why not make more from the economy passenger by getting them to buy up all over again, for your premium seat?

All they need to do is move a loyal customer like you from premium to business class to create the space needed, right? And the answer is that they regularly do this. As the smallest cabin, premium economy is the cabin most likely to sell out. Airlines aren’t yet filling economy on long haul flights the way they used to, but premium is packed.

Premium is generally priced closer to economy than business, which makes the cabin a palatable splurge for more travelers. When it does sell out, and the airline wants more money, they happily upgrade people for free.

They may offer the business class seat as a paid upgrade option for premium economy passengers first, but if no one bites, a traveler with elite status on the airline almost always gets it for free.

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

a pool with palm trees and umbrellas

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 big overflow.

In an ideal world, both economy and premium economy are oversold, which means lots of people need to get bumped up to business.

When Will You Find Out About Your Upgrade?

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.

If business class is a must, this strategy is just too risky. Try maximizing your points, or exhaust upgrade tools first. If neither works, or you’re happy chancing it, this is next.

a plate of food on a table

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 there’s only one seat available, a lower ranking frequent flyer traveling solo will get that seat over you, if you’re traveling with others.

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 — and some airlines are past this — 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! That’s roughly my success rate during busy travel times, like the present.

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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  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.

  14. This happened to me all the time (about 8-9 times) pre-pandemic when traveling on BA…would book a (very) cheap Y fare, get an equally cheap upgrade offer to PE and pay it, then check-in to find I was bumped up to J. Typically, it was on A380 flights from LHR to IAD, though there were a few 777 flights to BOS and PHL in there, too. Only happened once on the redeye leg, but was still nice flying in J! Interestingly, I was flying with my Alaska MileagePlan membership number on the reservations, not an Executive Club number, and I doubt my 75K status helped me pre-OneWorld membership…but these flights were always packed in Y thanks to super low fares.

  15. Recently moved to Spain and used Iberia for first time this year to visit our second home in Florida. Business was ridiculously expensive at time of booking so booked Premium for just 500 Euro each return from Alicante to Miami via Madrid. At online check-in for the outward flight back in March we were offered upgrade to Business for 202 Euro. Similar upgrade offered on return flight 10 days ago for 330 Euro. Now looking for flights in September returning November and tempted to book Premium again in the hope that we will be offered similar upgrades but monitoring the ticket prices in Business to be sure of getting it.

  16. Years ago I booked club class to Antigua.Went to check in and was told to go to economy check in.Maybe because I was wearing a leisure suit and new tennis shoes. The lady at check in was so horrified that I had been sent there that she immediately upgraded me to !st class

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