We all want an upgrade, right?
The process for getting an upgrade begins at the moment you are looking to purchase a ticket. If you buy the wrong type of ticket when you book your trip, you could end up in a position where getting an upgrade is completely impossible. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, airline ticketing is immensely complex and there are dozens of ticket configurations. If you think you may want to upgrade at some point, you need to make sure your ticket conditions allow for this.
There are four types of upgrades:
As I discussed in my previous article Three things you should spend points on, a points upgrade is often extremely good value. Getting these types of upgrades begin before you’ve even bought your ticket. To get a points upgrade, your ticket needs to allow it. Without going down the rabbit hole of airline ticketing complexity, your ticket needs to be in the right “fare bucket”. This essentially means you sometimes need a specific type of ticket. Often the cheapest and most inflexible tickets do not allow points upgrades.
A points upgrade can happen any time from the point of booking, right up until boarding. In fact, it’s even possible to do a points upgrade during the initial purchase transaction on some airlines. If you call their ticketing line, buy an Economy or Premium Economy ticket and there is a Business seat available, you can do the upgrade as part of the original transaction. It’s often very quick & easy. However, if there is no availability at the time of booking, it can be done later.
These upgrades can become available at any time and there are usually lots of people looking for them. So if you happen to find availability, book it quickly because 5 minutes later, it may be gone!
Cash upgrade (re-ticket)
Sometimes you will get an upgrade offer via the airlines app. These “upgrades” aren’t always an upgrade though. A friend of mine went to New York for a weekend recently and he shared the price he had been offered on his app to get my opinion. The airline was offering an upgrade to Business for just over £7000. Put simply, this is not an upgrade. They were offering a complete change of ticket from Premium Economy to Business. It was so expensive because it was close to departure and the new Business ticket would have been an expensive, fully flexible ticket. Not a good deal, believe me!
Cash upgrade at the airport
Contrary to the previous type of cash upgrade, getting cash upgrade offers at check-in can be extremely lucrative. Whenever I ask about upgrades at check-in or in the lounge, I always ask for a cash price and a points price. That way I can compare the two options to see what the better option is. It’s not uncommon to get an upgrade starting at a few hundred pounds on some routes. This can be an absolute bargain compared to paying for a full-price ticket. The downside is they are entirely unpredictable and not always offered. This is usually done when the airline has free seats in a higher cabin and wants to upsell a few lucky people. It can also happen when the airline has oversold the cabin you’re in. To try and free up seats, they will offer cheap upgrades to shuffle people around without needing to do it for free later on (more on this in the next section).
An additional benefit of cash upgrades at the airport is that rules around fare buckets often do not apply. A classic example of airlines bending their own rules when it suits them. But if it suits your circumstances and it’s a good deal, bite their hand off.
Free upgrade (IROPS)
IROPS stands for – Irregular Operations. In plain English, it means something has gone wrong. Usually, it’s a case of aircraft change or cabin overbooking. This is by far the most uncommon and totally unpredictable type of upgrade. If this has ever happened to you, then you have effectively hit the frequent flier lottery. Theoretically, it can happen at any time, but usually, it happens during the check-in process or before the plane boards. If it’s going to happen to you, at some point during your time at the airport your boarding pass will change. Often, it’s at the gate. When you try to board, the boarding pass machine will make a little beep sound that frequent fliers call “the magic beep”. It’s basically saying to the gate agent that your boarding pass is not valid and you cannot board. In most cases, the gate agent already has new boarding passes printed, ready to go for the lucky person(s) who gets the magic beep.
It’s extremely rare to see this happen and even rarer to have it happen to you. But it does happen. Unfortunately, it cannot be relied on and most airlines use an algorithm to decide who gets moved when things do go wrong like this. So even frequent flier pros cannot game the system.
The best way to know if your ticket is upgradable is to check when you book. You can also cross-reference the fare bucket on your ticket with information on the airlines’ website. Fare buckets are always individual letters like A B C.