Upgrades – What You Need to Know

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If you’ve tried charming your way to a better seat with a kind word and a smile at some point in the past, say, five years, you’ll know this; it doesn’t work. Those days are gone: It’s a lost art and the reason is simple. Airlines have learned to squeeze every single drop of value from their business, and that means no more free anything. Charm is out, algorithms are in.

The good news is that there are still ways to get ahead and secure that bigger, better seat. You just need to know how it works. The rules are numerous, but they are rigid. So while the efficacy of your charm used to be ambiguous, knowledge of the system is not. And although airlines differ somewhat in the fine print, there are some general rules to exploit.

To set the stage, here are a couple of key things to know. First, you’ll never get an upgrade from basic economy, no matter who you are, what status you have, or what you are willing to pay. Basic economy is the cheapest economy ticket on any airline, so check your fare code if you are buying an economy ticket that you want to upgrade. Basic economy has a different fare code depending on the airline (E on Delta, B on American, K on United, and so on). We won’t bore you with a full list — you can pretty much Google it. Also, contrary to the good old days, you’ll never get an upgrade once you are on the plane, no matter how elite you are.

Second, just because there is a free seat in a higher class on your flight doesn’t mean it’s eligible for an upgrade. But don’t worry — we’ll explain a little more about what availability actually means and how you can find out whether there are seats available or not.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a popular misconception is that you can use your miles for upgrades when you travel. While not entirely untrue, the fact is that redeemable miles are extraordinarily ill-suited for upgrades. We get this question from our customers often, and our general recommendation is that booking an award ticket is almost always preferable to using your miles for upgrades, for three reasons:

  1. The number of miles needed for an upgrade is often the same, or marginally lower, than the number of miles needed to purchase a full ticket in that same class from scratch.
  2. In terms of availability, upgrades for miles are given very low priority, so chances are that those upgraded seats will have been given to others before you anyway. This is discussed in more detail below.
  3. Many airlines do not even allow award upgrades from tickets in economy class unless they are expensive full-fare tickets, like the highly coveted Y economy ticket. Again, more on that below.

One exception to this rule is if you’re traveling for work and your employer is paying for a full-fare economy ticket. Then it may make sense to use your personal miles for an upgrade. Another exception: Upgrading using miles is actually a good idea if you have points from BA Avios. More on that in a later blog post.

READ MORE: "Buying Miles for Travel. Does it Make Sense?"

The Various Ways to Upgrade

We will now go through the various ways you can upgrade your trip, though there are really only three (again, charm is no longer one of them). In their efforts to squeeze as much as they can from each flight, airlines have all arrived at more or less the same approach, resulting in a relatively consistent pecking-order across the global airline industry when it comes to who gets first dibs on available upgrade seats. It looks like this:

  1. Certificates
  2. Complimentary Upgrades
  3. Operational Upgrades

We’ll go through each in turn and then we’ll round off with a few final tips, tricks, and exceptions.

1. Upgrade Certificates

As indicated above, certificates trump everything. If there is a spot in a higher class, it’s usually yours if you have a certificate from that airline. The catch is that you're often not the only one with a certificate, so waitlists are quite common, and you will usually only have gotten a certificate if you have a really high status. Airlines will give these out to their top customers for use on most any trip. Not only that, they are usually valid for partner airlines, as well, and for your immediate family. (It will just require one of the more expensive tickets.)

Just make sure you understand the rules if you are lucky enough to get your hands on a certificate. Some of them never expire, others are only valid for a brief period of time. Some of them can be used when you book your trip online, and others can only be used over the phone, like Delta, bizarrely.

For all their power, certificates are still subject to the basic economy rule discussed in the introduction. Usually you can’t get an upgrade from basic economy — no matter how elite you are or how many certificates you have. You will usually not be able to use a certificate to upgrade an award ticket, either.

READ MORE: "Top Tier Elite Status: Which US Airline is Best"

2. Complimentary Upgrades

This is really the bread and butter of upgrades. If you have been upgraded, this is usually how it has happened. Complimentary upgrades are typically granted to members of the airline's frequent-flyer program, so whether you are a frequent or occasional traveler, it doesn’t matter. You must join the frequent flyer program or your chances of ever getting upgraded will be very close to zero.

As indicated above, the first step would be to check whether there are seats available for upgrade in a higher class. There are various online tools you can use, such as expertflyer.com, which is a good resource. (Just a warning: You have to create a profile and it isn’t always complete for all airlines.) For instance, for United, you’ll have to log into their site in something called “Expert Mode.” This is beyond the scope of this article, but you can find plenty of info on sites like ThePointsGuy.com.

Once you have figured out if there is an upgrade spot available, all you have to do is request it. This can be done at the time of booking or later on — but, of course, the earlier the better. Most airlines offer unlimited upgrades to their members according to a few general rules and some airlines automatically request upgrades at the time of purchase for certain levels of elite membership, whether you have asked for it or not. Not surprisingly, higher-tier members receive upgrades first and are also confirmed earlier. For instance, for really high status, you’ll have a confirmed upgrade up to five days before the flight. If you are a lowly silver member, your confirmation won’t come until 24 hours before the flight or even at time of boarding.

If two members of the same status are competing for one seat upgrade, then the tie is broken by looking at the fare class, basically the type of ticket you have. Here again, the all-powerful full-fare economy (Y) ticket is king. The rules differ slightly by airline but generally the more you’ve paid for your ticket, the higher you are in the hierarchy. We’re not going to fill this blog post with a bunch of codes, you can generally find the fare code hierarchy for your airline online by typing “fare code hierarchy” and then the name of your airline in your search engine.

Finally, if there is still a tie after the above two rules are applied, airlines will look at things like whether you have an airline credit card, the time the booking was made, how much you’ve spent on that airline that year, and so on.

3. Operational Upgrades

Believe it or not, no-shows are more frequent than you think. People miss their connections, cancel last minute, or simply don’t show up. For this reason, airlines will sometimes confirm more passengers on their flights than the number of seats available, and of course this sometimes backfires, which sucks for them but can be good for you.

In these situations, airlines will have to either look for volunteers to take alternate flights, or upgrade people to a higher class in order to free up seats in the lower classes. The rules are generally the same as for the complimentary upgrades described above, so you’ll want to buy tickets in a good fare class for flights that you think will be full, such as flights around the holidays.

READ MORE: "The Best Travel Points Credit Card: American Express Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve?"

Parting Thoughts

Remember that the principles described above are very general, and they generally describe the large, advanced airlines such as American Airlines, Lufthansa, or Singapore Airlines, so of course there will be exceptions and variations. For instance, an upgrade can mean different things to different airlines. Sometimes the next class from economy is premium economy and sometimes it’s business or even first. In general, however, the rule is quite simple — the more you fly with a certain airline and the more you have paid for your ticket, the higher the chances you will be granted an upgrade. But who knows, perhaps in some faraway places, you may still be able to charm your way into a first-class seat.

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