How to get an upgrade on an airline

Most air passengers will never experience anything but economy class.

Premium seats are shockingly unaffordable. Should you fancy a week in New York next month, travelling in first class with BA, for example, from London, you'll need between $7,513 and $11,478 to do so. Dramatic sums of money to the average person. Business class is less dear, but still remains beyond the reach of most people.

So unless you know your way around a hedge-fund, or happen to be flying the plane, there's only one way you'll find yourself turning left when you board an aircraft: the free upgrade.

Nabbing one is rare - but it does happen. A poll of more than 3,000 Telegraph Travel readers earlier this month found that 60 per cent had been given a free upgrade before. And there are numerous ways you can boost your chances.

Choose your route carefully

Most upgrades will be offered for "operational reasons", such as when the economy class cabin is full or oversold, but the premium cabins are not. Therefore travelling on a busy route, where this is more likely to occur, will help. Flights to beach resorts during the school holidays, when the majority of fellow passengers will be families, are a good bet. Monday morning flights to Frankfurt – not so much.

Be loyal, and pay more for your ticket

Regular customers will normally be given priority when an upgrade is available.

"It is sometimes necessary to upgrade customers," said a BA spokesman. "This is rare and will normally apply to frequent flyers who are members of our loyalty programme first."

A spokesman for Lufthansa said: "Passengers who paid more for their tickets are more likely to be upgraded than passengers who bought a discounted ticket. The frequent flier program status is also taken into account."

Recent research by Expedia found that airlines often sort out their upgrades the day before the flight, looking for regular fliers, businessmen or women and celebrities, who may fly with them again if given an upgrade.


Travel alone

If there are just one or two seats available up front, they will probably be offered to single travellers first.

Just ask

Four per cent of those questioned in a poll said they had received a free upgrade by simply asking for one at the check-in desk.

However, Expedia said that free upgrades are rarely given at the check-in desk or when boarding as they will have already have been sorted some 24 hours earlier.

A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said it does not give upgrades to anyone who requests one.

Still, that doesn't mean it's not worth mentioning that you might fancy a first class seat if there was one knocking about. But give some thought as to how you're going to explain your desire. The Virgin Atlantic spokesman said not all requests are entirely convincing...

"Manchester United lost today, I am really upset and need the space to get over it" 

"My wife is pregnant – I need an upgrade as it is a really stressful time for me".

The lucky few who have received an upgrade after requesting one were polite, and probably smartly dressed.

"My newborn baby has claustrophobia, we really need an upgrade so she has more space"

"I am Sir Richard Branson's dentist"

"I have lost all of my money in Vegas but really need an upgrade"

"It's a Sunday. No-one flies on a Sunday, so please can I have an upgrade?"

But have a good reason

If you've got a more genuine reason than those listed above, such as being exceptionally tall, pregnant, or even celebrating a honeymoon, birthday, or anniversary, it will go in your favour. A Lufthansa spokesman said "it never hurts to ask", and offering a reason such as these "would certainly improve your chances".

And be nice

It goes without saying that the lucky few who have received an upgrade after requesting one were polite, and probably smartly dressed. They didn't demand one.

Be unlucky

If you've got a faulty entertainment system, or a chair that won't recline, you've got good reason to complain, particularly if you're on a long-haul flight. You may simply be moved to another economy class seat, but if none are free... Equally, if you've got a legitimate grievance against another passenger – harassment, for example – you could ask to be relocated.

Be a VIP or know someone at the airline

The Virgin spokesman added that: "There is an upgrade list at check in (this could be journalists, travel industry VIPs, etc) and all these upgrades are agreed in advance and signed off at head office." So if you have a good friend who works for an airline, it can't hurt to ask, but get in touch as soon as you know the details of your flight.

The Telegraph, London

See also: Flight test: Virgin Australia business class

See also: Ten tips to help you fall asleep on a plane