Surely this is the magical question that every flier wants to know, which is the best airline for free upgrades? We all desire that magical moment when the airline staff take pleasure in giving us the great news, “You’ve been upgraded”.
Which is the best airline for free upgrades?
I’ve flown frequently, virtually every month for the last 16 years, taken well over a thousand individual flights and benefited from a range of upgrades. Some of these were points awards and some were complimentary.
In fact one of the most popular articles on this website was how I got a free upgrade to First Class with Emirates! What a great day that was.
In that article I explained what I see as a pattern to getting a free upgrade, the one thing that helps you more than anything else. It is not how nice you are to the airline staff (although that can’t do any harm), it is most certainly not the way you dress and if you dare try to talk your way into an upgrade then the best of luck!!! (Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.)
From all my years of experience flying there is one thing which helps you get onto the upgrade list more than anything else and that is your frequent flyer status. It is that simple.
I’ve lost count of the number of complimentary upgrades that I’ve received, yet on every single occasion I can attribute it to my frequent flyer status especially with that airline or alliance.
Now in addition to this there are other factors to consider which can influence if you get an upgrade or not. For instance how full is the flight? A near full flight may increase your chances of an upgrade, yet if the next cabin up is fully booked then that is not going to work.
If you hold a discounted as opposed to a full fare ticket it is probably going to work against you as well. After all why should airlines reward customers who pay them the least amount of money?
Now frequent readers of this blog will know that I have a history of already flying on Business Class tickets. Yet that has not been the case in the last 18 months. My work has been performed on lower cost budgets so I’ve been flying economy class, also known as coach or to some as cattle class. Sometimes if I’m lucky I had a budget for premium economy.
When you are flying every month on a global scale this is not much fun. You soon discover the benefits of that extra inch of legroom or how the width of a seat can really make a difference.
So for me it has been during the last 18 months when the airlines that give free upgrades has really come to the fore.
As I explained in my book it is best to focus on a few frequent flyer schemes to work your way up the grades rather than trying to join every scheme possible. This means assigning flights to one alliance member where possible or earning the bonus points or statuses where you can. (Airlines have special offers for status qualifications from time to time so keep your eye out for them.)
After 18 months of flying on cheap tickets what have I learnt about obtaining free upgrades?
Well for a start frequent flyer status matters, big time.
Over the years I’ve seen many people try the sweet talk and fail in persuading airline staff that they are worthy of an upgrade. Even if there is something wrong with your seat this doesn’t automatically qualify you for an upgrade, only an equivalent seat. After all you don’t replace apples with oranges, they are a whole different thing.
The only real life example I know of someone who successfully talks his way into an upgrade is someone who believe it or not already holds a high frequent flyer status with the airline. And no, this person is not me.
Yet with it I’ve received very few upgrades over the last 18 months. Maybe 2 or 3 after numerous flights. Unfortunately for me they were only on short distance flights, maybe 1-2 hour flights in Europe.
On one occasion a colleague was flying with me on the same ticket with KLM. He had virtually no frequent flyer status and was upgraded along with me since he was on the same ticket.
However when I was flying long haul I had no luck and I think this was for two reasons.
Firstly, on the Air France flights I took I knew the flight was virtually full anyway. I know this because I called the airline in advance of the flight seeking to make an awards upgrade. I was told each time the flight was virtually full and no seats were available in the Business Class cabin. Not much chance of an upgrade there then.
Secondly, a lot of my tickets although they were issued by either Air France or KLM were not flights operated by them. These were transatlantic flights which were operated by their Sky Team code share partner, Delta. From what I can tell Delta do not tend to give any priority for free upgrades to Sky Priority members who are not on the Delta frequent flyer scheme, Skymiles. In fact, in over 16 years of often flying with them I can only ever recall one free upgrade and even then that was on a US domestic flight.
In fact, as a Sky Priority member the only benefits I can see of flying with Delta (other than earning more miles) is that I get priority boarding, extra luggage allowances and chance to choose an economy Delta Comfort+ seat at no charge.
So based on the above being Platinum Elite has not been too fruitful for free upgrades.
Yet there is another airline with whom I am not at their Platinum level, I am at the next level down which is Gold. However at the time of writing I have a 50% success rate of getting a free upgrade to Business Class over the last 18 months. This was 3 out of 6 flights, not bad at all if you ask me.
This airline is a main rival for Emirates, it is in fact Etihad.
Yes, over the last 18 months I’ve been upgraded on 3 out of 6 flights with Etihad, this includes a near 14 hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Brisbane.
For me the difference between Economy Class and Business Class is also quite startling with Etihad too. As far as long haul goes their Economy Class is in my mind pretty awful. There just isn’t any legroom. I am 5’11” tall and I sit in economy with my knees literally pressed against the seat in front of me. I was on one flight where the tall guy behind my row literally could not fit into his seat and had to be moved.
Yet compare that to Etihad Business Class. This really is a comfortable and competitive offering. Flat back beds, mattresses, snooze suits, food on demand and attentive service. It really kicks the butt of any offering I’ve experienced with a US based carrier.
Etihad may not be the best Business Class in the air but it is very nice and competitive.
So 3 out of 6 flights for a complimentary upgrade is not bad going. Yet it is a bit of a risk hoping for that upgrade with no guarantees of not being stuck in economy.
I’ve found that the upgrades tend to be predetermined in the background. 2 of these 3 upgrades actually were actioned at the boarding area. As my ticket was scanned a beep noise alerted the airline staff to check their monitor since I’d been flagged for a seat change into Business Class.
The other occasion of my free upgrade happened at check in. This is when I also followed my rule of arriving early at the airport. I’d already checked in online the day before but had to drop my luggage off.
It is always nice hearing the check in agent say “I’m sorry the flight is pretty full we’ve had to change your seat…..to Business Class”. ??
So that is my recent experience. I truly believe that the best way to get free upgrades is to have a high status with the airline frequent flyer scheme. After all airlines want to reward their loyal customers. Why give an upgrade to a first time customer when long term customers are stuck in the back. It is only going to risk losing your long term customers.
I can’t tell you which is the best airline for free upgrades because quite simply I’ve not flown with every airline. I do wish to throw this open for debate though. Please use the comments section below to tell me about when you received an upgrade. Which airline was it with and why do you think that you were selected?
For me the tips on how to get a free upgrade remain, focus on one or a small number of airlines and try to earn high frequent flyer status. Then if possible arrive at the airport early and keep your fingers crossed. There are certainly no guarantees about this but for me, Middle Eastern airlines have been the most generous to me. The most generous of all has been Etihad.
Please tell me below which is the best airline for free upgrades in your experience.