When it comes to flight upgrades, the airlines are caught in what is viewed by many to be a real Catch-22. Like any business, the airlines have an obligation to maximize revenue and make money for the company. Part of this revenue is generated from the outright sale of tickets in their Premium cabins - First Class and Business Class. However, they also have an obligation to their best customers, namely the frequent flyer and more specifically the Elite flyer to offer flight upgrades and other incentives. Maintaining, and even growing, the base of frequent flyers of an airline depends almost entirely on the "value" of their frequent flyer programs, especially for Elite members. The value of most programs is often judged by the number of seats an airline allocates for either free or mileage upgrades in the very same Premium cabins they are obligated to sell. Hence the Catch-22.

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If you don't have access to a service such as Flight Alerts, check in with the airlines 24 hours prior to departure. If an upgrade is still unavailable at this point, check in online at the airline's Web site. Most airlines establish a waitlist for upgrades at the airport. Priority is usually given to those who have checked-in the earliest and with online check-in available 24 hours prior to departure; this will greatly increase your chances of getting that elusive upgrade.
I like Skyscanner.com because it has the open-ended “everywhere” option. You just type in your departure city (or general area such as your state) and in the destination box, you can select “everywhere.” What I don’t like about this option that it will only populate for departures from major cities. When I type in my airport, I have to click on each destination to get prices, a bit labor intensive. It does offer a nice map view of the entire world populated with the lowest-priced fares from any departure city. You can easily set up an alert for any combination of cities but not to “everywhere.”
Air Canada has introduced enhancements at the departure gate which facilitate the processing of all customers on the airport standby list. At flight closure, based on the number of available seats in each cabin, all customers on the standby list are processed automatically. As such, if you are waitlisted for an upgrade and space is available once the flight is ready to board, your seat will be changed automatically between 45-60 minutes prior to flight departure depending on your destination.
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If you don't have access to a service such as Flight Alerts, check in with the airlines 24 hours prior to departure. If an upgrade is still unavailable at this point, check in online at the airline's Web site. Most airlines establish a waitlist for upgrades at the airport. Priority is usually given to those who have checked-in the earliest and with online check-in available 24 hours prior to departure; this will greatly increase your chances of getting that elusive upgrade.
Joe also recounts that Air France emailed him a couple of times on the day of departure offering a cheap (not free) upgrade. “I’ve twice missed this because I didn’t check my emails close enough to departure. One of these times I had even called the airline to ask if they had any deals and they said no! So keep checking your emails even up to a couple of hours before you fly.”
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