How to get an upgrade

Want an instant upgrade? Pay for one. That's the only guaranteed way of getting a seat with so much legroom you won't be able to touch the one in front. The mythical bump from economy to business does happen, but it doesn't happen because you flatter or bribe check-in staff. It happens because the plane is full and the airline needs to fit people in the seat you were allocated. To stand the best chance of an upgrade, you have to be the person who ticks the most boxes.

In this extract from Lonely Planet Magazine, UK travel editor Tom Hall shares his tips to get you in with the best chance of an upgrade:

  • Make sure you're a member of your carrier's frequent-flyer scheme. Airlines like to reward regular customers. you might be down the list from passengers with more miles than you, but at least you'll be on it.
  • Travel on a busier flight on a more popular route. Upgrades don't happen unless cabins are full.
  • Put off would-be travelling companions. If solo upgrades are rare, two together are even more so. A lone traveller is easy to move up a class.
  • Look smart: airlines won't put a scruffpot in a seat next to someone who has paid thousands for a ticket. Smart-casual is enough.
  • You should always be nice to the check-in staff. It just may help you stand out in a stand-off for a move.
  • You could always say that you're flexible about where you sit. You might get tagged SFU (suitable for upgrade) on the seating system - or you might end up at the back near the toilets. Wherever you end up, it's best just to roll with it.

So then we turned to the well-travelled staff of Lonely Planet for their tips on snaring the elusive upgrade. Most concurred that dressing relatively smartly or being a member of the carrier's loyalty program didn't hurt your chances at all, but here are some of the other suggestions and upgrading tales they offered:

Flirting

'Once I got an upgrade to Business Class from Mexico City to Australia by flirting with the check-in guy. He asked me if I wanted a window seat and with my very best Spanish and smile I responded with a "yes a window seat in First Class would be wonderful". Lo and behold it worked! I didn’t even check my boarding pass and when I boarded the plane the flight attendant looked at my boarding pass and said "Upstairs please" - nice surprise.' - Sue V.

'If you're on your honeymoon ensure the check-in staff know as they might have you in mind if one comes up.' - Trent P.

'Health' issues

'My ex-boyfriend's mum had never flown before. At the airport, she had a nervous freak-out at the prospect of the long flight, and was given an upgrade to FIRST CLASS!' - Sam W.

'We got upgraded to business from LAX to Auckland in July this year. Qantas mucked up our seating, so my wife turned on the waterworks when she called up four days before our flight - and dropped that she was pregnant* as well. (*Only works if you're actually pregnant.) - Raph R.

Play it naughty - or nice

'Show up late for check-in, after all economy seats have been assigned but a business class seat is still open.' - Ken H.

'Upgrades are more due to luck than anything else.  If your flight has experienced severe delays, if you've missed a connection etc, you can get an upgrade if you kick up a fuss. A friend got 'upgraded' to business because he booked premium economy on Qantas and they changed the aircraft to one without premium economy so he got bumped to business.' - Shawn L.

'It didn’t happen to me but a woman told me about turning up, with an economy class ticket, for that day's last British Airways flight out of London to New York - which was cancelled. Assorted people went through the roof, and the BA people raced around sorting out the high octane egos. She was one of the last ones they got to and a very harassed BA guy came to her and apologised for the long wait, said how, with so many people shouting and yelling, they really appreciated that she’d been so patient. Sorry they couldn’t get her on a flight tonight, but they’d put her up in a hotel and she’d be on the first flight out tomorrow morning. On the Concorde.  So maybe being quiet and patient works?' - Tony Wheeler

Or simply...

'Don't have long hair if you're a male.' - Evan J.

And on the flipside, the unhappy tale of downgrading:

'… on a flight from Frankfurt to London when I found myself in the check-in queue with Mark Ellingham, one of the founders of Rough Guides. I had a business-class ticket, Mark had an economy one and we wanted to sit together. If you were checking in the publishers of the two travel guide series which dominate the British travel market and had to choose between upgrading Rough Guides or downgrading Lonely Planet, so they could sit together, which would you choose?

Correct. They chose to downgrade.' - Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet