Updated 27 Mar 2015
They’re the Holy Grail for regular travellers but while rare, flight upgrades do exist.
The chances of getting one can be slim, but here are our top 20 tips for boosting your chances of bagging a better seat. Of course, the bulk of these tips won't be relevant on a budget airline where there is only one class.
Join frequent flyer schemes before you fly
The best way to get regular upgrades is to join a frequent flyer scheme and diligently build up points/miles.
Getting to top levels like 'Gold' or 'Premier' (varies by airline) gives you huge status at check-in, putting you at the front of the line for any spare expensive seats, and sometimes even equals an upgrade every time one's available. Of course, to get there, you need to fly regularly and airlines can make it tricky to accrue points on discounted flights.
If you don't take to the skies that often, it's still a good idea to join as most are free and you're more likely to get an upgrade than if you've no relationship with the airline at all.
Even if you have no intention of sticking with the airline you're flying with, it could still be worth joining its scheme to leapfrog people who haven't, and nothing stops you signing up for a few different ones.
If you have no luck with a free upgrade, loyalty schemes also allow you to use any points to buy an upgrade for some tickets.
It's not what you know but who you know
If you've got close friends at the check-in desk, or better still, higher up in the airline, they may be able to wangle you occasional special privileges. Some airlines also give their staff upgrade vouchers, which'll effectively buy you an upgrade if there's a higher-class seat available.
Don't waste your time or miles on short-haul upgrades. long-haul is where it's at
There's not much point going to the end of the Earth to wangle a free upgrade on a short-haul flight, and certainly little sense in using your flyer points or cash to pay for one. Often, all you get is a slightly bigger seat and a fancier sandwich at best.
Instead, medium and long-haul flights offer the best value upgrades and you'll have time to enjoy them. You only tend to get the flat beds and all the bells and whistles on a
What do I get if I upgrade?
Here we explain the different cabin classes and what you typically get. But before getting into the nitty-gritty, this is about non-budget airline cabins, given the budget carriers only have one class. The four main classes are.
Economy class. Small seat, basic food, basic service.
With limited legroom on most long-haul carriers, 'cattle class' offers the most basic service, and is primarily the domain of leisure travellers.
What's included can vary widely, though. Nifty website SeatGuru shows whether an airline includes in-seat video and games, and if there is a power socket and wi-fi.
Not on every airline, premium economy offers a similar overall service to regular economy, but around six extra inches of legroom with seats that fold back further, making sleeping much easier - especially if you're tall.
Business class. Big and possibly fold-flat seat, luxury food & service, lounge access
Flying business on European short-haul flights isn't so exciting; many book it to get access to the lounge (see cheap lounge access instead). Going long-haul business class is a different story, with all sorts of benefits.
This highly profitable class is made to impress, so travellers get faster check-in, top quality menus, and many long-haul business class seats can be rendered totally flat for sleeping. You can find quasi-classes, such as Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class, which many say is a cross between business and first.
First class. High-end luxury, exceptional cost, lounge access
True first class only exists on premium commercial routes, so beware as a few airlines call their business class "first". It means the crиme de la crиme of comfort, both on the plane and at the airport. Often the seat can be replaced by a full bed with bedding. Massages may also be available, as well as the highest quality of personal concierge service.
Of course, this level of luxury comes at an eye-watering price. For a transatlantic return, £Ј6,000 isn't surprising.
Free upgrades do happen – nearly one in five have got one in the last two years
They might be less frequent than they used to be, but free upgrades do still exist. In July 2014 we polled our users who’d flown in the last two years and found 16% had been upgraded for free, though of those on a non-budget airline, the figure is 18%.