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How to get an upgrade on a flight: travel alone, be sound and don’t be vegan

Travel Q&A: Conor Pope shares his tips for bagging a better seat in business or first class

1. Be realistic: The days of short-haul upgrades are long gone but when it comes to longer distances, the dream lives on. It’s not a dream that will land in your lap – it will take prep. You need to manage your expectations. All the old tricks such as dressing smartly, pretending to be just married or just engaged or spending a decade studying medicine to get the precious Dr honorific are pretty pointless as most upgrades are decided in advance by an algorithm that doesn’t care if you’re in love, in a suit or equipped with a particular set of life-saving skills.

2. Loyalty counts: Join your airline’s loyalty scheme before booking. In upgradeland, frequent fliers are rewarded first and while those who have racked up the miles will be looked on most favourably, new members can sometimes be rewarded by airlines clever enough to want to guarantee repeat custom. Don’t forget to tell the check-in staff you’re a new member, but be subtle about it.

3. Price matters: Anyone buying the most flexible – and pricier – tickets in economy is first in line when it comes to upgrades, while those with the cheapest tickets will be a long way back in the queue.

4. Go it alone: If you’re a solo flyer you might get lucky if an airline has overbooked and forced to bump someone up to business class. The chances of you getting an upgrade if you are traveling with a spouse and three young children are pretty much zero.


5. Don’t be vegan: In fact, don’t have any unusual dietary requirements. It is not the veganism that is frowned upon, but airlines order the special meals for first- and business-class passengers in advance, so if you’ve any out of the ordinary needs, you will not be getting the last-minute upgrade.

6. Be sound: We started off by saying the algorithms make the decisions, but occasionally an upgrade has to happen at the last minute and if there isn’t someone travelling solo with loads of air miles in their back pocket, the ones who get the call are the ones check-in staff remember as being nice and fairly smartly dressed – so they don’t look out of place in business class.

7. Be early: Remember to arrive at your boarding gate in good time as the last-minute upgrades happen at least 15 minutes before boarding starts. You will want to be there on the off chance your name is called.

8. Bring sweets: An Instagram hack we saw suggests bringing a bag of treats on the plane to give to the cabin crew and while we can’t say if will make any difference at that late stage, it can hardly do any harm. If nothing else the crew might be nicer to you in economy.

9. Put your hand up: If there is a situation where a family have been split up on a plane, offer to help them out by moving seats.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor