On some flights on some airlines there is an opportunity to get a better seat than the one paid for, without requiring any upgrade instruments (such as miles or vouchers).
For example, on Air New Zealand shorthaul flights premium economy is not sold. On flights operated by 747 or 777 aircraft the premium economy seats are free for Star Alliance Gold status economy class passengers. There are a few of these flights scheduled every day. You get a much better seat, but with the same economy service.
Sometimes airlines have to use an aircraft with additional cabins than the ones they are selling on a route. I've been in international first class seats when flying business class on several airlines over the years. Sometimes this is by pure luck and other times it was a result of spotting the opportunity from published aircraft type and/or seatmap configuration info. In these cases the service is usually of the cabin paid for rather than reflecting the cabin you sit in.
It can work the other way too - get improved seating when an airline has less cabins than the ones they are selling.
For example, Qantas' Los Angeles to Auckland flights used to be sold as 2-class and earlier this year started being sold as 3-class (business, premium economy and economy). They have not yet installed the premium economy seats into enough of the originally 2-class configured aircraft to guarantee premium economy seating on all flights. Instead some lucky travellers get to have business class seats on a premium economy fare on the days when premium economy seating is not available. Both Qantas and travel agents have been promoting this opportunity. It is a great deal, because not only do you get business class seating but also business class service.
There is, however, a catch.
Airlines can and do change aircraft due to operational needs, sometimes at very short notice. If you've booked a flight just to get a better seat than the one you paid for (and possibly better service too) there is a chance it may not eventuate. If it doesn't happen you don't have any recourse. The risk of this happening may be small or not so small depending on circumstances.
I generally try not to pay extra for these kinds of opportunities. That way I won't be too disappointed if it doesn't work out. Most of the time it does work, and it is a nice bonus to get a more comfortable seat for the sake of a little planning.
Here are a few circumstances where you might find free improved seating:
- longhaul aircraft being used on shorthaul routes (many airlines)
- when an airline is in the process of adding or removing a cabin from some or all aircraft (eg Qantas adding premium economy)
- when a small airline has borrowed aircraft used by another airline (eg when Air Pacific's 747 was getting maintenance done they borrowed a United 747 - which has first class seating whereas Air Pacific does not)
- a premium cabin is not being sold temporarily (eg Qantas not selling first on Melbourne to Hong Kong & London, Sydney to San Francisco and Sydney to Buenos Aires)
What tips do you have to find better seating for free?