Free upgrades to business class are few and far between these days.

Free upgrades to business class are few and far between these days. Photo: Peter Braig

It's a near-perfect start to any flight. You hand over your boarding pass at the check-in counter or gate desk, only to have the machine spits it back out with a beep and a blink of its little red light.

The attendant glances at a computer screen, taps a button and a new boarding pass appears. But instead of an economy seat this one is for premium economy, business class or even first class.

Thankfully there's been some movement on making upgrades easier to come by for business travellers and frequent flyer. 

Yes, your requested upgrade has come through. All the hard-slog points you've earned on all those long flights are finally being put to good use.

Upgrades are one of those magic moments of travel, but even when you've got the frequent flyer points to pay for them rather than chasing a freebie, they just don't seem to come often enough.

An airline's first preference is always to sell its best seats for real money, of course.

Topping up the sale of a cheaper seat with a serve of frequent flyer points to bump passengers up one class of travel doesn't always seem to take a close second.

And these days, free upgrades even for top-tier Platinum frequent flyers seem to be few and far between.

Thankfully there's been some movement on making points-based upgrades easier to come by for business travellers and frequent flyer.

Last-minute upgrades

Qantas is now able to process upgrade requests at literally the last minute, right up to the departure gate, instead of closing its books several hours before the flight departs.

The new system, which the Red Roo has been trialling since May and launched last week, aims at filling the premium seats left empty due to passenger no-shows and missed connections.

Hopefully this will see an end to the frustration of being denied a points-based upgrade request but walking past empty seats in business class as you shuffle down to economy.

The new system also allows for journeys involving two flights, such as Sydney-Singapore-London, to be handled as two individual segments with upgrades available one just one leg of the trip.

Under the old system, if you were travelling from Sydney to London your upgrade request would be approved only if there were seats available on both parts of the flight.

Qantas can now break up those segments so that even if you couldn't get an upgrade from Sydney to Singapore, you might arrive at Singapore and find you've been upgraded because a seat from Singapore to London has become available.

This also offers a great way to make the most of your points.

The first leg from Sydney-Singapore, is eight hours and you're flying in the afternoon and evening, so economy or premium economy is good enough.

But the journey from Singapore to London is a long 13 hour trek, it's an overnight flight and you land around 6am, so you can use your frequent flyer points to have only this part of the trip upgraded to business class.

Flying solo

It's important to note that this last-minute upgrade system is an opt-in process. You'll have to tick a box on the Qantas.com website when applying for an upgrade to be eligible for upgrades if a seat becomes available in the final few hours before a flight leaves.

Also, at this stage the new Qantas system can upgrade only single passengers travelling on a single ticket rather than a joint booking of two or more people on the same ticket.

The airline says that upgrades for couples and families will come at a later stage, Qantas says.

You should also be mindful that some of the booking classes for economy tickets – including international tickets sold as an O, N or Q fare type – can't be upgraded with points.

So if you have your eye on an upgrade, alert your travel agent that you want a fare which is eligible for upgrades.

What's your strike rate on using points to upgrade your seat, or have you long ago given up counting on any upgrade coming through?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT