The Death of Free UpgradesYou’ve probably heard the myths that dressing up, arriving at the airport early or flattering the check-in staff will help you get an upgrade. This advice is repeated time and time again in trashy “news” articles.

But the reality is, airlines are extremely unlikely to give away free upgrades just because there are seats available – even if you ask nicely.

I often see “travel writers” do the “10 best things you can do to get a free upgrade” or similar.  Just click bait mostly. Or just plagiarism. Seriously think they recycle the same article every 3 or 4 months. I stand to be corrected, but I have not ever known of anyone whos asked at check in if they could be upgraded, that has ever been successful.

Last weekend, ddd flew Etihad Airways in Economy from Sydney to Abu Dhabi. When checking in, this AFF member noticed that Business Class was half-empty and enquired about the possibility of an upgrade. As you would expect, the request was declined.

I’m flying Etihad economy tonight out of SYD and when I checked in there was barely any line. I’m VA gold so I got to check in at the business counter (3 open counters with no passengers at them) and got chatting to the bloke at the desk. He mentioned that first class is empty and business is half empty. Thinking this would be my once in a lifetime chance to fly long haul business I asked if there was any chance he could bump me up, and he replied that unfortunately he can’t – airlines (not just etihad) don’t really do free upgrades anymore because they lose money from it.

These days, very few airlines give away free upgrades just because they can. However, complimentary flight upgrades do still exist. Known as “operational upgrades”, they are given to top-tier frequent flyers if the flight happens to be oversold in Economy. The difference here, however, is that the airline is giving the upgrade away because it suits the airline. Although the passenger does of course benefit, that’s not the reason for giving out the upgrade.

A small number of airlines do still offer free upgrades to their top-tier frequent flyers. Virgin Australia, for example, gives Platinum Velocity members four annual Business Class upgrades. Qantas is also known to randomly upgrade super-elite Platinum One members occasionally.

And despite the move away from free upgrades, there are still three airlines that routinely fill every last seat in their premium cabins. American Airlines, Delta and United – the big 3 airlines in the USA – all upgrade their elite passengers for free on domestic flights. This is done deliberately as a means of promoting loyalty to the airline. And it works well for them.

What some of the largest airline operators in the world do, is upgrade their most frequent fliers for “free” into empty seats in the next class, just before boarding at the gate. Many frequent fliers on those airlines specifically choose that particular airline for all their travel, because of the possibility of getting that upgrade!

The US airlines’ business model works quite differently to that of most airlines, including Qantas and Singapore Airlines. By being stingy with free upgrades, these airlines have trained their customers to pay for a higher cabin class if they want to sit there.

On the other hand, they’ve just taught you that if you want to fly business, then that’s what you should buy.

The good news is that it’s still possible to upgrade on most flights if you’re prepared to pay something for it. Most airlines allow you to upgrade with frequent flyer points. And many airlines – including Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand – let you bid for an upgrade.

Join the discussion on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum: Are free upgrades a thing of the past?

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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]