The other day, my father was regaling me with tales from the glowing heyday of his 1980s business career — a period of gigantic mobile phones, two-tone shirts, power suits and, in his case at least, very impressive hair. He told me that, on many occasions, he and his colleagues would fly on Concorde London to New York in the morning, have a lunch meeting in Manhattan, and then fly home that afternoon in time for supper — all set against a backdrop of tinkling champagne flutes and complimentary Dom Perignon at 30,000 feet. These times now seem as distant to us, in some ways, as Shakespearean England or the Triassic Period. Concorde is long departed. No-one flies for business anymore, really. And it’s very much a bring-your-own-Dom Perignon policy, I find. Still, that does mean that there are fresh opportunities to be had for the upwardly mobile Economy-class traveller. So here’s how you might secure an upgrade to Business Class.
Let them know if it’s your honeymoon (or wedding anniversary)
This does require a little commitment on your side, admittedly (a whole lifetime, actually, if that vicar chap is to be believed). But if you’ve bought the Harry Winston and learned the vows, you might as well reap some early rewards. Airline staff can be a formidable, forbidding lot, in general (and who can blame them.) But they’re not made of stone. Many companies allow front-desk team members to issue upgrades free-of-charge in exceptional personal circumstances — and the occasion of your honeymoon (or wedding anniversary) is often one of them. So make sure to glow with marital pride and the naivety of youthful love as you stride up to the desk, arm in arm, two hearts as one. (A ‘just married’ sash might be pushing things a little, however…)
You can ask — but do so with charm
The thorniest question when it comes to upgrades is one that even Hamlet might have struggled with, if he’d have put down the incest for a half a minute. To ask or not to ask? There is an element of ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ at play here, of course. But, at the same time, many airline staff say there’s nothing more annoying than customers badgering airline staff for an upgrade at every point, and getting antsy when they’re pleas land on deaf ears. In general, though, it doesn’t hurt to ask, if you do so with a warm, cheeky smile, a sense of understatement, and a very British deference. Sometimes, if there is room, the staff will offer you a paid upgrade — which often opens the doors to haggling and a bargain.
Don't confect some wild story
They’ve heard them all before. All of them. (And you’d be surprised how often people turn up with an empty urn of ashes). So play it straight, and play it with a smile.
This piece of received wisdom does genuinely help, according to our industry insiders. If you’re going to be mixing it with those in business class, it’s important to look the part. This doesn’t mean sporting a full double-breasted charcoal pin-stripe number from the heyday of Concorde and Thatcher. But it does mean no flip flops, no ripped jeans, and no slovenly tracksuit bottoms.
Be the first or last to check in
According to our sources, checking in early increases your chance of getting an upgrade, especially if the flights overbooked. If they know you’re definitely going to travel, and they can see that the flight is oversubscribed in Economy, they may bump you up quickly to save the hassle of doing things at the check in desk on the day.
Conversely, being the very last at the check-in desk can work, too. If the economy seats have all been filled, and there’s business class room, they may jump you straight up to the good seats. (This is obviously fairly high risk, however — if the flight is completely booked throughout, they may just not let you get on the plane.)
If you have an impressive title, use it
Our insiders also indicate that impressive titles can help to move the needle, so — if you have one — make sure to use it when booking. Judges, doctors, reverends, Lords — all of these carry some weight when it comes to upgrades (especially, we’re told, in the US.) But you should only use a title if you genuinely have one, of course — you may encounter problems at check-in and immigration if your name doesn’t match the one on your passport.