How to get a free upgrade on flights

When flying, nothing is more delightful than a free upgrade. As they say, sometimes, the best things in life are free. Airlines occasionally bump up passengers to a higher service class because they have to. Sometimes, they just want to reward you or make someone feel special. In this post, I’ll focus more on Cathay Pacific as I’ve experienced most of my upgrades with them.

Why do airlines give free upgrades?

Most of the time, airlines bump passengers to a higher service class because most of the people showed up for their flights. They usually overbook flights, with an industry-standard of 10%. This means, they sell 110 seats for a certain class with only 100 seats. If everyone shows up, they need to bump passengers to the next higher service class. In cases where the next higher service class is full, then they have to do the same process again for that service class.

Cathay Pacific business class seat

I was lucky enough to score this free upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy, then Premium Economy to Business Class! Double upgrades happen. It was the only time I wished Hong Kong and Manila were much further apart!

How do I get upgraded? And why should you be upgraded?

The upgrade may come from different sources, such as:

  1. you asked for it,
  2. the algorithm chose you,
  3. the gate agent’s discretion,
  4. your elite status with the airline.

They may upgrade you because you are a valuable customer

If you’re a member of the airline’s loyalty program, you’ll have a higher chance of scoring that free upgrade. Of course, airlines would prioritise their own loyal customers to retain them. Don’t hesitate to join the airlines’ loyalty or rewards program if it’s free. If not, paying for it might be worth it if you’re planning to fly with them often. Remember, the gate agent or the computer can see your membership and status on their loyalty and rewards programs!

Airlines usually ranks people by their tier to determine who to bump first should there be a need to bump someone up. I am putting an emphasis on usually since this isn’t the always the case.  You don’t have to be in the higher tiers to score an upgrade. I am a member of the lowest tier of the Marco Polo Club (Green) yet I’m still able to get a free upgrade with them.

Cathay Pacific assigns their customers their “customer intrinsic value.” They track how much you’ve spent with them, how often you fly with them, and such. There’s conversations at FlyerTalk that say that they use it to break the tie. For other airlines, the tiebreaker would be your SEC/SEQ/BN number – the order of your check-in. Sometimes, it pays to check-in right away once the online check-in opens up.

You used to fly with often before

There are anecdotes that airlines do this. If you’ve been a frequent flyer with them before, and took a break from flying with them, they may upgrade you. They’ll upgrade you so they’ll get you back as a passenger. Well, it makes sense to make you feel special so you’ll come back!

Ask or hint that you want a free upgrade, in a subtle way

Sometimes, you just have to ask for it. If you have time to spare to check-in at the airport, go ahead and do it. Always remember that they’re not required to upgrade you. Do it in a friendly, subtle manner. You can say something as subtle as:

  • Hey, are the exit rows or extra legroom seats open for check-in now? This signifies your intention that you want a good seat for your flight.
  • I saw in the seatmap that the flight is almost full. I hope the system selects me for an upgrade!
  • How many service classes will the aircraft have? And if they reply three-class or four-class, hint something like Oh, lesser seats. Higher chances of getting upgraded!

Make their work more efficient. When checking in, provide the check-in agent all the information he or she might need from you. I usually give them my passport opened on the photo/bio page, then say which flight I’m checking in. They’ll be leaned to choose you for an upgrade if the need arises as you’re making things easier for them.

If you’re celebrating something, tell them. Tell them that you’re flying because it’s your birthday, honeymoon, or whatever you’re celebrating. Don’t lie about your birthday. Chances are, that info is on the ID or passport you just handed them.

Travel alone

Traveling alone gives you a better chance of being upgraded, or at least be alone in your flight booking. The checkin or gate agents, and the airlines’ algorithm tries their best keep traveling parties together. They try to prevent awkward situations such as upgrading you to business class and leaving your boss who paid for the flight on coach. Good thing is, I usually travel alone so I usually get lucky!

Choose a peak flight

I usually fly right after work and fly back just in time for work. These flights are usually full so there’s a higher chance they have to give out a free upgrade! An effective way to check this would be to use a software or a web app that shows seat availability. If you’ve already booked the flight, you can see this when checking-in online and selecting a seat.

I check this often right before my flight. If six hours before my flight there’s only less than ten seats left, I know that the odds are starting to lean to my favor. I keep on refreshing my check-in status once an hour and sometimes I’ll just be delighted to see that I’m reseated to a better service class. Always level your expectations though. As they say, don’t count your eggs before they hatch.

TIP: When you’re already issued boarding pass and you see (on their website or app) that you’ve been upgraded, politely approach the gate agent to reprint you a boarding pass. This way, you can confidently queue up to the Premium Economy, Business Class, or First Class line as if you bought that ticket!

Myths on getting a free upgrade

  1. Award ticket passengers don’t get upgrades! This is plain wrong. I’ve been upgraded once even though I’m flying an award ticket. The algorithm might be less keen to upgrade you, but you can still make it up by being nice to the check-in or gate agent!
  2. Full-fare ticket is the way to go. The odds might be higher if you have a full fare, but if you’re bringing a lot of business with them there’s no reason for them not to upgrade you!
  3. You have to dress to impress. You don’t have to. Computer algorithms do most of the upgrading and they don’t probably know what you’re wearing! If you’re planning to ask for the free upgrade, then by all chance wear something comfortable and decent. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie as it may backfire. Why would they upgrade someone who can actually afford it, right?

Something else that I’ve missed?

If you think I’ve missed something, feel free to share them on the comments section and help a fellow flyer!

Written by

I'm Mikko, an overseas Filipino worker based in Hong Kong.

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