How to get a Flight Upgrade
Flying Business or First class is a much more pleasant way to fly… but it can also be very expensive. If you’re stuck in cattle class, though, don’t worry! There are numerous ways to get a flight upgrade and enjoy all the bells and whistles of the pointy-end on your next flight.
Getting a flight upgrade used to be a matter of dressing well or writing a romantic poem for the check-in agent. While these are nice things to do, they won’t score you a better seat. Instead, here are some things that actually work…
Upgrade with frequent flyer points
Upgrading is one of the best ways to redeem your hard-earned frequent flyer points. But, upgrades are subject to availability so there’s a few things you need to do to ensure you’re in with a chance. The actual process of upgrading with frequent flyer points varies from airline to airline, but most carriers will confirm your upgrade and deduct the points from your account immediately.
Most airlines will confirm your flight upgrade request instantly if there’s a reward seat in the higher cabin class on your flight. This system is used by Virgin Australia, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Thai Airways and American Airlines, to name a few. Qantas also uses this system, but only for domestic flights within Australia.
To check whether your upgrade request will be successful, simply search for award availability on the flight you wish to book. If there’s an award seat available in the higher class of travel, the seat will be yours!
The Qantas International Upgrade “Lottery”
Qantas uses a “lottery” system for international flight upgrades. You may submit a points upgrade request any time after booking, but you’ll only find out if you were successful a few days before the flight.
Qantas will approve point upgrade requests if there are still vacant seats available in the premium cabin. So if the flight is empty in Business class, for example, it’s likely your request for a Business upgrade will be approved. If the flight is fully booked, you’re unfortunately out of luck.
Qantas gives priority when allocating upgrades to passengers with the highest frequent flyer status. So, a Platinum One or Platinum frequent flyer on the flight would receive an upgrade before a Gold, Silver or Bronze member.
If you’re planning to enter the Qantas international upgrade lottey, it’s a good idea to check the loading of your flight before booking. You can use Expert Flyer to do this, and Australian Frequent Flyer (AFF) members can place a request in the Flight Availability/Upgrade Probability Help Desk.
Buy an eligible fare
Not all fare types are eligible to be upgraded with frequent flyer points! On international flights, Qantas won’t allow you to upgrade from Economy “Sale” fares. Other airlines, like Singapore Airlines, take this a step further and only allow you to upgrade from the most expensive flexible fares. In the case of Singapore Airlines, it’s often better value just to redeem your points for an outright Business or First class seat.
Some airlines only allow one-class upgrades
Qantas will let you upgrade straight from Economy to Business class – skipping Premium Economy – but other airlines may not. For example, Cathay Pacific will only let you upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy, Premium Economy to Business, or Business to First class using Cathay Asia Miles. One way to get around this is to choose an aircraft without a Premium Economy cabin.
One more thing…
To upgrade using frequent flyer points, you’ll generally need to be flying on the airline with which you earned the points. So, Qantas points can only be used to upgrade “QF” flights operated by Qantas.
There are some exceptions to this rule. You can use your points in any Star Alliance or SkyTeam airline to upgrade on any other airline within the respective alliance. However, only tickets booked in the most expensive fare classes are eligible.
Bid for a flight upgrade
If you can’t access an upgrade using frequent flyer points, another option is to bid for a flight upgrade. A surprisingly large number of airlines allow passengers to bid for vacant premium cabin seats via an online “auction”. Choose to bid any amount between the pre-set minimum & maximum. You’ll be notified around a day before the flight if your bid was successful.
Airlines that let you bid for an upgrade include Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia, Etihad Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, LATAM Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. Qantas also offers “Bid Now” upgrades – but only to selected passengers, and you’ll need to bid a mixture of points & money.
Optiontown is a website offering heavily discounted upgrades on select airlines including Air Asia X, Vietnam Airlines and Air India. The amount you need to pay for the upgrade is fixed, but you’ll receive your money back if the upgrade does not come through – minus a small admin fee.
Upgrade at the airport
It’s not too late to upgrade when you get to the airport! Some airlines sell discounted upgrades at the counter when checking in for your flight. These are subject to availability and offered on a first-come, first-serve basis, but are often a great deal.
Air Asia X sells Premium Flatbed upgrades at check-in for as little as $399 on flights from Australia to Malaysia. Other airlines selling last-minute flight upgrades at the airport include Thai Airways, Philippine Airlines, Fiji Airways and Alaska Airlines.
Finally, flying Jetstar on an international long-haul flight? Jetstar doesn’t sell upgrades at the airport, but look out for an email around 2 weeks before your flight.