I feel like I'm like most people when shopping for a flight. I go to a website that compares prices for my trip and I make a choice based on some combination of lowest price, best times, and preferred airline.

If it's true that the vast majority of coach class tickets are sold this way, is it likely that for a given flight, tickets are sold in order of the cheapest available fare code first? Therefore, from the perspective of one's chance at a complementary upgrade, at the time anyone buys their ticket, they are probably getting one that has the highest-priority fare code yet sold for that flight?

I'm asking because I recently bought a ticket only a few days ahead of the departure date. It was expensive, but still had a relatively low-priority fare code (I expected a much higher-priority fare code). If the above assumptions are true, this should still be one of the highest fare codes yet sold for this flight, correct?

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    It's not that simple. There is an awesome answer here (please search). Generally, tickets booked very very early tend to be expensive, 2-3 months the cheapest, and price rises again. Rarely, tickets become dead cheap on the flight date if there are empty seats, but let's be realistic: almost every flight we take is usually full. Upgrades are a different story though. AFAIK, check-in staff can't see the price of the ticket through Amadeus so they won't immediately realize you paid big money for this. – AKS Jan 23 '15 at 16:15
  • @AyeshK Do you mean this question: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/2952/…? – Relaxed Jan 23 '15 at 16:40
  • @AyeshK, I guess including that my ticket was expensive was misleading. I'm not asking at all about the chances of upgrade due to the price. I'm asking about the chances of upgrade due to the fare code. In other words, if I buy the cheapest ticket last-minute, is it common for any higher fare codes to have been sold at all? – drs Jan 23 '15 at 16:59

It's possible to pick a more expensive fare, for example if you want more flexibility or frequent flyer miles. By default, most airline websites will show the cheapest fare first but allow the user to pick a more flexible fare if they wish. Online travel agents and other third parties might not always offer this functionality but there is no guarantee that nobody booked a more expensive flexible fare through another channel even if some seats in the less flexible one are still available.

But there is a lot more than that to upgrades. General consensus is that free upgrades have become much less common and with so many people chasing them (including frequent flyers who will come before you and can often upgrade automatically online). Personally, I haven't been upgraded since the 1990s (but I am mostly flying in Europe). So I wouldn't count on getting one merely because you booked your ticket later than usual. See also What techniques, tricks or otherwise have you used to get upgrades on flights?

Also, if there are still seats in the lowest fare code shortly before departure, it suggests that the fly is not full so one of the major reason to upgrade someone (namely overbooking) doesn't apply.

  • Yes, I know there's no guarantee that nobody booked a more expensive ticket. I'm trying to get a handle on how common this is. Are there any common reasons someone would book a more expensive ticket other than for the purposes of increasing the chances of their upgrade? – drs Jan 23 '15 at 17:04
  • I'm asking with respect to complimentary upgrades as a benefit of the airline's frequent flyer status, not due to flights being overbooked. – drs Jan 23 '15 at 17:04
  • @drs I mentioned the two most common ones I can think of: flexibility and frequent flyer miles, both of which are especially relevant to business travelers. – Relaxed Jan 23 '15 at 17:05
  • @drs sorry I misunderstood your question. Are you asking about upgrade chance for discounter vs full-price tickets when you have FF status? Well the checkin staff can see the code, and since you are an FF, give it a try why not. Airline staff has to file the reason why you are upgraded and smiling doesn't count; But ask nicely. Good luck! – AKS Jan 23 '15 at 17:19

Your fare class is a 2nd tier factor for upgrades, not a primary one. Airlines first look at your elite level status. They then rank their top tier flyers by the fare class. They then go the next elite level down and the same. So forth until they reach the non-elite flyers.

It is not 100% cut and dry, as gold elite flyer on a full Y fare might get priority over a diamond flyer on a cheapo ticket. But the chances of an upgrade for a non-elite flyer is pretty much nil, regardless of fare. And even lower level elites see very few upgrades these days.

  • I'm sorry, I didn't state it in the question but I do understand how upgrade priority works and that status comes before fare codes. I also know my status and have a good handle on how often I get upgraded with this status. What I have no idea about is how common it is for higher fare codes to be sold before lower ones. That's really the heart of my question. – drs Jan 24 '15 at 3:15
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    I think commonality would be dependent on route, routes with high business traveler loads would see higher fares sold freqently due to their flexibility. Routes with heavy tourist loads would see lower fares selling quicker. – user13044 Jan 24 '15 at 16:03

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