We talk about upgrades a lot, and one of the things people don’t realise is that there are multiple types of flight upgrades.
In this article, we’re going to break upgrades up into three types and explain how they work.
Cash upgrades are quite simple. You buy a ticket from an airline and upgrade to the next cabin by giving the airline more money.
This can be done from the moment you buy your ticket, right up until boarding the aircraft. In fact, some airlines have even allowed upgrading on board in the past!
An example of a cash upgrade would be buying a Premium Economy ticket for cash, then upgrading at a later time to Business Class and paying the airline more money.
Airlines will often offer cash upgrades at check-in to entice people into the higher cabin. They will often use targeted offers via their mobile app too, this allows them to upsell passengers and help manage how many people are in each cabin.
It’s worth noting that some of the cheapest airline tickets may not be upgradeable, even with cash. So when you book, check that the ticket allows for upgrades.
Points upgrades work in a similar way to cash upgrades. You buy a ticket from an airline and upgrade to a higher cabin by giving the airline some of your points + the difference in taxes and fees from your original ticket. The fees and taxes vary wildly from carrier to carrier and cabin to cabin. Most of the time, on a points upgrade, I expect no more than a few hundred dollars in taxes & fees for an upgrade.
This can be done from the moment you buy your ticket, right up until boarding the aircraft. I’ve done points upgrades on the day of purchasing the ticket, any day prior to online check-in opening, at check-in, in the lounge and at the gate!
British Airways have an online tool for doing this too. We covered how it works in this article. Virgin Atlantic allows you to do the same but they do not have an online tool, you have to call their ticketing line to do it.
It’s worth noting that some of the cheapest airline tickets may not be upgradeable. So when you book, check that the ticket allows for upgrades.
Operational upgrades are a very rare occurrence even for frequent flyers.
Airlines often overbook flights. We won’t go into the reasoning why they do this, but it happens. So when overbooking happens, sometimes people need to move around because there isn’t a seat for them in their booked cabin. Airlines tend to opt for upgrading people before downgrading because the EU261 rules cost the airline a lot of money in compensation if they force a passenger to downgrade.
These types of upgrades feel amazing when they happen because they’re such a surprise.
If you’re lucky, one of two things will happen. Either you will be handed a new boarding pass at check-in or in the lounge with a new seat in a higher cabin. Or you get to the gate and the boarding pass scanner will make a distinctive noise that frequent flyers call the magic beep. This beep doesn’t just happen for upgrades. It’s a way of the machine telling the gate agent there is something wrong with your boarding pass and it needs to be re-issued. All of the times I’ve had the magic beep, there has been a new boarding pass printed with the gate agent, ready to hand over.
Operation upgrades can also be operational downgrades. It’s very rare, but sometimes the airline doesn’t have a seat in a higher cabin and has to downgrade an unfortunate soul.
Free upgrades sound wonderful… are they predictable?
No. They are not.
Most airlines use a combination of confidential methods to determine who gets upgraded in this extremely rare scenario. Things like airline status, ticket price, single traveller status and time of check in are often used. On the larger airlines like British Airways, they use an algorithm that determines how all of this unfolds. It’s essentially impossible to game the system then.
One of the reasons I usually ask how busy the flight is at check in is to try and gauge what the chances of overbooking being. If it’s a busy flight, i’ll often ask about a points upgrade. Sure, I could wait and see if it happens for free (and that has happened to me on multiple occasions). But if the airline is going to have to move people, I’d rather guarantee the upgrade by offering my points.
As always, make sure you buy an upgradable ticket if you want to chase cash or points upgrades.
If you’re dreaming of a free flight upgrade (dream on), if a flight gets overbook, you may just be the lucky person who gets picked for an upgrade.