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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.