The travel editor advises a reader on how to maximise his chances of securing that elusive upgrade.
Ask the Expert: How to get an airline upgrade
I am a frequent flyer enrolled in the loyalty programmes of several large airlines, but I have only ever been upgraded to business class once. How can I make sure that I am upgraded in future?
Unfortunately, the only way to ensure that you are upgraded these days is to pay for a ticket in business class. Gone are the days when honeymoon couples, VIPs and loudly complaining businessmen were upgraded at the drop of a hat. Check-in staff also generally have less power than they used to, so any normal passenger who arrives at the airport even vaguely expecting to be granted their dream of being able to access the lounge and turn left on boarding is likely to be sorely disappointed.
The good news, however, is that not only are business-class fares more affordable than ever before, airlines also offer more special offers to their frequent fliers to upgrade their tickets at fairly short notice.
Those looking for a free upgrade can also take heart from the knowledge that, these days, there is little mystery to the process. Firstly, you are doing the right thing by enrolling in the loyalty programmes of the airlines that you use most. Make sure, however, that you don't enroll in too many. It's best to stick to one or two loyalty programmes or airline networks as if you spread your business too thinly you are unlikely to be rewarded at all. By actually using the airlines you are affiliated with and accumulating points, you will not only earn valuable mileage for conversion into actual flights but also bolster your chances of being upgraded if a flight's economy class becomes full. Regular customers with lots of points to their name are much more likely to be upgraded than occasional ones. Also, you receive far more points for flying business class than economy; take a couple of long-haul business class trips and you'll be high on the list for an upgrade to first.
Other factors that increase your chances of a last-minute upgrade include travelling alone (airlines like to keep things flexible and if you are part of a couple or group they will, understandably, be reluctant to move everyone); travelling with a popular airline on a busy route during busy periods (with economy and business cabins selling out, people sometimes need to be moved around); and buying a ticket that isn't the very cheapest available (if you've paid more to get on the plane in the first place, you're more likely to be upgraded than someone who hasn't). It also pays to be polite, dress smartly and smile.