The points whisperer Steve Hui shares his expert advice on how to secure an upgrade to the pointy end of the plane
Most travellers would agree the best start to any trip is to score an upgrade, unless you are already flying first class. An upgrade may be offered in advance by SMS or a surprise at check-in, in the lounge or even at the boarding gate.
Unfortunately, as air passenger numbers increase, the chances of winning the upgrade lottery are diminishing. Rather than think of upgrades as a luck-of-the-draw affair, the best way to fly at the pointy end of the plane is to understand how the system works.
Upgrades are somewhat a function of supply and demand. Invariably, you are not the only passenger seeking to be upgraded among your 200-plus fellow economy flyers. And in reality, business class seats are already very limited, and upgrades represent those seats unlikely to be sold.
For many airlines, the process of allocating upgrades is now decided by a complex computer algorithm, rather than how nicely dressed or persuasive you are at the check-in counter.
The algorithm takes into account your loyalty status, the cabin (business, premium economy or economy) and fare type you booked (flexible, corporate or discount), the number of passengers travelling together and the timing of your upgrade request.
What are your options?
There are essentially four ways to secure an upgrade. The first and most common is to request an upgrade using your points. Typically an airline will require you to have purchased an upgradable fare and made your upgrade request online or by phone. Within 24 to 48 hours of flight departure, you will be notified via email or SMS if successful.
Alternatively, you may be invited by an airline to ‘bid’ for an upgrade; an opportunity to put in a cash, points or cash-and-points bid. In this auction-style scenario, you are bidding against other interested bidders and a minimum value deemed acceptable by the airline.
Often, you will not know how many seats are available for bidding. Before the flight, the airline will notify you if you are successful, and the payment and points will be deducted from your account.
The third option is to make a request at the lounge or gate. Here, you are hoping for a lucky strike due to last-minute cancellations or perhaps a late connecting flight has freed up some business or first class seats.
Lastly, there is the operational upgrade, which occurs at the airport. Typically, this is where the airline has oversold seats and more than the expected number of passengers show up (airlines expect a number of no-shows). The airline may provide a free-of-charge upgrade to move some lucky passengers to accommodate everyone on board.
Is a points upgrade still the best value?
Points upgrades used to be good value, but the number of points required has risen over time, and it’s now worth considering which options suit you best.
Example 1: A long-haul flight from Sydney to London may require 120,000 points to upgrade from a discount economy fare to business class one-way. For only 8,000 more points (128,000 points plus taxes), you can secure a one-way business class seat in advance.
Example 2: Flying Virgin Australia, Sydney to Los Angeles. Virgin international long-haul upgrades are only available to Velocity Gold and Platinum members.
Passengers booked on a lower-priced Getaway fare cannot request an upgrade, but with a higher-priced economy Freedom fare only 45,000 Velocity points are required for an upgrade if successful. Alternatively, 95,500 Velocity points plus taxes can score a one-way business class seat.
The only downside with seeking to book an outright points confirmed business class ticket is the potential difficulty in finding the right seats for your trip. Points seats are limited and change constantly.
On balance, I would prefer to try in advance to lock in a confirmed business class seat, so I can forward plan for the comfort of my trip, rather than play the upgrade lottery and risk flying economy.