The days of 'FREE' upgrades have all but vanished, and the published prices of flight upgrades can appear disproportionately expensive when compared to the Economy class flight tickets.
Due to the ever changing aviation legislation, and the fact that each airline providing an 'upgrade' is compelled to pay tax on the seat being used, the FREE upgrade is no longer viable. But this certainly doesn't mean that you can't secure an upgrade at a fantastic price - way below the published prices.
Below, I've detailed the approaches I use (pretty successfully) to secure a flight upgrade when flying long haul. I stress long haul purely due to the fact that short haul flights of up to 3 - 4 hours, the quality of service, comfort and actual value in terms of food and drink are rarely much greater value than economy. All you benefit from is a slightly more palatable meal….and a curtain separating business class from economy. Hardly worth additional expense!
Visit your airline's web site and check whether there is an option to upgrade your travel class and ticket following your purchase of an economy ticket. Most major airlines have this facility available, even though many don't actively promote the service. Why would they, unless they were really desperate to fill the more expensive seats?
Etihad for example has an online bidding facility. You visit the upgrade page and then 'Blind Bid' for the upgrade. Their upgrade page has a colourful bid chart which begins with red (for low bids) and culminates in a bright green (likely successful bids). As you move your mouse from left to right, the likelihood of your bid being 'successful' is increased. The key challenge for you, the consumer, with this highly visual gamble? You have absolutely no idea whether your blind bid offer is being compared to other consumer's blind bids, or, whether the airline has set it's own, perhaps high cost, minimum reserve price. The danger for you in using this blind bid approach is that, if you get so connected to wanting to fly business class, your emotions are quite possibly to take control over your credit card. And that's NEVER a good idea!
So, my first tip is to steer clear of blind bid invitations from your airline!
Second tip. Join their Frequent Flyer programme. Just possessing one of the airline's branded loyalty cards demonstrates a certain loyalty to their brand.
At Check-InIf check-in for your flight opens 3 hours prior to departure, arrive early so you are at, or very near, the front of the queue. Why? If the airline still has empty seats in a higher class a few hours before departure, they would much rather have somebody paying something to take the seat rather than nobody paying anything! This is where your negotiating position is strengthened immensely. But you need to do a few other things to boost your possibility of success!
Be Polite, Collaborative And SmileWhatever time of day or night, check-in operators have likely had to deal with one or two awkward customers already. And you don't want to be added to that list!
It's important that you are received as genuinely polite, collaborative and understanding of the pressures your check-in operator has had, is having or things s/he is going to experience with this flight's passengers.
When in line I'll often make a polite, light hearted comment to build some level of collaboration and co-operation with the check-in agent. If I'm right at the front of the queue I'll approach him or her, smile and say 'Good morning. We thought it best for you that you get the REALLY nice passengers first.' This usually raises a smile or a chuckle from the check-in agent, who then suddenly becomes…a partner rather than a foe! If I'm not first in line, I'll observe which check-in agent is smiling the most (good mood) and which appears to be having some grief from a passenger or two, and then target them as my check-in agent. Why?
If a check-in agent is having a good day, you can add to it and stack even more positive emotions on him or her. If s/he is having a tough day, you have a fantastic opportunity to help him or her step out of the negative emotional state, and smile. You may not truly understand just how much a stressed check-in agent appreciates some light hearted banter, and to realise that s/he is not going to be your victim. Step in to his or hers shoes when you've observed them having to deal with a high maintenance passenger. I tend to use 'It looks like you had a tough time with Mr Nasty a moment ago.' Wait for the response, which is usually raised eyebrows, pursed lips and then a deep breath in…and looong exhalation, and then say 'I promise you I will be completely, absolutely and very positively different.' Smile as you do this, and you suddenly put him or her at complete ease. And guess what. They become extremely helpful towards you. In the UK, act out the cub scout three finger promise which adds a little more drama, and which puts you in to a collaborative chat rather than adversarial fight.
NEVER, NEVER, NEVER…wearing expensive jewellery or exclusive branded clothingWhy not? Well. you might feel comfortable wearing your Tag or Gucci watch which cost you £1,000 to £4,000 or the Paul Smith shirt which set you back a few hundred pounds, but what are you really doing? You're weakening your negotiating position BECAUSE you are openly showing you like expensive treats. Why would an airline, having spotted your expensive tastes, then wish to provide you with the best and lowest price upgrade? THEY WOULDN'T!
Pop your posh watch in your pocket and wear a smart, but perhaps unbranded clothing and you're on your way to a good negotiation.
DON'T Ask For The 'Best Price'What happens when you are wanting to buy a car from a showroom sales rep and you ask him or her 'What's your best price?' They immediately evade answering your question and then disappear to speak with their boss (real or imaginary). Then they return and want to negotiate upwards - in their favour.
Avoid this stand-off by asking a different, more collaborative question such as 'Please will you let me know what's the best price you have available for these seats…a price where I can enjoy a fabulous flight..and you can make a decent profit on my purchase?'
This very question is one that absolutely nobody will ask. And your check-in agent will view your unique approach as a refreshing change. You'll probably spot a smile on the check-in agent's face and develop a small level of trust, but lots of automatic collaboration and reciprocity.
Have your credit card ready and in view of your check-in agent at this point. Demonstrating visually a willingness (but not eagerness) to pay for the upgrade does help you along.
Flinch...Like You've Never Flinched Before
When presented with the price of the upgrade, whatever the price and even if it is within your allocated budget, FLINCH.
What do I mean by 'flinch'? A flinch is a visual method of demonstrating non acceptance and/or disapproval of the information you have just received. Think of it this way. When you were a young child and mis-behaved, did your mother ever just have to look at you with one eyebrow raised and tilt her head slightly to the side to communicate to you that you needed to stop what you were doing? That's a flinch!
Basically what you are communicating to your check-in agent is that 'You'll have to do better than that if you want my cash'. Remember, just because you can afford the initial price, doesn't necessarily mean you should pay it! Flinch, and then wait patiently for a few seconds. In a slightly uncomfortable silence, your check-in agent will do one of two things.
1. Tell you that the price s/he quoted to you is the only price available. (and it may be of course)
2. Ask you how much above your budget the price is (and then you can begin negotiating)
Always Flinch. Even if you feign surprise by raising your eyebrows or shock through startled looking eyes, do something! If your check-in agent says that the price quoted is the best s/he can offer, then it's over to you to make a decision. But if s/he asks 'How does that price sound to you?', this is your opportunity to claim that the price quoted is however many hundreds of pounds or dollars above your budget, and then ask 'Can you do it for (name your price - which must be reasonable), and then be silent. Why?
If you keep on talking you don't provide your check-in agent with the opportunity to think, or indeed respond. And by not allowing silence, you may just be missing out on a better price.
Boost Your Negotiating Position With Travel CompanionsIf you are travelling alone, you can use the approaches above. And remember, a win-win outcome is the best outcome. But if you have travelling companions, as I did on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi from Manchester, you are in an even stronger position to negotiate.
My wife and ten year old daughter were accompanying me on a mid-March holiday and they had no idea that I had researched upgrade prices on the airline's web site. So, as check-in - we were first in line as we arrived rather early, I asked the check-in agent if she had any seats in business class available. What was her likely immediate first thought? Quite possibly 'He's after something for nothing'. But, as she was about to respond to my question with her own script and agenda, I interjected 'I'm not wanting a FREE upgrade, that's not win win. I'm happy to pay for THREE seats IF the price is acceptable.'
Having already overheard two of this ladies colleagues discussing that the flight was full and there was a possibility of 'bumping' some passengers on to a later flight if all passengers booked on the flight actually turned up to check in, I then continued 'There's three passengers you won't need to bump if we can get this done now….and you may even be able to re-sell our economy seats too'.
Within just 180 seconds, the helpful check-in agent confirmed that indeed there were three seats available in business class for us to enjoy. She then continued to advise us of the price (which was VERY acceptable) and that our seats were all on the same row and she was confident that we would all have a wonderful time.
Consider these points before you decide not to negotiate for an upgrade the next time you fly long-haul.
If you don't ask, they won't offer.
FREE is not win-win. Allow the airline to make money from you - within a win-win dialogue.
Always smile, be genuinely pleasant and consider the check-in agent's pressures and position.
NEVER look so luxury branded that the check-in agent destroys your bargaining position.
ALWAYS use a flinch to demonstrate disappointment or shock with the price, and use this as a starting point to your negotiation.
Have your credit card in full sight of the check-in agent to demonstrate an intention to purchase - if the price is acceptable.
NEVER get so connected to securing the upgrade that you are so emotionally engaged that you can't walk away. Disappointment is quickly overcome - your larger credit card bill may not be that easy!