HR & Management

How to blag a flight upgrade

4 min read

18 July 2013

You're staring down the barrel of a long-haul flight to Hong Kong to meet your suppliers. You'd love the leg room, bubbly, and a real knife and fork, but a first-class ticket is out of your league. With these tricks up your sleeve, you could be turning left next time you board.

1. Rack up the loyalty points

Like any business, airlines want to reward loyalty, so your best chance of securing upgrades is to join a frequent flyer club. As a regular customer, you’re more likely to get the letters SFU (Suitable For Upgrade) next to your name on the passenger list. “I heard every blag under the sun, including ‘My wife’s pregnant. I need some time away from her to relax’ to ‘I lost all my money in Vegas’. If, on the rare occasion, Virgin do need to offer an upgrade, they usually prioritise their most loyal customers from the frequent flyer programme,” says Paul Dickinson, former director of sales and marketing at Virgin Atlantic.

2. Ditch your colleagues

Lone travellers are much more likely to be upgraded than any others as they can be put anywhere without fuss. If you’re travelling with your business colleagues and don’t care too much about sitting with them, book a separate seat.

3. Dress for success

According to Oonagh Shiel, former senior site content editor for Cheap Flights, much comes down to looking and acting businesslike. “Be polite and dress the part: nice slacks and a tie are more fitting for business and first class,” she says.

4. Know your seat ratios

Use the sneaky upgrader’s weapon of choice here, which shows which aircrafts have the largest business-to-economy seat ratios. Book a busy flight on a plane with a large business section and, if you can stand chancing it, turn up towards the end of the allotted check-in time. You might just be rewarded.

5. Blag the bulkhead

When you arrive, tell the check-in staff that you have a dodgy knee/twisted ankle/shin splints (you get the idea), and politely request a bulkhead seat at the front of economy, which has more leg room. With any luck, all of them will have been allocated to passengers with babies (they have drop-down panels in front where cots can be strapped in), and you’ll be bumped up. If that doesn’t work, wait until you’re on board to discreetly ask a crew member if there’s a seat with extra legroom for your poorly pins.

6. Turn on the charm 

Whatever you do, don’t ask outright for a free upgrade. Airline staff are asked this question all the time and get fed up with it. Try a more subtle approach – and remember: charm goes a long way. So confides Fiona Bartosch, managing partner of Schneider Bartosch, who is, the rest of her office assures us, a “legend” at blagging upgrades. “I recently got upgraded by slipping a Rolo on the counter with a Post-It note saying it was my last one,” she says. “It may sound crazy but the check-in assistant laughed and it worked.”

7. Dump the vegan diet for the day

Ordering a special in-flight meal (vegetarian, vegan, halal or kosher) may destroy your upgrade potential, as flights rarely carry spares, especially for the higher-class seats where food costs more.

8. Use your uniform

“In my experience, many airlines will regularly upgrade uniformed pilots, as it’s deemed comforting to business-class passengers having ‘reserve’ pilots on hand – just in case both pilots in the cockpit should mysteriously become simultaneously unfit to fly,” says Adam Tividell, pilot and CEO of PrivateFly.com. So if you have a pilot’s licence (and a uniform), flash it.