How to get a free Flight upgrade

Hello everyone! Do you get envious when you’re forced to turn right, rather than left when getting on the plane? Today I’m going to be sharing some tips on how to get a free flight upgrade to Business or (even better) First Class.

To begin with, let’s temper some expectations – there’s no secret handshake or codeword that’s going to get you a free flight upgrade. Most of these actions require some effort or history with the airline, and there’s a fair bit of ‘being in the right place at the right time.’

Most of the time, the answer is simply ‘you get it by paying for it’ – but this guide will help you position yourself best to position yourself for flight upgrades on those other times!

These ideas are based around the concept of the airline offering an Operational Upgrade.

What is an Operational Upgrade?

An operational upgrade is a happy set of circumstances airline is forced to upgrade some passengers, or it otherwise makes economic sense for them to do so. For instance – the flight is oversold in economy and passengers need to be moved around to fit everyone on the flight.

Most airlines only perform operational upgrades when absolutely necessary – it rarely happens just because but we’ll be covering how to best position yourself for it below.

My Complimentary Business Class Upgrade Story

For a long time I thought operational upgrades were simply a myth, a thing of the past and something that never really happens today.

However, I was flying from London Gatwick to Lima, Peru a couple of years ago with British Airways. I’d checked in the night before, and even en- route to the airport and saw my seat was as expected. I’d booked in Premium Economy, and got a good price in a year-end sale.

When I got to the airport I went to bag drop and scanned in, and was initially slightly annoyed when I registered I no longer had the seat I’d carefully chosen.

That annoyance vanished when I realized my existing seat was in the front row of Premium Economy and the new seat number was lower…… so it must be in Business Class.

It was a complete surprise on the day (but a very welcome one – that is a long, long flight!)

And to answer a question – I did get the other perks as if I’d paid for my flight upgrade directly, such as use of the lounge.

Enjoying the upgraded seat after a free flight upgrade

Things to do to get a free flight upgrade.

Put yourself in the shoes of the airline. If you were going to reward one of your customers, who would you pick if you were going to give out a free flight upgrade?

The answer is fairly simple – someone who’s likely to be a continuous source of revenue and may upgrade or take a lot of flights with their airline in future. The secret therefore is in signalling to the airline that we are this person.

I’ve tried to put these in a rough order of how important I think they are – but none of this is an exact science:

Have loyalty status (preferably high status) with the Airline

First of all I always recommend signing up to the loyalty system of any airline you fly with – the benefits can add up a lot over time, and it sends one of those key signals that we can be a future source of revenue to the company.

Most airline loyalty schemes have a status or tier system – put simply, the more you fly in a year, the higher your status (usually coming with some extra perks).

Actually obtaining the higher tiers can be difficult – they usually require at least multiple times a year in higher classes. Usually the frequent flyer schemes are aimed at business travellers, as given they’re often booking at short notice in premium cabins they can be high revenue generators that the airlines would prefer stuck around.

If you can get status though, this is one of the key things that will really boost your chances of a free flight upgrade. Thinking to what we said above, it’s a very clear signal that you are loyal to the airline and likely to provide them with future benefit.

Have an Airline Credit Card

This one will have a much smaller effect that your airline status, but if you have a credit card linked to the airlines, such as the British Airways American Express or the Virgin Atlantic Mastercard it also acts as a loyalty symbol that you may be worth giving a free flight upgrade to.

We review the best airline credit credit cards in our article of the best UK Rewards Credit Cards.

Target potentially overbooked flights

It might seem counter-intuitive, but if they can an airline will sell more seats than are available on the flight.

The reason for this is that there’s always a surprising number of people that don’t turn up for a flight, and if it comes to it the airline often has levers they can pull to try and rearrange things to keep everyone happy.

So the ideal place for you to be is on a flight where you are booked in a lower cabin that is as full as possible, but there are plenty of space in the premium cabins. In this case when it comes to the period right before the flight, the airline would rather take a guaranteed extra booking where they have an extra fee-paying passenger and bump someone up than hope for a last-moment premium booking.

There’s another possible route with that where the flight is truly overbooked to the point that the airline literally can’t fit passengers on the flight.

If this happens, the airline will usually try and make this worth someone’s while to take a later flight – giving a free flight upgrade to business or first class and lounge access is a common perk, or additional tickets to use at another time.

The problem is that identifying these flights is easier said than done. Whilst seat maps seem obvious they’re not always reliable, as airlines can hold blocks of seats in reserve. You can ask the airlines directly, but they may not be willing to give up this information.

You used to be able to access various load metrics online with a little bit of technical know-how, but unfortunately these have largely been closed off and replaced with premium services.

I think there’s too much guesswork involved it this to be worth it unless you’re flying a lot, but ExpertFlyer is a good tool if you’re looking to go down that route.

Travel alone

Now, we appreciate this one is a lot less controllable than others. However it’s a simple fact of practicality that when looking at upgrades, it’s a lot easier to move a solo traveler around a cabin than a family of four and so this will (slightly) boost your chances of a free flight upgrade.

Ask politely about upgrade options

This option is unlikely to be a free flight upgrade, but one thing worth doing is asking about the cost of miles or cash upgrades on the day of your flight.

This rarely works (it’s usually more expensive on the day) but just occasionally you’ll find a good deal is offered if cabin space is available.

Enjoying the window view after a free flight upgrade

Things that do not work to get a free flight upgrade to first or business class

Trying to bluster airport staff into upgrading you

The days of staff at check-in having significant power over your seat on the plane are long gone. If you try and bluster staff into insisting that you must have an upgrade, all you’ll end up doing is annoying them and ruining someone’s day. Don’t be that person.

Dressing smartly

Whilst at the Wilderness we never want to discourage anyone from dressing snappily, unfortunately the limited power of check-in agents above also means they won’t see your finest and conclude you look like a person who belongs in first class, therefore give you a free flight upgrade!

Claiming you know senior executives / Richard Branson

Trust me, airline staff hear this one a lot – and they are never impressed by it!

Checking in last

Nope, these days all the assignments have automatically been done by computer and the time you check in simply doesn’t make a difference to your chance of getting a first / business class upgrade. (In my story above on my own operational upgrade, I actually checked in near immediately).

Have you ever been updated to first or business class on a flight?

If you’ve been lucky enough to receive that magic operational upgrade we’re always interested in hearing about people’s success stories! Let us know in the comments about which airline it was, what route and any factors that stood out to you as to why you got your free flight upgrade.

Any questions?

And if you have any questions on our guide, please just let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.

And that’s it!

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