How to Score an Operational Upgrade Using Your Elite Status


I don’t fly very much in coach internationally thanks to the use of American Airlines Systemwide Upgrades and the occasional Delta delay upgrade glitch. I even wrote about why flying international first class doesn’t make sense. Now, I didn’t count out Business Class. Face it, flying in coach on a long international flight absolutely sucks.

Throughout my frequent flier career, I’ve actually had a lot of success scoring business class upgrades when flying international in economy class all thanks to elite status. The key word here is elite status. Elite status is very important because it shows that you are a valued customer to the airline or airline alliance. This is actually a pre-requisite to scoring an operational upgrade and the higher your elite status, the better.

A few days ago, I scored an operational upgrade in Business Class on Finnair from HEL-JFK.

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Here are the steps I used to score this operational upgrade on an economy ticket:

1. Find out if your flight is oversold in coach. You can do this easily by checking ExpertFlyer. If you don’t have ExpertFlyer, check out the seat map (not a really good indicator) in coach. Do a dummy one-way booking search on Orbitz or the airline’s website to see if they are still selling coach seats.

2. If coach is oversold or even the entire flight is sold out and can’t be bookable on the airline’s website, find out alternate routing just in case you might score an VDB (Voluntary Denied Boarding) voucher.

3. If you’ve reached this far, get to the airport three hours before your scheduled flight. Be first to line up at the airline counter’s desk and it usually opens three hours before your scheduled flight. Ask the airport counter agent if the flight is oversold. The agent will either say yes or it’s very full which is a good sign. Express interest in volunteering your seat and even interest in paying for an upgrade (which they will say it’s full). You should receive your boarding pass in economy and proceed to security.

4. Your international flight should board one hour before. You will need to tackle this part masterfully. Head to the gate one hour and a half before your scheduled boarding flight. At this time, you should express the same interest to the gate agent as you did to the airline counter agent. If the flight is completely oversold, you should be able to put your name on the volunteer list. If the flight is completely full or near full and not oversold, there is still hope.

5. Last minute business class cancellations do happen and I’ve even scored upgrades by expressing volunteering my seat (even if they don’t need). If coach is oversold, they will start upgrading elites, starting with their top tiers. This is why top tier elite status is important when playing the points and miles game.

The point of this blog post is to increase your chances on scoring an international upgrade. As always, YMMV (your mileage may vary) and expressing interest is the key point.


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Points Summary
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2 Comments on "How to Score an Operational Upgrade Using Your Elite Status"

  1. Miles, Points, and Mai Tais | October 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Reply

    I’ve been upgraded on LH and CO as a United elite (DEL-FRA and DEL-EWR which was a huge score) likely due to oversells. With United it is easy to tell how full they are via the mobile app. In addition to the seat map go to upgrade list and standby list. It will say whether or not each cabin is still available.

    One note on your post- You mentioned IDB (involuntary). I think you meant VDB. As an elite you would probably be the last person to be kicked off the plane unless you wanted to be.

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