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business class

How to get a free or cheaper flight upgrade ✈️

Our travel guide to increase your chances of securing a free upgrade from economy to business or first class on your next flight, plus the best budget-friendly ways to pay for an upgrade.

Published by
Caitlin Moore·31/03/2024

I'm sure we've all dreamt of sitting up in business or first class as we make our way to our economy seat, especially on a long haul flight.

For most of us, spending £1000s on a flight is out of our budget. But, there are best practices to increase your chances of being up being upgraded for free and some more affordable options for a flight class upgrade, if you want to make the splurge.

Best practices to secure a complimentary flight upgrade:

Ok, first things first, can you get upgraded from economy to a higher flight class for free? The answer is yes, however, it's quite rare and it's certainly not a guarantee. However, try as we may, here are our top tips that might just secure you the free upgrade.

  1. Join airline reward programmes. You can collect points and move up the tiers when you join certain reward programmes such as British Airways. People in the higher tiers are more likely to be selected for a random free upgrade.

  2. Ask politely at the check-in desk. If you're feeling brave, just be nice and ask, the worst that can happen is that they say no.

  3. Let the airline know about a special occasion. It has been known for newly-weds and birthday celebrators to be upgraded as a treat, although it's pretty rare and depends on availability.

  4. Travel solo. There's more chance of bagging a free upgrade if you're travelling alone, as they only need to upgrade one person.

  5. Travel with a staff member. Staff members get all kind of perks that still remain after they retire in some cases. I have a family friend who has been retired from BA for almost 10 years and is still getting free flights which almost always get upgraded. If you're travelling as their companion, chances are you'll be upgraded too.

  6. Be name-dropped by a staff member. If you know a staff member of an airline, but not well enough to travel with them, then this could be your best bet to get upgraded. They may have the connections to get you an upgrade.

  7. Volunteer to be bumped from the flight. If your flight is oversold, the airline may ask for volunteers to take a later flight, this could include perks like compensation or a free upgrade.

  8. Move seats if you're asked. If the airline staff are trying to accommodate a family or passenger who is complaining, and you get asked to move, you may get taken to a higher class as a thank-you gesture.

Getting a cheaper upgrade:

In most cases, the chance of getting a free flight upgrade is pretty slim and up to luck. But, you could get an upgrade more affordably by using one of these travel tips below.

1. Bid for an upgrade

Some airlines offer passengers the chance to bid for an upgrade to a higher class in the weeks before departing. You can bid the amount that you're willing to pay for the upgrade, which is often at a fraction of the regular price of that seat. If your bid wins, you'll be upgraded to the higher class and can enjoy all the benefits without the hefty price tag.

2. Use Miles or points to pay for the upgrade

You can use Avios and Air Miles to pay for flights and flight upgrades. Some programmes are free to join, or you can pay for a credit card that has better point schemes. Higher spenders are more likely to rack up points/miles, and the credit cards often have joining offers if you spend a certain amount in a specific time period to boost your points.

You can use the card for all of your everyday spending and make use of selected retailers where you receive higher points for every pound you spend. Make sure you can pay off the card in full each month, the interest rates are high on these cards, and it's not worth getting into debt for the sake of a flight upgrade.

Flight upgrades tend to be cheaper when using points or Miles, when compared to the monetary value. It's usually better value to buy the economy flight in cash and upgrade with your points.

We asked a couple of our Pirates about their experience using this tip, and here's what they had to say:

"I booked an economy-class fare to Vancouver with BA. Then, using the BA app, I checked to see if there were any available upgrades using Avios points and fortunately, there was. I had to pay an additional air passenger duty tax and some other fees, which can cost up to £200 - which is still the fraction of a cost of a normal first class seat"

"I just recently got a BA Amex card, which cost £250 for the year. The joining reward was 25,000 bonus points when spending £3000 in the first 3 months plus a free companion voucher when spending £10,000 in the first year. I had a big spend coming up so knew I would hit both of these and rack up enough points for a flight upgrade for me and 1 other person within a year."

You can compare and read more about various cards here.

3. Look out for discounted rates and sales

Signing up to airline email newsletters means you'll get the latest offers straight to your inbox. This can sometimes include flash sales on business class flights, with discounted fares for £100s or £1000s less than the usual rates. You'll need to be quick to snap up the best fares, though.

You can also look out for discounts via the airline's social media channels.

4. Know what you're paying for

Not all business class upgrades mean lie-flat beds and fancy food. On a short-haul flight it might just be a flimsy curtain separating you from your economy peers, a smidgen more legroom, a warm wet wipe and a scone. Of course, upgrading costs a lot less on a short-haul flight, but it's still worth looking into whether it's worth the price for the time you'll be on the flight and what you get included.

5. Ask about upgrading at check-in

There's a chance you could snag a cheaper upgrade by negotiating at the check-in counter at the airport. If the airline hasn't sold all the seats on that flight, they may be able to offer a discounted rate for the upgrade. Obviously this isn't guaranteed is a last minute attempt at upgrading, so if you're adamant for an upgrade, this isn't the best option.

6. Use price comparison sites

Compare different airlines and booking platforms on websites like Kayak and Skyscanner to find the best price available for a business or first class flight. On Kayak simply enter your departure airport and destination (if you're flexible with dates select +3 days to get more options) and then use the filter options on the side to show business class cabin options only.

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