Do travel writers get free flight upgrades?

Should airlines offer travel writers free flight upgrades - more to the point, do they?

I recently headed to East Africa to write a feature for the Sunday Telegraph about Rwanda and a feature for Wanderlust magazine about Rwanda and Burundi.

Brussels Airlines provided a reduced cost flight to get me to Bujumbura (Burundi’s capital) and back from Kigali the capital of Rwanda. The cost - as is usually the case with this kind of thing - was covered by the tour operator I was working with the excellent Bridge and Wickers. I figured the flights would be jammed full - that the night flight on the return journey would be pretty nightmarish. So I put in a request for an upgrade and crossed my fingers.

Now,  there’s all sorts of guff written online about ‘how to score an upgrade’. Stuff about wearing a smart suit and asking nicely is rubbish.  You can’t charm your way into the front cabin when you check in. No way. If you aren’t a frequent flyer – with a seriously high status too – you haven’t a hope.

But what about travel journos?

Well, in my experience it’s incredibly varied. I flew 3 or 4 times with Qatar Airways a few years back and got upgraded to Business every time. Service and seat were top quality and for long trips to Nepal and to the Philippines with layovers in the Middle East this was a godsend. I remain a fan of Qatar Airways as a result and often recommend them. I’ve flown economy with them too and it’s been pretty good. But I have no idea if they are as generous now. At the time the airline was new and keen to make a name for itself in a very competitive market.

British Airways, China Airlines and Iceland Air have been good to me too – usually putting me in economy one way and business the other – which makes a lot of sense - as  I get to see service in both cabins. Conversely Sri Lankan, refused point blank.

In this instance with Brussels Airlines I got a resounding ‘NON’ too. The premise was “We gave you a significant discount on the ticket. Upgrading you means the cost comes out of our PR budget. We therefore only upgrade journalists who are writing about our service.” (Rather than just giving the airline a mention in the ‘How to get there’ section of the info box in a travel feature which is the case for the features I am writing.)

Now, I’m not sure how good the discount was for the airfare as the cost of the flights were covered for me. But I do question the approach that Brussels Airways takes.

I emailed to ask what would constitute ‘writing about the service’ – would a blog post suffice? Maybe I could pitch something at one of the travel industry newspapers like Travel Weekly. They used to do a regular review column called Flight Check which would have been perfect. Apart from that where else realistically could someone write a piece about their experience on a flight? CNBusiness traveller perhaps – I can’t think of many other places (can anyone else?). So is this just a convenient excuse to cover up for saying no? Unfortunately I didn’t get a response about this so I can only make informed assumptions. (I did however get Business Lounge access at Brussels which was a pleasant way to start my trip and for which I am grateful.)

What of the flight itself? The economy section of the plane – an Airbus A330 – was no more than a third full both ways so in fact I had a perfectly comfortable flight. The Business class cabin looked like it had no more than 3 or 4 people in it. So, the thing I don’t understand is, why the airline assumes a budget for upgrading me to Business. If it’s full up front fair enough – no way I should take the seat of a fare paying passenger. But if it’s half empty, what’s the real additional cost to their business? Virtually nothing I’d suggest - it's almost all fixed cost.

So why the policy? I find it mystifying.

And what is there to gain if they do upgrade me? Plenty I’d argue (yeah OK, of course I would). But so much of what goes on these days in business is focussed on short term return and it's depressing. This is understandable, but I think the internet which was in my opinion at fault for some of this trend with its focus on the 'right now' could be beginning to drive a renewed focus in the opposite direction - on establishing long term relationships. Why? Well, these days it’s so easy for a customer to make price comparisons at the click of a mouse that service, relationships and so on have to be the real differentiator again.

So, I’d suggest it makes a lot of sense to build relationships with travel writers – Brussels Airlines’ services to Africa from Brussels cover the whole continent from Abidjan in Ivory Coast to Yaoundé in Cameroon. It’s a really impressive network. But who in the UK really knows about it? I certainly didn’t and I write about travel for a living.

Clearly the airline needs to be sure that the writer they are working with has genuine credibility and connections. In the old days that wasn’t always easy to verify. These days I can forward the commissioning emails I got from the editor of the Sunday Telegraph travel section and the editor of Wanderlust.

But there’s more. You can check out my twitter followers – among them are many of the UK’s most influential travel writers, editors and PR people. I’d suggest that in the context of the need to see something published about the service to justify an upgrade, social media delivers in spades if the writer has the connections and on-line credibility. (Which I hope people would agree that I have?!)

Some tweets about the service. Some images on my Flickr stream and a blog post which if written with the right terms in it will be mega-visible in search results really quickly. (I bet I could rank within the top 5 on for the term ‘Brussels airlines to Bujumbura’ within days.)

So…  what’s been your experience of upgrades and  how do you think airline PR and corporate comms people should engage with travel writers?

Pic from Flickr by Schuey

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