There are plenty of myths about getting a free airline upgrade. The reality is that dressing up, pretending you’re on a honeymoon or complimenting the check-in agent – though nice – probably won’t see you bumped up to the pointy-end.

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But free upgrades do exist. So, why are they given and how can you get one?

From time to time, almost every airline upgrades passengers for operational reasons. This occurs when Economy class is oversold, but there are vacant seats available in a higher cabin class. Rather than bumping Economy passengers off the flight, the airline will free up seats by bumping up a few lucky flyers to the empty seats in the higher cabin class.


The practice of operational upgrades (or “op-ups” for short) is relatively common. In fact, some airlines will intentionally oversell Economy by as many as 40 or even 50 seats if they know that there will be enough unsold seats in a higher cabin class to “reaccommodate” those extra Economy passengers.

For frequent flyers, the million-dollar question is how to get one of those elusive operational upgrades. Unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast rule and the process of allocating op-ups varies by airline.

When Economy is oversold and op-ups are required, many airlines give priority to their most valuable customers, who are generally top-tier frequent flyers. With Qantas, for example, computer algorithms are used to determine customers with the highest “perceived customer value”.

Emirates – known to routinely upgrade passengers for free – last year switched to a new system. Operational upgrades are now given to Emirates passengers that have paid the most for their tickets.

There is some logic behind operational upgrades. But there’s also an element of randomness that makes it impossible to accurately predict when you might receive one. Some members have been upgraded despite holding no status and flying on a discounted airfare.

Ultimately, scoring a free upgrade is a matter of good luck. If you’d rather not leave it to chance, requesting a points upgrade is a much better strategy. Priority is always given to passengers that are prepared to pay something for the upgrade.

Have you ever received a free upgrade? Join the discussion HERE.

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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]