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I've read many articles about it, but I would like to have a direct feedback from someone who did that.

Is that possible (and successful) to ask for a free upgrade at the checkin desk? Or is that something to be asked at the gate before boarding?

What if the flight has 2 legs and I'm interested in the upgrade only for the second one (the longest)?

Just a note: I'm not a frequent flyer nor have points to spend for an upgrade.

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    You can of course always ask for everything, but why do you think the airline would give you a free upgrade? What do you expect to happen if you ask for a free beer at a pub? Apr 20 at 9:24
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    the comparison doesn't really match. the beer at the pub can be sold to the next customer and will not expire. the seat that is not assigned will not be used by anybody and will expire. In addition to that, I read of such cases, so that's why I asked
    – Val
    Apr 20 at 9:32
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    @Val That's not a good rebuttal. It's true nobody else is buying the unassigned seat, but it's also true that it doesn't cost the airline anything to refuse the upgrade.
    – chepner
    Apr 20 at 18:04
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    You forget an other possibility: ask on board. Apr 21 at 7:43
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    Many, many years ago, my mom & I got upgraded to 1st class. Of course, we were also bumped off of our original flight because it was over booked, and the only flight they could get us on to get to our destination only had 1st class seats available. It wasn't a bad deal - 1st class and we arrived 15 minutes before our originally scheduled arrival time! We didn't specifically ask for the upgrade, though...
    – FreeMan
    Apr 21 at 15:45

8 Answers 8

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20-30 years ago this used to work. Source: I did it myself, and approximately a quarter to a third of the time it worked. You could turn up at check-in, smartly dressed (apparently that mattered then) and ask if there were any spare seats in business class, and miraculously occasionally you were upgraded for free. Similarly hotel upgrades (that still works occasionally) - I'd get an upgrade to a suite by asking, though the particular hotel I visited so frequently they knew me by sight and that might have had something to do with it.

Now, well, you can ask, but you are very unlikely to be successful. Firstly, airlines load plan a lot better. Secondly, if airlines have additional space, they will be happy to sell an upgrade at the airport. BA have a program called Airport Upgrade (AUP) and their checkin staff are heavily incentivised to sell them to you - given that, why would they give them away? Some airlines allow miles/points earned to be redeemed for upgrades in this way. Thirdly, airlines will on occasion provide operational upgrades (OpUps) - but these in general happen only when one class is oversold and they have to upgrade someone. Note "oversold" can include "sold the right number of tickets but one seat has broken" and "needed a business class seat for a resting crew member" (leading to an upgrade to First). The person they pick is relatively carefully selected (for instance favouring frequent flyers, or someone who has not flown business before and they think might fly business again if exposed to it) - but even if you don't believe in the magic of their upgrade algorithm, the point is that they select the OpUp, and it's not given by asking

That said, no harm in asking nicely so long as you don't mind being disappointed.

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  • I didn't know about the AUP, this reduces my chances to zero :) thanks for your answer
    – Val
    Apr 21 at 6:45
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    From personal experience, this was certainly true in the 90s. I used to fly UK/Japan a lot. I got my free upgrade to 1st just by asking, 4 times out of 5. I used to wear a heavy leather jacket & had hair down my back, so it wasn't a suit that did it. I used to indicate the hideously long queue at the regular check-in as I waltzed up to the 1st class check-in. Business shared the queue with the 'chickens', only 1st had its own desk. I did have a gold 'miles' card that I would be holding out along with my ticket & passport as I did this. It never worked coming home, only going out.
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 21 at 10:02
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    @Tetsujin clearly I was dressing wrong and a leather jacket would have upped my ratio!
    – abligh
    Apr 21 at 20:41
  • AUP is wonderful, they upgraded me on London-Denver for 399 GBP, I was more than glad to take that offer, a business class seat on that route is ten times that...
    – chx
    Apr 24 at 21:01
23

Is that possible to ask for a free upgrade at the check-in desk?

Sure. You can always ask

(and successful)

No.

Upgrades are one of the major perks that airlines use to entice frequent flyers and they are very carefully regulated with complicated rules and upgrade order. Your chances of getting an upgrade as a non-status flyer are basically zero.

For example United gives free domestic upgrades for status members above a certain level. Each flight has an upgrade list that's sorted by status, instrument and fare class. That sounds better than it is: typically the upgrade list is dozens of names long. I've seen lists of over 100 people for a flight with one or two open seats. But as a non-status flyer you won't even make it on the list.

International upgrades require "instruments", which are a sort of "airline currency" (miles, plus points, upgrade vouchers, etc) that the airline bestows on customers for spending money with them or for reaching a certain status.

Free upgrades outside this system do happen but they are incredibly rare and based on unusual circumstances or operational reasons.

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    And even when upgrades for other reasons happen, they tend to be handed to frequent flyers. When I spent 50kEUR a year on economy on KLM, approx. 30-40% of the long haul flights was magically upgraded to business.
    – vidarlo
    Apr 20 at 16:09
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    The only time I've ever seen a free upgrade was to get our 8th grade trip onto one plane. Apr 20 at 17:48
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    I once got a free upgrade from business to first when the back of the plane was overbooked and first had space. I wasn't a frequent flier but the business ticket was booked at the very last minute for an astronomical price and I think they just upgraded the highest-paying business passenger when they ran out of high-status people in business to upgrade.
    – Dennis
    Apr 20 at 19:12
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    I once (20+ years ago) was upgraded on the spot from economy to first class, I am pretty sure because of overbooking in economy - maybe my ticket was the highest cost of the economy passengers (it was business travel). But it was a very short domestic flight so I really didn't get much out of it except that I can cross "fly first class" off my bucket list. Apr 20 at 20:29
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    The one other weird situation you might get an upgrade is if you have a "full fare" ticket (fare class Y). These are much more expensive than usual coach tickets so it's unlikely that you'll purchase one, but often if you volunteer to be bumped on an oversold flight you will be rebooked with a full fare ticket and might get upgraded on that flight. Apr 22 at 1:13
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Hilmar's answer is true generally. However, speaking from my own experience, there is one type of upgrade that some airlines are more willing to give. If you're able-bodied and willing to operate the emergency exit if needed, you can ask for a seat next to it. Those seats tend to have a bit more legroom than normal coach. Some airlines sell those seats, but even then they might give it to you if the person who is assigned to it decides they aren't capable or willing to operate the exit. The only way to find out is to ask at the gate.

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    However, they may not recline. Apr 20 at 17:48
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    Emergency rows must have someone there. So if nobody pays the upgrade for them, they are willing to move people there for free.
    – Aganju
    Apr 20 at 21:09
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    Emergency rows can also have reduced visibility out of their windows. So if having a view is important to you, then an emergency row may not be for you.
    – Peter M
    Apr 20 at 21:31
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    Exit row seats are hit or miss. On some planes these are actually quite bad. No foot storage, screen in armrest, directly in front of the loo etc.
    – Hilmar
    Apr 21 at 2:14
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    +1, I just did this on a Swiss Air flight in Feb. We booked an economy seat. When checking in our bags, I just asked if we could upgrade to a seat with more leg room. I even offered to pay for it. They immediately upgraded me for free. The plane was half-full roughly. Apr 21 at 14:06
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In the three years before the pandemic I flew intercontinental quite regularly, racking up some frequent flyer points. I'm not the kind of person to ask for upgrades (especially since I'm generally okay with an economy class seat as long as it's at the back of the plane and next to a window). However:

  • Three or four times I received an email a week before the flight asking me to bid on an upgrade. Bids started at around €100 and presumably the highest bidder(s) would be upgraded to make room in an otherwise overbooked economy class. I was successful once.

  • Once, at which point I had already gotten the lowest status on a frequent flyer programme, I was upgraded on check-in due to an overbooked flight.

  • A few years prior to that when my father had top frequent flyer status with Lufthansa he was on a package trip and was upgraded together with my mother during boarding (The two flew business, the rest of the group economy).

These stories may all be anecdotal but in combination with the Airport Upgrade Programme Abligh mentioned they show how airlines will try and get rid of empty seats for money first and if that doesn't work they go through the status ranks.

There is no harm in asking but if you're successful without having status, treat it as a lottery win.

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I once asked for the emergency seat and they gave it to me. Better still, I didn't have anyone next to me. Flying Air New Zealand back to the UK so pretty high-stakes... Just before we took off, one of the cabin crew came out of the galley, saw me and said "no no no that's no good, we can't have you there!" I'm like "wha..?". He goes on "We're going to be in and out of the galley all night, you're not going to get any sleep there! Once we've taken off I'll give you the nod, grab your gear and follow me". We took off, he took me over to premium economy, with unlimited booze and snacks, better legroom etc etc.

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This is somewhat dependent on location, but, generally, is a relic of a bygone era. It's usually just not going to happen anywhere these days, especially to business or first.

In North America, complimentary upgrades to business or first class are very common... but they are given to frequent flyers based on a very specific set priority, not just to random people who ask. On long-haul international flights, they're given either to people who pay with miles, people who use upgrade certificates (these are issued to frequent flyers only,) or airline employees who are flying as passengers on the flight. And, of course, they (usually quite successfully) try to sell upgrades to open seats up front. Obviously, the airline's very frequent flyers are not going to be happy if their upgrade is instead given to some random person who just asked to be upgraded, so that's pretty much never done these days.

Outside of North America, complimentary upgrades are significantly less common, even for frequent flyers, and airlines will happily let seats go out empty in business or first if no one is willing to pay for them. I've had flights in East Asia where I was the only passenger in business or one of only a few, despite there being tons of people in the back.

There are really only two situations nowadays where you might be upgraded to business or first for free without using miles, having frequent flyer status, or working for the airline:

  • When economy is overbooked, they'll sometimes move passengers up to empty seats in business/first. This generally won't be something you can ask for, though, but rather done by the airline based on fare class purchased, time of ticket purchase, etc. And this will still usually go by the normal upgrade priority, so these will probably go to frequent flyers anyway unless there just aren't any.

  • When you have to be rebooked on another flight (for example, due to flight cancellation or delay or due to volunteering to take another flight in an overbook situation,) if the only seat available on the next flight is in business or first, they'll usually just put you there. My first couple of flights in First were for that reason.

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When I was 16 and flew alone from Vancouver to London, the check-in agent lady told me she was going to give me the seat next to mine, so I could keep my stuff there, and no stranger would sit next to me. While it obviously wasn't an upgrade, it was a very pleasant experience.

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Can I ask for free upgrade at checkin or at gate?

Yes. Of course. Why not? Go for it. Ask at both locations!

Are you afraid that the only two outcomes are imprisonment or "Yes"?


Whether or not you receive your request is a totally different subject.

Consider the fact that it costs $100-$150 to pick your seats ahead of time on a low-fare ticket and adjust your expectations accordingly.

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