The Pointy End: The Art of the Flight Upgrade

08 July 2016

Stuck in economy class on your next business trip? Here are five ways to swap cramped seats and reheated meals for a dollop of luxury at the pointy end of the plane.

Use your frequent flyer points

Airlines are increasingly keen to fill unsold seats before the plane takes off. First in the queue are travellers who’ve applied to swap some of their frequent flyer points for a bump to premium economy, business class or, on some flights, even first class. For example, Qantas asks for as little as 25,000 points to nudge you into business class between Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. Air New Zealand, and its Star Alliance partners, will upgrade you to business class on any North American flight for about 3400 Airpoints Dollars. Best value? Just 60,000 points catapults you from a business-class seat to a first-class suite all the way from Sydney to London on a Qantas Airbus A380 “superjumbo”.

Put in a bid

A growing number of airlines – among them Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand – get rid of empty seats via an online auction. Weeks before the flight, selected passengers in economy are invited to bid for a business-class upgrade using a mix of points and dollars, with the highest bid snaring the seat. If you’ve been invited to bid for a bump-up, try offering a little above the minimum set by the airline. Many frequent flyers report success with a modest baseline bid.

Loyalty counts

Upgrades – especially those delightful, unexpected free upgrades – are one way airlines seek to both reward and encourage loyalty. When airlines have more upgrade requests or bids than spare business-class seats, they consider how often each passenger flies with them and their frequent flyer status. There’s a strict pecking order: a high-flying Platinum card trumps Gold, which in turn is higher than Silver.

Fly off-peak

Weekends and school holidays see maximum competition for upgrades. if your schedule allows for some flexibility, fly between Tuesdays and Thursdays, and of course avoid not just holidays but the “shoulder” weeks before and after.

Ask at the check-in counter

Yes, just ask. But do it nicely. Try saying that you’ve heard great things about their business class, and you’d love to try it if they have a spare seat. Nine times out of 10 this won’t work, but the 10th time makes it worthwhile. Some airlines even sell empty business-class seats at check-in … but you often won’t know unless you ask.

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