Can you get free upgrades?

entertainment screen on first class flight

Val has always wanted to sit at the pointy end of the plane but has always had a tight budget when she travels. She’s asked us if there’s any way she can get a free upgrade.


Q. Val
Every time I fly I walk past the good seats at the front of the plane and dream of sitting there myself one day. I’m on a part-Age Pension, but I visit my daughter in Cairns once or twice a year. Sometimes she pays for my ticket and sometimes we split it. What I’m saying is I’ll probably never be able to afford one of the good seats. But you always have good tips on getting upgrades and I read your article about bidding for them. I’m wondering if there’s any way you can get a free upgrade?

A. This is a question we’re often asked, which is why we’ve written about the many ways you can get upgrades. SJ’s tips on getting free upgrades include simple suggestions such as asking nicely (you’d be surprised how far this can get you with the right person on the line or behind the desk), claiming special circumstances, such as fear of flying or just being nice to the person with whom you’re checking in.

If you’re flying to Cairns a couple of times a year, you may have points building up – enough to get an upgrade to premium economy or maybe even business class. I suggest checking your points balance, logging onto an airline’s website and going through the process of booking a ticket. You’ll then have the option of using points to upgrade, which could get you a free bump or at least one at a very low cost.

Amelia also has her take on landing flight upgrades. Some of her tips include offering to be bumped, flying in the low season or flaunting a special occasion, among others.

Another interesting strategy is one I came across recently. It’s not exactly for upgraded seats, although you could still swing one with this tactic. In her article How to get the good seat without paying up, writer Erica Ho claims that by resisting the urge to choose a seat when you book your ticket, you’re actually improving your chance of getting a seat up the front of the plane.

She says: “For this trick to work effectively as possible, there should be extremely limited availability in terms of free seating. The fewer seats there are and the crappier the seats are, the better. It’s a good thing planes fly close to full these days, eh?

“Let me explain. By picking a seat, most people fail to realise several things: Passengers are not obligated to pay for a premium seat if there are no more free seats left on the plane. The airline still has to seat you. Second, seat maps are misleading because there are usually people on the flight who don’t have a seat assignment yet. Odds are good that seats will fill up quickly by the time the plane leaves the ground.

“Third, the seats in the front of the cabin are usually reserved until the very last minute. Gate agents will dip into this bucket to seat passengers if there are no other options left on the plane. They can’t charge you for something you didn’t ‘want’. That’s where the magic of not picking a seat comes into play: as people check-in, they’ll just grab any remaining seat. With luck, the gate agent will run out of normal seats and push you up front.”

While I can’t personally vouch for this tactic, it sounds as if Ms Ho has had success with it. My tip is book a seat as close to the front as possible, then, if seats are spare upon take-off, ask your flight attendant nicely if you could perhaps take one of those seats. It’s worked for me twice. You never know if you don’t ask!

If you have a Travel SOS question, send it to and we’ll do our best to answer it for you, or find someone who can.

Do you have any tips for getting upgrades? Why not share them with our members?

Also read: How to survive the worst plane seat

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Publisher of YourLifeChoices – Australia's most-trusted and longest-running retirement website. A trusted voice on Australia's retirement landscape, including retirement income and planning, government entitlements, lifestyle and news and information relevant to Australians over 50. Leon has worked in publishing for more than 25 years and is also a travel writer and editor, graphic designer and photographer.

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  1. Getting upgrades by asking nicely is a thing of the past, it will depend on your status. If I want to be closer to the front of the plane domestically, fly Virgin in Economy X, otherwise unfortunately, you will have to pay for a business class seat – wait for a sale – that’s what I did to fly to NZ and scored a bargain.

  2. Chances of getting a free upgrade are very slim to none today. Any upgrades available go to higher status frequent fliers first before anyone else.

    I have been flying for over 50 years now. I always dress neatly and am polite, but I have never been granted a FREE upgrade after “asking nicely”. I remember one flight on Qantas many years ago. I asked nicely if there was an upgrade available, and was told no. That flight took off with just two business class passengers. All the other seats were empty. What does that tell you?? Last year I was on a Qantas flight in a paid for business class seat. Two of my friends were in economy and requested a frequent flyer point upgrade. They were not successful. Guess what, there were two empty seats in business class on that flight.

    Allocation of upgrades is mostly done by computer in accordance with a set policy and yield management systems. Other than in exceptional circumstances, upgrades will always go to the highest level frequent flyers, and people who spend the most money with the airline.

    Also bear in mind that there are very few business class seats on domestic flights so Val with her one flight a year is very unlikely to ever be considered for an upgrade. My suggestion is to make sure you are in your preferred airline’s frequent flyer program and make the most of any earning opportunities to build your points balance. With Qantas it is easy with Woolworths and other avenues to earn points. I earn more points on the ground than I will ever earn actually flying. My other suggestion to Val is to be flexible when you go to Cairns so that you can take advantage of any business class fare sales. Set up alerts so you know about them, and book your flights then, even if if it some time out before you fly.

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