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Who doesn’t love getting something for free — especially when it comes in the form of an upgrade. Every once in a while, wild stories make the news on how to score that mysterious upgrade — the special words to mention at check-in, the way to dress, how to ask the right questions.

Today, we take a look at the myths of upgrading and how you can improve your chances of scoring one.

British Airways Concorde Room Lounge / Image by Christian Kramer / The Points Guy
British Airways Concorde Room lounge. (Photo by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy)

When Do Airlines Upgrade Passengers?

It’s common in the US for airlines to upgrade their own elite status fliers on domestic flights. Depending on level of status, they will confirm such upgrades hours and even days before the flight. Members of frequent flyer programmes can also use various earned upgrade certificates to confirm an upgrade sooner, but most major legacy airlines have a system in place that gives complimentary upgrades to their top elites for domestic flights.

In Europe and for international flights, that picture is different. Airlines such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa try to protect their premium cabins. As such, they don’t offer complimentary upgrades to passengers. They would rather passengers pay for upgrades and want to avoid premium cabins being full of upgraded passengers, which could upset those who have paid hefty sums for their premium ticket.

Upgrades on non-US airlines are therefore largely driven by the ‘need’ to upgrade someone for operational reasons — hence the reference to OpUps (Operational Upgrades). British Airways will typically only upgrade passengers if it’s oversold a flight or if, for operational reasons, it had to switch aircraft and there might be fewer seats in less-premium cabins.

Overselling is a fine art, but the airlines have perfected it via clever computer systems over the years. They know that a certain number of passengers won’t show up for their flight and that others will mis-connect. And they know all this by route and date, which means they are typically pretty good at getting overselling correct. The objective of doing so is to maximise revenues on every flight. If an airplane leaves with an empty seat, revenue management hasn’t done its job to perfection.

Image by Christian Kramer / The Points Guy
(Photo by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy)

As an example, I recently flew to London on a British Airways flight from JFK where economy was oversold. When I checked in, BA was expecting eight more passengers to turn up than they had seats on the flight — but there were 10 empty seats in higher cabins. In the end, everyone that was booked to travel ended up being on that flight.

Most airlines also try to maximise their revenues by being clever about price points and travel classes, essentially hedging their bets. If a flight only has one first class seat left on it, rather than just hoping that someone will pay £5,000 at the last minute, the airline might offer one seat in economy, one seat in premium economy, one seat in business class and that first class seat at the £5,000 price point. Fare buckets are linked, so as soon as one ticket is sold in any of those classes, all other seats disappear, given there aren’t actually four seats available.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. (Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

So the airline is saying that rather than just hoping someone pays £5,000 for that last seat, they’d rather take any amount for that seat than leave with one empty. If that final passenger buys an economy ticket, the airline will likely ‘roll forward’, meaning one lucky passenger gets upgraded to premium economy, another lucky passenger gets upgraded from premium economy to business class and a final passenger gets moved from business class into the empty first class seat to accommodate all the other upgrades.

Who Gets Upgraded?

Gone are the days when check-in agents selected passengers for upgrades. Prior to sophisticated computer systems, check-in agents used to indicate whether a passenger was SFU or NSFU — Suitable for Upgrade or Not Suitable for Upgrade. Back in those days, looking smart and being polite and friendly at check-in could certainly help your chances of getting onto the SFU list.

Today, whilst wearing your best suit or charming the agent never hurts, upgrades at most airlines are done by a computer that doesn’t take into account how you dress. How those computer systems determine upgrades is somewhat of a dark art. British Airways uses a system called Discretionary Upgrade Tool (DUT). Often, if a flight is looking full, DUT will have drawn up a list of candidates for upgrade. When, at the last minute, passengers need to be moved, it’s ready to do so without any time being wasted.

What’s clever about BA’s DUT system is that it doesn’t just go by status. Sometimes, a Silver member who has never flown business class might get upgraded before a Gold member who normally only travels in premium cabins. It turns out the DUT trying to get that member a taste of what premium cabins are like to hopefully entice them to book premium cabins in the future.

How to Improve Your Chances

Nonetheless, these are the things that will help improve your chances of getting upgraded. To be clear, it is a dark art and there are no guarantees. As outlined below, most airlines will only upgrade if they have to. It won’t happen on every flight and in fact, the chances of getting upgraded are slim.

Have Status —  Despite the above on BA’s DUT, having status with the airline (or the alliance they are part of), is the biggest factor that increases chances of an upgrade. So being loyal to an airline or an alliance can pay off.

Online Check-In — There are some myths that not checking in online and turning up late at the airport on a full flight means that airlines will upgrade you. That’s a somewhat dangerous game to play, as you might just end up in the least-desirable middle seat. British Airways actually prioritises those who have used online check-in — in other words, those who are definitely showing, so doing so on BA increases the chances (ever so slightly).

Busy Flights — As outlined, airlines only upgrade when they have to, so picking a particularly busy flight (combined with all the other factors) improves your chances. Having said that, it can be a good tactic to pick empty flights in order to have an empty seat next to you — but upgrades won’t happen on those flights. Using tools such as Expertlfyer allows you to see how busy your upcoming flight is, or a historic flight at the same time.

Avoid Special Meals — This may not be an option depending on your dietary restrictions, but if you have ordered a special meal, an airline is unlikely to upgrade you. That’s because they are unlikely to have the same special meal available in the higher class and generally don’t serve lower class meals in a higher cabin.

Travel Solo — Though I have been upgraded when travelling with others, generally speaking, airlines won’t split up a booking. In other words, they won’t upgrade one person when two people are booked to travel together. There will, of course, be instances when they will need to upgrade numerous passengers but generally speaking, your chances of being one of those lucky ones is reduced when travelling with others.

Upgrades usually happen in the background between a when check-in is closed and boarding — or when the airline knows how many people have turned up for the flight. Usually, when boarding, a red beep and the message ‘Seat change’ means that you are being upgraded, though it can happen at other points.

(Photo by Nicky Kelvin/The Points Guy)

Bottom Line

There are no magic words that will definitely score you an upgrade, and it’s important to realise that upgrades are relatively rare. However, there are a number of things that can be done to help those low chances be a little bit higher.

The alternative, of course, is to use Avios, miles or upgrade vouchers (earned via airline loyalty programmes) to upgrade before travel — or buy an outright premium class seat.

Featured photo by Getting Images/stellalevi.

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