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Upgrade your expectations

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 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

27 comments so far

  • I am a (lifetime) Gold frequent flyer and I must say that my strike rate for points upgrades from either economy or premium economy to business has been in the 80-90% range. The at-airport upgrade option is a good initiative as I too have been frustrated on the occasions my upgrade has been refused only to see several empty business class seats on the plane.

    Date and time
    July 24, 2012, 11:44AM
    • For all the Qantas bashing the 'red roo' gets, this is an excellent move which is definitely going to make my travels easier. Too many times I have done just as you said, David, I have applied for an upgrade and not gotten it, then walked onto the plane and seen several empty seats!

      Not a good feeling, in fact I wish Qantas would allow 'instant' on board upgrades in situations like this, let a passenger 'pay' with points right away to move from Y to Y+ or J or even F!

      Anyway my 'strike rate' with successful points upgrades on QF so far is about 50%, I am Platinum and mainly fly to Singapore and Hong Kong, I get more upgrades on HK than to Singapore.

      Domestic upgrades matter less to me because most of my flying is on the 'golden triangle', Sydney to Melbourne or Brisbane, and I can honestly do without business class on that, although for SYD-PER I would definitely shoot for an upgrade!

      Son of Ryan Bingham
      Date and time
      July 24, 2012, 11:48AM
      • Hey Son of Ryan, if you are doing Sydney-Perth then you should try QF581/582, it's a daily service currently running on a Boeing 747, so there are a lot more business class seats so your chance of an upgrade with points is a lot better than on a regular A330 route.

        Date and time
        July 24, 2012, 11:51AM
        • Does Qantas really run the frequent flyer booking service? Or has it been outsourced to a seat allocation contractor? My experience most recently trying to upgrade on a flight to HKG, was that the FF booking service ( which I phoned continually before departure ) told me there were no seats in business class. We were booked in Premium Economy. Upon boarding the aircraft we discovered there were 10 empty seats. Moreover there were even more empty seats in Premium Economy which could have been utilised by economy pax for upgrade. A few years ago when I was in a similar predicament the FF officer, said hang on, I'll see if I can get a couple of seats released for you, then Bingo! we got the upgrade.BTW I'm sure I know who the outsourced operator is!! Had experience with them several years ago and they are a hopeless travel agent.

          Date and time
          July 24, 2012, 12:49PM
      • Does anyone know off the top of their heads if Virgin offer this same service?

        I'm thinking of ditching Qantas and getting a Velocity credit card after saving 550k points and STILL not being able to book my wedding because they won't release two seats at once. God I hate them!

        Had Enough :(
        Date and time
        July 24, 2012, 12:31PM
        • Yes, Virgin has this option globally and I use it frequently. They have two options - being ablw to upgrade using points up to 4hours before the flight (I'm sure this will change now that Qantas has changed their timeline), and being able to purchase an upgrade with cash. The last time I flew to LHR via HKG, I upgraded from cheapest economy ticket to Premium Economy for $385 one way - saving of about $2,000 for that section (I flew on 23rd December). Did this at the counter. The Virgin network is incredibly well connected throughout the different brands. Booked this flight through V Australia and flew Virgin Atlantic - local FF level was recognised throughout Europe. Sometimes paying for the upgrade is cash makes more sense than using your points.

          Date and time
          July 25, 2012, 10:42AM
        • I like airlines that offer last minute upgrades for cash instead of just FF points. Air Canada started offering last minute upgrades for cash and it's been hugely popular. Sounds good to me and it seems a smart move for an airline to do. Why would you give away seats for free when you could otherwise be getting money for them?!

          Date and time
          July 25, 2012, 5:05PM
      • As for us Plebs in Economy, I have tried unsuccessfully to get upgraded over the years with the following,
        Dressing smartly,
        Being nice and polite to the Check-In person, even complimenting them on the job they are doing. doesnt work. Never.

        Date and time
        July 24, 2012, 1:18PM
        • Gordie, none of that really makes a difference these days, you need to have a very high status with the airlines (like being Platinum on Qantas) or apply for an upgrade using your frequent flyer points like explained in this article, the good old days of a chance upgrade are no longer here and I would suggest they never really existed.

          Date and time
          July 24, 2012, 1:32PM
        • I've been lucky lately on Singapore Airlines - two business upgrades on the SYD-SIN - once just randomly, and the other time when their God-forsaken internet system wouldn't allow me to change my seat in economy to a window when my profile has window as a preference and they booked me into a centre seat with plenty of available windows!!

          Both times I was jeans and hoodie!

          Date and time
          July 24, 2012, 10:36PM

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