Paid for economy, hoping for first class
By Susannah Cullinane
Wearing a fake beard and pretending to be Richard Branson's brother - people will try anything to get a free upgrade on flights. So what's the secret?
The lure of leg room and free champagne can make passengers go to great lengths to get a free upgrade on their flight. Attempts include baking check-in staff a cake and wearing a plaster cast to fake a broken leg, according to one travel survey.
Staff at Virgin Atlantic even reportedly had one man turn up wearing a fake beard and claiming to be the brother of the airline's chairman, Richard Branson.
One man who doesn't need to try
This hunger even works in favour of the airlines. A promotion offering one-way upgrades to first class on return business-class tickets is being credited as a reason for British Airway's multi-million pound rise in profits.
On the brink of a long-haul flight to New Zealand, I had hoped to discover the secret of getting moved from cramped cattle class to the holy grail that is first - and without forking out any extra cash.
One friend told me she knew someone who was upgraded because she was carrying her wedding dress. Another says leaving business class tickets and stickers on luggage so airline staff know you're someone that is used to a little luxury is a good ploy.
Look the part
Unable to do either of those I was hoping it would be as simple as dressing in smart clothes, but not so.
Anna Saunders, a 30-year-old banker originally from New Zealand, has been upgraded at least 10 times and usually turns up for a flight in track suit bottoms and a sweatshirt. She puts her success down to having a loyalty card for the airline she usually flies with.
"Because I'm a gold member I check in at the first class counter and if they can bump me up they do," she says.
There is no industry-wide policy on upgrades, it is down to each individual company. Few are prepared to even admit what their policy is, apart from being a frequent flyer and member of a loyalty scheme.
Paul Nero, the co-author of Blagging It, says the aim is to get the stamp SFU - suitable for upgrade - on your boarding pass. "What they're not looking for is someone in a shell suit, somewhat worse for wear, or travelling in a party of 12." Any of which may earn a NSFU stamp - not suitable for upgrade.
Instead, those who travel alone, are smartly dressed, carry quality luggage, and belong to that all-important frequent flyer scheme stand the best chance. People who have "Rev" in their passport, or who fill out documentation with a Mont Blanc pen are also likely to be favoured, he says.
And build a rapport with check-in staff, above and beyond the oft-used "any chance of an upgrade?", he says. "As well as all the usual social interaction, mention any worries you may have about travelling."
He also suggests choosing flights which are likely to be over-booked, such as Saturdays during the summer holidays, and peak commuting times. Then airlines look for people who will agree to be bumped to a later flight, in return for compensation.
Give and take
But those in the air travel industry are somewhat more circumspect about giving tips. Air Transport Users Council spokesman James Fremantle says discussing upgrade techniques could raise tricky issues.
"The problem with airlines doing it is that other passengers get jealous and it causes a bit of friction. Sometimes it actually causes problems because people do expect upgrades because they've heard of it happening. We have to tell them it's not their right.
"Any chance of an upgrade?"
"It's normally very rare an airline will upgrade because it's a different product - it's like buying a bar of chocolate and getting something worth five times as much. It's mainly members of loyalty clubs. They wouldn't do it unless there's something in it for them."
He's right, airlines aren't much more helpful when approached for tips. Upgrades from economy class only occur on British Airways flights if the cabin is full, says a spokeswoman for the company.
"We're more likely to upgrade people already in business to first class. There are all sorts of theories flying around that you have got to be well dressed, but if you're booked into economy the reason someone might be upgraded is largely just happenstance."
Try my luck
It is down to luck at the end of the day on Virgin Atlantic, according to their spokeswoman, who adds that there's no company policy on upgrades.
"There are no tips we would publish. It would definitely help if you were a member of our frequent flyer club, but it really depends on how booked the flight is, which happens for all sorts of reasons."
Anyway, suffice to say I did not get upgraded at Heathrow. Thought I was doing quite well building up a rapport with the check-in guy, only to be cruelly brought back to reality when he sent me off to the excess luggage desk instead of first class check-in.
On the upside, it may have led to me being allocating a nice window seat. Not business, but couldn't have been better for economy.
But as I turned away from the desk I heard them turn away a frequent flyer asking for an upgrade - apparently business class was full. It appears that I never had a chance anyway.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
There are various things which will mean you never get upgraded: You have requested a special meal; you are travelling with children; you are in a large group; you've already been drinking.
The check-in desk will have about one person in 10 ask, so you're going to have to try something different - never try the "don't you know who I am" bit, and never say "I work for company X, they put loads of business your way". So why didn't they buy you a business class seat then?
J Lorkin, Winchester
One point not mentioned here is ticket price. Some airlines simply look at how much you paid and if it's close to the full economy fare, are more likely to upgrade you. Also, some do the upgrades in advance so you're already on, or off, the list when you check in. Keep your finger's crossed and smile is probably the best advice.
Richard, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire
My dad has been upgraded several times, both for free and from cashing in his frequent flyer points. Reading this I realise why - he's a vicar, with "Rev" in his passport. While keen on free champers, he's thought less likely to run amok on it.
I once heard someone at Luton Airport asking easyjet staff if there was a chance of an upgrade! I asked for an upgrade from economy when I flew non-stop back to Heathrow from Melbourne; the lovely lady said that she would have done, but it was on a quarter full so she couldn't. I got four seats to myself all the way back - with more legroom than the business class lot did.
Alex, Aylesbury, UK
It is a special day when you get to turn left on boarding instead of right to the cheap seats. My wife and I got upgraded to business class on a BA flight to Australia but only because we knew a member of the cabin crew. We've been spectacularly unsuccessful since then, which is terrible now I know what I'm missing.
Kit, Fleet, UK
Being as high up in the frequent flyer program as possible is the only thing that matters. How do I know? Because I've been upgraded by BA even before anyone has seen me. When checking in online 24 hours before I was due to fly I'd already been bumped up. Also, I've had lots more upgrades from BA since I made it up to "Gold" in their Exec Club program.
John, London, UK
As an airline employee, many of my colleagues have been upgraded - but I often end up in the crew rest seats for 13 hours. It's really hit and miss, down to the discretion of the check-in staff, and what mood they're in.
Having recently got married, we tried for a free upgrade on our honeymoon... but it wasn't to be. However, we did get a free bottle of champagne from the company concerned, because they were unable to upgrade us.
Sue Hitchmough, Southampton
The best way to get upgraded is to book on flights likely to be full of travellers with low status in the loyalty programs, so leaisure routes in the holidays are ideal (e.g. Manchester to Miami), and Heathrow to JFK on a Monday morning probably the worst odds. Remember: on most US carriers the ultra frequent flyers (100,000+ miles flown on that airline per year) will be given a large amount of upgrade certificates with entitle them to an upgrade, making business class that much fuller and so leaving the rest a much lower chance of upgrading. To be honest: on carriers like BA and Virgin there is still a large 'random' factor - Golds can sit in the back while someone with no status can ride in the front for free; the US carriers are much more heirarchical, and you really do need the shiniest loyalty card they have to stand a realistic chance.
I fot a free upgrade to First class from economy on an Air France flight from Paris to New York. I think the reason was, because their service was so poor on the connecting flight from Manchester to paris, they felt guilty and thought i deserved a bit of compensation.
In the main, its all down to the load factor of an aircraft. in the last 6 years I have travelled heavily and their are a few good airlines to mention that do bump you up if you ask....one large airline based in Dubai, a trendy one in London with a bearded boss and one of the biggest based in london. Having a loyalty card does help but not in all cases. My best bump up was with a flight to Dubai a few yrs back. My company kindly found the cheapest ticket available which was less than 300 GBP. At the ticket desk I used miles to u/g to business then at the gate they bumped me up into 1st where I enjoyed vintage Dom and Iranian caviar.....nice, and all for 300 rtn!! good luck to all you hopefulls out there.....best bet is to book early in premium or business class for a cheap deal. Also worthy to note is that if you buy a fully flexible tkt, you are more likely to be bumped up.
There are companies out there that will get you a restricted ticket...eg VS (Virgin) in premium to LAX normally 1600-1800 GBP w/o sat stay I managed to get for 850 GBP in "K" class.
Mr s, Haddenham, Bucks, UK
Avoid cramped long haul flights by simply holidaying closer to home and helping to reduce carbon emissions.
Chris Chadwick, Kingston, Surrey, UK
Travelling Heathrow to LA last year I was upgraded from World Traveller to Business Class on both legs of the journey. On the way out I don't know why, just the luck of the draw, I guess, but on the way back my television screen wasn't working and there were no other available seats in the World Traveller cabin. Perhaps it's worth carrying a pair of pliers to snip the TV wires!
It's not true that you've got no chance if travelling with children - BA upgraded me and my 5 year old son to business on a Vancouver flight once.
Andy Eastham, Swindon UK
When asked where I'd like to sit on a BA LA-London flight I replied anywhere but by the Loo.
That's exactly where we had in mind sir was the reply but he quickly smiled and said . . . . in the First Class cabin though. Fair enough.
Steve Hampson, Leicester UK
I've been successfully upgraded on 23 flights in the past 4 years from both BA, Virgin, AA and others. I've never once asked and have found 85% of the time my upgrades are done before I get to check in.
Richard Hunter, Manchester
Two friends and I were travelling back from Shanghai and our flight was full of people who'd been unable to fly the day before due to a typhoon. One of my friends was the last one on that plane, and there were two grinning faces in Upper Class the next day! We were paid about £50 each, which is more than enough for a decent hotel in China, and the rest of the money was well-spent on beer! I declined the customary foot massage though - I wouldn't inflict that on anyone.
Craig, Southampton, UK
The best upgrades were in the early '90's when British Airways were offering Concorde upgrades to Virgin passengers allegedly. Others are right though, having a Gold frequent flier card is the best way but it doesn't always work either.
My best was getting Round the World economy tickets for myself and my wife upgraded to Business Class tickets which on some legs got further upgraded to First.
We were kindly upgraded by Virgin Atlantic on our honeymoon flight to LA a few years ago, we'd already paid when booking to Premium Economy, so had made some effort already. You shouldn't expect to be upgraded but if you are, keep quiet when up front - it does annoy those who've pay full price!
Sarah Cook, North Cornwall
I was once upgraded on Virgin Atlantic from economy to first class on a flight home from New York. All thanks to a slight delay in NY and ongoing construction work at Heathrow's new terminal which made my connection to Glasgow tight. There I was, having trekked half way across the US, looking like a hobo surrounded by all these perfectly manicured first class passengers being asked if I would like a massage, etc. The look on the woman's face when she woke up and saw me sitting next to her was priceless! It's all down to luck in my opinion
My partner and I were upgraded by Qantas due to the flight being overbooked. We were on our honeymoon and they had allocated us separate seats on opposite sides of the plane. When we complained the check in staff told us not to worry and when we got to the gate they replaced our economy class tickets with business. A 14 hour flight to Sydney from Los Angeles in business was luxury!!
Rob Foster, Chester, England
We flew Virgin to Barbados for our honeymoon last year and tried for an upgrade, but no luck and not even a free bottle of bubbly or a congratulations from any staff.
Linda Palk, Southampton
Most American airlines give their top tier frequent fliers 6 or 8 confirmed international upgrades per year. To be in this category you have to typically fly over 100,000 miles per year (10 return trips from San Francisco to London) or more .. On US Domestic flights most US carriers also upgrade these frequent fliers very easily if not automatically.
Being a frequent flier is the key - i.e. spending lots of money with them !
Robert Holt, San Francisco USA
The only time I've been successful in getting an upgrade was largely as a result of accident. I had booked a flight to Japan with one company, only to be bumped to BA because the flight was full. When I was checking in at the BA desk, there was an emergency that led to the terminal being evacuated! So when we got back in, the very helpful member of staff gave me an upgrade without me even having to ask! The extra leg room was fantastic for a 12 hour plus flight.
James Richards, London, England
Some years ago I was working in the USA, and built up a lot of air miles which I planned to use to upgrade from Economy to Business Class for a trip back home. When I went in to the airline office to book I put on my best British accent, commenting on the bad weather - a tornado had just ripped through the town! The staff were so nice that instead of getting the upgrade to Business I was expecting, they put me up into FIRST, both ways!! Not bad, paying the cheapest Apex fare for Economy and doing the round trip in First.
John, Beverley, UK
It's quite obviously the same old story - the rich pay less.
Paul Evans, Tamworth, England
I know how to do it and it works virtually EVERY time for me. But I'll never tell!
In November 2004, I was travelling with 4 of my colleagues, all men, two of whom only an inch taller than me. We checked in togther. The check-in attendant upgraded all of them, except me;-(
When I got upgraded to the Business Class on my way to New York last June flying Air France, I realized that I had been upgraded to the First Class by British Airway the year before - also on my way to NY. As a poor scientist, I didn't even know it was the First Class or Business Class at the time.
On both occasions, I remember vaguely that the girls behind the counter giggled at what I said ¿pity that I can¿t remember what though, but it was nothing intentional at all.
On my way back from JFK, I told the American girl behind the counter that they made a terrible mistake and put me in Business Class on my way there. "So, could such a terrible mistake happen to me again?" I asked. "What!" She replied with a stern look on her face. So no upgrade there.
Wuge Briscoe, Oxford/Karlstad
Some years ago, I visited Hong Kong with a party of railway engineers and managers. Our return flight was on a Saturday when there were very few business class passengers. I won't say which airline it was, but just after we boarded our group of about 60 people was invited to move forward to the business class cabin. At the time I could not guess why, but on reflection economy class was at the back of the plane and business class was in front of the wing, so it was probably more to do with redistribution of the load rather than any personal attributes!
Chris, Oitti Finland
Boarding Destination plays an important role as well.
Since having Silver card with BA, I have been upgraded 2 times (out of three) flying out from Delhi. You have far less travellers flashing their cards in Delhi as compared to Heathrow. I have to admit the flight was busy too.
Would seem the price of the ticket can make a diffrence for example on delta A T class full discount ticket means no upgrades at all, But a Q or K class ticket for coach means the possibility of a upgrade. Flying from north carolina to Atlanta recently I was given 500 dollars and a upgrade to first class for 4 hours extra in the airport and missing the overbooked flight I should of been on, for 4 hours wait which was spent in a nearby airport restaurant wasnt bad.
james robinson, Bristol UK
My girlfriend and I recently flew on a return trip to Boston with BA. On the outbound flight we were allocated seats in economy. On the return leg, we took advantage of the 24 hour online booking system and checked in online at our hotel. Once at the airport the check-in assistant handed us our boarding passes and informed us we had been upgraded to World traveller Plus. I know its only one up from economy, but better than nothing. Both of us are still unsure why we were upgraded, whether it was because of checking in online I am not sure. It certainly made the journey home more comfortable!!
Steve, Bracknell, Berks
I actually turned down an upgrade on a Heathrow - Paris BA flight once [ about 10 - 12 years ago ] simply because I had a window seat in economy and the 1st class one I was offered wasn't a window seat. To me, being able to see out properly is the more important factor!
Peter Mugridge, Epsom, Surrey, UK
A few years ago we flew to visit a relation of ours, we were booked into non-smoking and had made it clear, when booking, that that was a non-negotiable requirement. More than one member of our party has asthma. When we got to the check-in desk, because of over booking, the only seats left in economy were in smoking. We explained to the check-in staff that we had been given assurances that we were in non-smoking. The bumped us up to allow us a smoke free atmosphere. Whilst being bumped up is nice, I'm glad that most airlines these days are completely non-smoking.
Francisco, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
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