How to fly business class for free! Free upgrade? Don’t mind if I do…
If you don’t have a spare $5,000 for a business class ticket, but really want to experience the luxury of the walking to the left when you board the flight, there are other ways!
I have paid for business class once (Emirates, from Brisbane to Auckland as it was a last-minute flight with no economy seats left) But before I worked in the travel industry I was very fortunate to have been “bumped up” multiple times.
Etihad Airlines: Dubai to Mumbai, London to Dubai, Dubai to Kathmandu (x2 ), Kathmandu to Dubai (x3 times) Dubai to London (x2)
BMI British Midlands: Yerevan to London ( This service is no longer operating)
Avianca Airlines: Quito to Medellin
Emirates: Dubai to London (bumped to First class, which I declined, but that’s another story!)
I never asked for an upgrade, but here’s how I have gotten one!
The ideal FOC business class passenger (also called SFU, Suitable for upgrade by some airlines) looks a bit like this:
- Solo Traveller
- Well Dressed and spoken
- Limited luggage (especially hand luggage at a minimum)
- A member of the airlines frequent flier programme
- Travelling to slightly offbeat destinations
- Travelling in a low or shoulder season
Let’s look at these points a bit more in-depth…
Your chances of a free business class upgrade diminish with the size of your group. If you have kids in tow, you can forget it. Travelling in a group of 10? Don’t even think of getting excited for an upgrade.
The reason airlines offer business class seats to solo travellers is simple. It means they can fill the existing empty seats without having to disrupt the full paying passengers. Bumping up a couple or group is difficult, the odds of getting two or more business class seats next to each other is slim to nil. Take into account that full paying customers will have their seat preferences in the system first, and you will see how there will only be a patchwork of empty seats.
Of course couples can get upgraded, I have had it happen, but it is extremely rare!
Be well dressed and spoken.
I cannot stress this enough. If you intend to wrangle a free business class upgrade, you must dress the part. No one wants to sit next to a slob with the remnants of a cheeseburger wiped on their slouchy track pants, or unbrushed hair sticking out all over the place.
Dressing the part does not have to mean donning $700 Prada heels and spending 3 hours in hair and makeup, although, I’m sure that wouldn’t hinder your chances! No, as long as you are dressed tidy, you are good to go- I generally wear cheap clothes, especially when I travel. My outfits would have cost no more than $100 ( pants, top, jacket and accessories) but look tidy enough to fit in while sitting in business class.
As for being well spoken, a polite greeting, and chat with the check in staff works wonders. Remember, they may be at the end of a long shift, and have dealt with many grumpy travelling customers throughout the day. Smiling and being nice helps. And even if that doesn’t get you an upgrade, at least you have made someone happy!
Travel with limited luggage.
Do not come up to the check in counter stumbling over excess luggage, or lugging an oversized suitcase. Do not have a handbag, a laptop bag, a rolling suitcase and an umbrella, jacket, duty free bag combination, and expect to be upgraded. Besides, carrying that much luggage will make your outfit look messy and will cancel out the above rule!
Travel light. Make it look like your suitcase is effortless. Pack minimally. This not only saves your back, but also makes you an easy target for a free upgrade. After all, why not upgrade the guy who has followed the 23Kgs checked bag rule, and is only carrying a small laptop bag on the flight?
Sign up to the airlines Frequent Flier programme before you fly.
This one isn’t about using your frequent flier points to upgrade (more on that another time) but it’s just to show your support to the airline. When you hand over your passport and the check in staff scan you in for the flight, the computer system will show if you are a frequent flier of their airline. These are the people who will get bumped up first.
Most airlines will bump up their highest status members first. This enforces the airline’s loyalty to their FF members. But if you are a first time traveller with the airline, and have taken the time to fill in your frequent flier application fully, you will sometimes find yourself called up before boarding and having a new boarding pass issued. A boarding pass with a seat number down in row 10A instead of the 56C seat you were initially given. Gold.
Travelling to slightly offbeat destinations.
You may have noticed that the list of destinations I have flow in FOC business class was a little… different. Sure, there were a few flights that were signature flights of the airline, like the London to Dubai legs. But many of the flights I was upgraded on were the secondary legs, the slightly different destinations where the loading of the aircraft was lighter. As long as I had ticked off the other SFU points, I was on my way to business class as soon as my suitcase was set on the conveyer belt. The key to this point is that the aircraft is underused/ empty/not a high business class yield route. Hey, it all just heightens your chances for an upgrade… If that means flying to Yemen, don’t be looking a gift horse in the mouth!
To be fair, I also had several flights of loyalty under my belt too (At best I made it to Etihad Guest Silver, but only bottom tier with any other airline) which I believe did explain the more generous upgrades with Etihad.
Travel in a low/shoulder season
If you are hell bent on getting into business class for cheap then make sure the ticket you have purchased is a full economy fare ticket. In layman’s terms, if the ticket you have purchased was a super saver/special discount/earlybird etc etc type fare, you may find yourself staring at a brick wall when expecting an upgrade. If you are travelling over school holidays, Easter, Christmas, or a long weekend, you can count yourself out of a business class upgrade. The airlines are already stretched to the max, with many economy seats selling in the last price bracket before business class kicks in anyways. The airlines very rarely cut any deals for an economy traveler at the time.
There is a pattern of who the airlines upgrade first, and at the bottom of the pecking order are those who bought the special fares. And of course, those who also do not tick any other requirements.
However, if you are well dressed, gold status frequent flier, and traveling in low season to somewhere random, with very little luggage and on an expensive economy fare, you still have a shot!
How were you upgraded to business class in the past?
Share your story below!