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Airlines' Frequent Flyer membership: dispelling and clarifying some myths

Updated on May 15, 2015

Come fly away

Travelling the world, discovering new lands, new cultures, and new people. A few centuries back it was the thing of explorers, adventurers, looters, and conquerors. New continents, challenging routings, exciting wonders became available thanks to many a pioneer – or looter and conqueror alike.

A couple of centuries ago it became a necessity when things weren’t looking too bright in the Old World; we were too busy killing, conquering, annexing and pretty much making life a real misery for our neighbouring countries. So, we emigrated. The new world across the wide ocean, the next frontier beckoned; better people, better food... and better beer*.

Then, enter last century, the advent of modern ships, and ultimately commercial aviation. Travel became more accessible, safer, and quicker. It reached a point where travelling and therefore flying became part of many people’s life especially during the latter part of the 20th Century.

Since the late sixties, as travel became massified, more and more people have taken to the skies and the world has become a smaller place. Faraway countries became less exotic and more accessible.

In the same measure though, flying started to become less and less glamorous, at least for the greater proportion of passengers who normally turn right when boarding the aircraft; tighter legroom, inedible grub (or lack of it altogether), baggage restrictions, which mean that people tend to bring on more stuff on board, fortunately staying shy of bringing the sink and bathtubs.

The advent of LCC (low cost carriers) or Budget Airlines, although opening up the possibilities and making mass travel even more affordable have also compounded this trend. In addition to all that, now we have charges for pretty much everything (after paying for your ticket, of course), just about falling shy of charging you to breath. Having said that, many Legacy Carriers have gone down the LCC route as well. It’s amazing and sometimes even risible the charges some carriers can get away with.

But not all is lost. Fortunately, there are traditional legacy carriers that still offer a decent enough Economy Class service, usually the ones from the Middle East - Emirates, Qatar Air, Etihad, Oman Air, Gulf Air - and many Asian carriers - Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Cathay Pacific, to name but a few. In a smaller measure some European and major African carriers also offer a pretty decent product at the back of the plane.

However, travellers have become more aware of what is on offer and on some occasions, Premium Travel has become more accessible in a way. Some travellers therefore, have been fortunate enough to sample the delights of the front of the aircraft and we all know how it goes, one can easily get used to a good thing.

So, we have the quintessential question regular travellers (and not so regulars, on the same token) always try to blag at airports or travel agencies, ‘Are you able to upgrade me to Business or First Class?’

Before you continue to read, always remember, it is not a given or divine right to get an upgrade whenever you travel. There are certain parameters that are taken into account when airlines offer complimentary upgrades. So just don’t be disappointed or surprised when the check in agent politely says an upgrade is not available.

Now let’s have a look at those parameters as well as a few hints, stories and facts.

* This line borrowed from a song from Rush

Frequent Flyer programs

Which in your opinion, is the most generous FF program at the moment?

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One of the perks of business or first class travel is access to airline lounges. Even with a high membership level on a frequent flyer program you can access lounges even if you're travelling in economy
One of the perks of business or first class travel is access to airline lounges. Even with a high membership level on a frequent flyer program you can access lounges even if you're travelling in economy

Don't you know who I am?

I always remember this story I was told some years ago, when working as a Business Travel Consultant for a major TMC (Travel Management Company). I was on the phone to a PA, in the process of making a booking for her boss, the CEO of a major corporation. Apparently, this man in question was a miserable little fusspot with an attitude to match.

I can’t remember how the subject came up, but she was telling of a time Mr CEO was in the queue waiting to check-in at London Heathrow airport. Apparently, on top of the shame and indignity of having to queue together with the rest of the human riff-raff that dared to fly that day, the queue was not moving as far as he wished. After all, he was a very important little man, this CEO. He demanded there and then to be attended to, despite him being 20 places behind the start of the line. As it usually is the cases with these kinds of persons, he started flexing his muscle and rather pedantically blurted out:

'Don't you know who I am?'

To what the check-in or supervisor agent very calmly replied in no uncertain terms:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention please? Can anyone please tell this gentleman who he is? Apparently he doesn’t seem to know.’

I have never been able to qualify how true or not this story was, whether this PA was just venting out her frustration at her very mean boss or what, but I think this story just sums up the attitude of some people who think they are above everything and everyone and expect, in fact, demand special treatment at the flick of their fingers.

One important thing to bear in mind is that a complementary upgrade is usually revenue capacity related and depends on how full a cabin can be and what financial benefit to a flight a reshuffle of passengers can mean.

Rule number one – remember your manners. Politeness and good manners can take you places. Lack of them can usually land you in hot waters with the long arm, and ultimately mean you ain’t not going nowhere.

Some airlines offer amazing business class products
Some airlines offer amazing business class products
British Airways' Club World (business class) seat
British Airways' Club World (business class) seat


Now, unless you belong to the 1.3% of lucky traveller who for some reason or another, have been offered an unexpected upgrade at the check-in desk or boarding gate, usually an upgrade has to be earned. Even so, it is not an automatic given or divine right. How then, do we earn that coveted priviledge?

We all know that saying “there is no such thing as a free meal”, right? Here’s another story, and this one is real because it happened to me when working in Leisure Travel, even before the incident as a business travel consultant. I have to admit, I was not the most popular agent in the shop that day, and even got reprimanded although I was right in the information I gave, but…well, it wasn’t customer friendly, let’s put it this way.

This dashing, sophisticated looking customer attached to an equally sophisticated and beautiful young woman came in to book a flight to New York. Those were the days where you could fly to JFK for under £100.00 on any of the leading carriers that flew the route – of course, we are talking beginning of the 2000s when the air taxes were a fraction of what they are nowadays.

Anyway, flights were booked, cheap as chips, everything settled and just as I was giving Mr Dashing Customer his paperwork for the flights, he asks me to add a message in the booking to request a free upgrade to Business Class. The conversation went somewhere along these lines:

‘So sir, any particular reason you would like the upgrade?’

‘Yes, we want to travel business class, you know, the free champagne, extra legroom, lounge access.’

‘Well, you did book a super cheap, mega restricted economy class ticket, so chances are quite slim you’ll be able to be upgraded.’

‘I know, but aren’t you able to just put a message so they can offer us an upgrade?’

‘Ok… erm…do you have any frequent flyer membership with this airline?’


‘Well, I’m afraid it is very unlikely you will get an upgrade then. We are unable to input this type of message anyway.’

‘Hang on. Are you telling me you are not going to request an upgrade as I asked you?’


‘Well, that’s not very good customer service. I am a very important and loyal customer of yours - yes, three bookings in the past four years, mostly cheap European breaks, go on… - and I have recommended your company to all my friends – yeah, right… - this is outrageous! I want to speak to your manager!!’

‘Please take a seat and I will call him.’

Of course, my manager said they would do all in their power to try to get him the wretched upgrade – he didn’t – and all was smiles, apologies and the assurance that I would be sternly spoken to – he did – about this lack of consideration. Well, that’s what Branch Managers do, don’t they?

This brings us to the loyalty issue. No, we are not talking about swearing allegiance and defending with cloak and dagger an airline. Simply put, join a Frequent Flyer program.

If you are a regular flyer, may it be for business, leisure or both, it’s worthwhile. They are free to join. That is of course, if you plan on regularly flying on a leading legacy carrier (hardly any LCC or Budget Airlines have a frequent flyer program and due to their business nature, you are very unlikely to get a premium cabin on those carriers anyway), because you can accrue miles and points. The more miles you gather, then there is a chance you can exchange them for free flights or yes, the holy grail of frequent travellers, upgrades. I have to clarify, free flights mean you don’t pay the airfare but you are liable for the air taxes and whatever surcharges the airlines decide to throw at us.

The points however, allow you to move Tier Levels; the higher the level, the more perk you get when flying (bonus miles, priority on waitlists, lounge access regardless of what class you’re flying as well as swanky cards and luggage tags!). And just as importantly, it gives you recognition.

We are not talking here celebrity treatment as soon as you cross the airport threshold with flashing cameras, paparazzi, champagne and the likes - you can still wear your cool shades though). It means, when the kind check in agent enters your details in the system, it will recognise your level and depending how high it is (the membership level, that is), it can determine whether you can be offered an upgrade or not. In any case, it does help your case when you apply your blagging powers. Remember though, always ask nicely and politely, never assume it’s your God given right.

All that said then, it is a good idea to join an airline belonging to one of the three main alliances (actually, the ONLY three alliances). These are One World (American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, Qantas and a few others), Star Alliance (United, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Air Canada, and another dozen or so) and Sky Team (Delta, Air France, KLM, Korean Air and some others as well). No alliance is better or worse than the other so it all depends on which one(s) tailor best your travel needs and frequent travel destinations. Another good idea as well, is to have a membership from an airline of each alliance. Now that would turn you into a Frequent Flyer tart, but who cares?

So, will I get an upgrade?

In summary, a few good tips to get that coveted upgrade:

Generally, you have to earn your upgrade to start with, it is not a given birth right. That means, building up your travels.

Get yourself a Frequent Flyer membership.

Sometimes where financially practical, upgrade to a higher fare in order to accrue those miles and points. On the odd occasion even consider upgrading the cabin – airlines often have interesting promotions in their premium cabins, so worth checking sometimes – and try sticking to the same alliance where possible.

Remember, loyalty is key. So, if you are a regular traveller, it’s worth keeping all these little recommendations in mind and in some way or another, you may reap the rewards of well-deserved perks when travelling.

Besides that, a good attitude when checking in at the airport always helps. Don’t be arrogant, patronising or rude lest you end up having a nightmare of a flight. Remember the Chef syndrome at restaurants? Airline staff can be just as sensitive and have great power in making your trip a living hell if you give them grief. I mean, if you have to complain and stand up for a genuine issue, yes, by all means, but don’t give them bother just for the hell of it. Don’t forget, in this day and age, with tight security and Big Brother policies [the airlines] have heaps of information about us before we even board the flights, so don’t add any unwanted reputation as well.

You will always have a higher chance of an upgrade if you are travelling on your own as there is more of a chance there will be just a small handful of available seats for that purpose. I wouldn’t advise to request for an upgrade if you are travelling with partner, three kids, grandma and Uncle Mo.

I know at this stage you may think I probably didn’t answer the question, or answer what you wanted to hear. However, at the end of the day, it all goes down to luck and common sense.

My best and humble recommendation is, always show good manners, dress right – not over the top, but appropriately – brush up on your grammar and language skills, sweet-talk in an appropriate way if you have the gift of the gab, have the right background (Frequent Flyer membership, etc.) to support your request, and yes by all means ask. As with most things in life, you always have the ‘no’ guaranteed, anything beyond that is a bonus.

Safe and happy travels!


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      " Lo Cortés no quita lo Valiente "

      En cualquiera situación que nos válido todo lo que aqui nos dejas saber con tu sencillez y amabilidad de siempre...¡


    • Vega Vallari profile image

      Nicole Paschal 

      6 years ago from Saint Petersburg, Florida

      Great information! I find myself traveling a lot lately and this is very helpful!


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