Here’s an interesting data point for an airline that very closely guards its first class cabin. When available, SWISS offers reasonably-priced paid upgrades to first class. You just have to ask…
I recently booked an Aeroplan (Air Canada-issued) award for an Award Expert client from London to Nariboi via Zurich on SWISS. It was a business class award that cost 62.5K miles one-way plus government taxes.
My client frequently flies between London and Nairobi in British Airways first class, but there was no award space (or even revenue space) this time. Kenya Airways also did not have space on the nonstop. She wasn’t happy about the extra connection or flying business class and kept asking me about upgrading to first class. She was traveling with a large in-cabin dog and wanted space to spread out. I advised her that was no formal way to upgrade an Aeroplan-issued award ticket to business class but that she should “ask early and ask often” at the airport. It never hurts to ask.
Turns out it only took one agent. At check-in, she asked if she could upgrade to first class on the Zurich to Nairobi sector and was offered an upgrade for $1000. Not GBP, though she was in London. Not CHF, even though she was flying SWISS. For 1000 USD she was upgraded to first class on the 7-hour, 45-minute nonstop flight.
I asked her about how the flight went and she told me:
It was a good thing because I think it would have been difficult traveling with the dog in the business class section. The seats were quite small and he would have had to be on my lap the whole time. In first class, he could sit next to me in the seat. They even gave him his own plate of meat and cheese.
I’d say that is $1,000 well spent!
Despite all sorts of formal rules about upgrades, airport and gate agents have great flexibility. If you are looking for an upgrade, my advice is always to ask at the airport when you cannot upgrade in advance. The worst you can be told is NO.
As a side note, SWISS actually does have a formal first class upgrade bidding system, but tickets must be issued on SWISS stock (724…) and must be requested at least 132 hours prior to departure. Neither applied in this case.