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 google.co.uk 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

30 thoughts on “Do travel writers get free flight upgrades?

  1. I am frequently baffled by airlines' approach to most things, hence this doesn't surprise me. Theme parks often baulk at providing tickets at times because their PR offices "don't have the budget," so this sounds like more of the same. Budget? Really? To hand out tickets to their own parks? Just ridiculous, IMHO.

    But we did a trip with an airline last year (who shall remain nameless) who actually put us on stand-by for the flights in connection with our commissioned feature (we inevitably ended up missing every connection!), so not getting an upgrade would have been the least of our worries.

  2. A good discussion to have, Jeremy.

    For what it's worth, I've always taken the view that a writer/journo/blogger should not seek or accept an airline upgrade based on who they are or what they may potentially be writing about.

    It skews the experience, and also signals to the organisation that you *might* be influenced.

    1) If an upgrade is given how would the writer know what the experience is like back in economy, where potentially the vast majority of readers would normally be sitting.

    2) Meanwhile, back in the posh seats, a writer may also find themselves on the receiving end of favourable treatment, potentially masking what the experience is like there as well.

    Yes, I accept this is all about potential, but why risk losing the objectivity of being an ordinary punter.

    Surely that's what travel writing is about, bringing the experience to a wider audience (or is it really all about me, me, me these days :) ).

    Anyway, if you're not writing about the airline, why do writers/bloggers/journos deserve an upgrade? Err, they do not.

    Surely someone less mobile, or in old age, or with a poorly child, should get an upgrade over fighting fit writers/bloggers/journos.

    What a surgeon on his or her way to an important operation?

    Not quite sure where this travel-companies-owe-us-a living idea came from.

    And, yes, I'm a journalist, and travel fairly regularly in economy.

  3. I've got no complaints. I've sweet-talked my way into an upgrade (so I like to believe anyway), and I've sweet-talked my way into a stony-faced blank wall of officiousness. I've shown my press card to pleasant effect, and I've shown it without any effect whatsoever. I've put in a request several days earlier via the PRs and Sales teams which has worked, and I've done the same thing for no result at all. Swings and roundabouts.

    I live in hope that tweeting my travel plans to the airlines' SM/customer service team will one day result in someone clicking on my profile, seeing what I do for a living, putting 2 and 2 together, and fast-tracking upgrades into motion behind the scenes without my lifting a finger. Such are travel writers' dreams.

    In your situation, Jeremy, I'd say you weren't upgraded because the checkin person doesn't have the authority to do so without referring it to the country/station manager (I sometimes ask nicely if the station manager is around - they always are, monitoring checkin. Sometimes I've got an upgrade out of them, sometimes I haven't).

    On the plane, unless things are obviously packed, as I understand airline policy the purser is very unlikely to move people forwards, purely because if they do it once, everyone will start asking. That happened to me on a BA flight back from Cairo recently: my laptop battery was low but I wanted to do some work and Economy had no plug-in options. So I asked if I could sit in (empty) Economy Plus after they'd served the meal, so I could plug in & do 2 or 3 hours' work. After some harrumphing they said yes, but added that I should do it subtly, so as not to draw attention to myself. I did so - but then discovered BA has a non-standard electric socket anyway, so none of my adaptors fitted. The purser went away and got the adaptor they keep onboard specially, to show me, but then refused to give it to me in case someone in Business/First wanted to use it later. Nice. I put the laptop away & watched The King's Speech.

    The "Business is empty, can't I just sit in the seat for a bit?" line is a non-starter. In a theatre, if you've paid for the back of the Upper Circle, you could TRY coming down in the interval to see the second half from those empty seats in the middle of the stalls - but why should you sit in the expensive seats when you haven't paid for them? From the customer's viewpoint it makes no difference, but from the theatre's viewpoint it's a darn cheek. The only asset they have is seat saleability.

    Someone sitting in Business means the flight attendants have to run around serving another customer - another meal, more cutlery, more crockery, more rubbish generated, more drinks, more wear & tear on the IFE - and all for the sake of a blog post or two-para review several weeks down the line? The economics don't add up. Seems to me it's better for them that Business stays empty. Or am I wrong?

  4. I'm with Kevin. I agree with his points about it skewing the experience. I'd add that there's also the danger of skewing the review especially if you're doing it on a blog or social media channels.

    Matthew makes good points too.

    I've been upgraded twice. Once on Air Niugini (no great shakes!) because I fainted on board the flight. Once on Qantas because I was heavily pregnant. I spent frequent flyer points to do it but as business class was full and I didn't have elite status, I suspect I may have jumped the queue. If so, it was my pregnancy rather than my status as a travel journo that was key. I wasn't writing about it and made no claims tobe.

  5. I can see both sides. It does seem odd that if business class is empty that an airline would not want to show off their best service to a travel writer and also get some brownie points for future recommendations (good on Qatar!).

    However the way an airline works internally re budgets and charging different departments such as the press department for such things, can mean its not viable.

    PR within organisations is still so often misunderstood and even those that work in in-house press departments can have a hard job convincing senior staff with no PR background on the benefits. Strange but true!

    This can be even more difficult when dealing with the HQ of a foreign airline who doesn't understand the UK press at all.

    PR's for the most part do understand journalists and want they want. Its just sometimes their battle is internal and getting senior staff to understand the demands of media and the value that keeping good travel writers on side with these little perks!

  6. Just a note from the other side: In general upgrade-beggars are viewed with slightly pitiful disdain within the industry. And even accentuated when it comes to journalists or celebrities. Usually staff do their utmost for the air/road warriors out there. But then again they usually seldom ask. I think it has to do with self-respect or something. The "I will write good things about you if you give me free things" has the implied "I will write bad things about you if you do not give me free things" written all over it. From a credibility point of view it must be devastating? Journalistic integrity and all that? And hey, don't shoot me, I'm just the messenger.

  7. I've been upgraded twice in my life - once to specifically review a new class of seat, once through knowing someone who knows someone. I've never sat in business class, and I've only once got a free flight from an airline.

    I don't really have a point here. I just wanted to sulk.

  8. I've known many friends of mine that don't travel much, aren't involved in travel writing/media/PR and manage to get upgaded to first & business on long-haul flights on the few occassions they travel!! They don't even look like the typically smart business traveller types - so seems there is often no rhyme or reason - just luck!

  9. Jeremy, this is a blog post I drafted a few months ago after the flight from hell with an airline that shall remain nameless - I'm going to post that one soon - so for now I just want to say 'thank you' for posting this, and that I totally agree.

    Most PRs these days are short-sighted. I did PR about 20 years ago and it was all about long-term relationships and helping to make a busy journos life a bit easier.

    What PRs should be thinking about when they upgrade/host a travel journalist - or even when they just give them the information they asked for before the deadline (I'm talking about you, Emirates!) is that every travel journalist is an opinion maker. We communicate with and influence people all day every day, not only through our published writing, but when we engage on social media and when we meet people in person. How many times do you get asked what your favourite destination, airline, hotel, restaurant etc is? I get asked every day.

    PRs need to think beyond the one-off opportunity and single para/story.

    They need to keep in mind that the experience we have, that they can facilitate, is:

    a) contributing to our body of knowledge - especially for those of us who are destination experts - there will be scores if not hundreds of future opportunities for us to write about their product/brand; and

    b) could be creating another potential brand/product ambassador - because if I love the place/experience, I'm going to tell people about it, and if I really loved it, I'll keep telling them about it again and again. Just as I tell every person who asks me which is the world's airline about the handful of shitty flights I had with American Airlines last year.

    And Kevin, I agree with you that as writers we need to experience economy class too, but do you know how many times I've flow economy? I've also experienced Business and First a lot too, but I've experienced economy more. I fly so frequently that I've flown many airlines many times. Showing me Business/First class service, or a Suite instead of a Deluxe/Superior room, when there are seats/rooms free should simply be about showing me that product, not about buying favours.

    It should also be about making my job easier. I work on planes and in hotel rooms. And when I'm not working I'm desperately trying to catch up on sleep. I can work/sleep better in Business than Economy, better in a Lounge than an airport waiting room, better if my husband and I can both put our laptop on a desk and a table, than one of us working kneeling on the floor with the laptop on the bed. Don't you think? It's as simple as that.

    1. I totally agree with Lara's points above - however I do have to point out that if it was up to the PRs entirely -valued journalists would almost certainly get an upgrade.

      We get it. Its just we have to work in or with organisations where often they don't get it. In these recessionary times companies often just don't see the value (they should I know).

      Often journalists blame the PRs for not getting what they want - not realising that we have often done everything we can to accommodate them - its just we don't run the companies and probably don't have the authority to make the final decision.

  10. I don't think my integrity is compromised because I accept an upgrade. It just means I might have a more comfortable flight, be able to snatch some sleep and be prepared for the work that is invariably ahead of me as soon as the plane lands. Travel writers are poorly recompensed on the whole; let's not baulk at this minor perk.

  11. The key point about travel journalism is that, while most people go on holiday to relax, flopping on the beach or whatever, travel journalists are usually working even MORE when on trips than when at home. And that's time we're not getting paid for either, unlike the general public, who get paid holidays. (I'm talking from the freelance arm of the industry here, and while I'm not complaining about a job I love, if I looked at the actual time versus money scenario, I'd give this up in exchange for working at a fast-food joint.)

    The ability to land fresh from a flight and start running around exploring the vast list of places we have to see and experience, versus landing exhausted because we were in cramped seats in a packed economy section, makes a huge difference. We don't get the luxury of a day doing nothing to recover. Plus, on flights home, to capitalise on my time, I need to start writing, but in cramped economy, this is virtually impossible.

    For a moment of sulking (a la the divine Mr Whitley), I would say that I have credited BA in major publications about 20 times in the last 12 months without once requesting flights. Yet when I finally asked them for just a single ECONOMY seat for a commissioned travel feature (for a paper read by people who make big bucks), the best they would offer me was a 10 per cent discount off the published fare. (I could get a cheaper rate using the key flight comparison websites.) And forget about business class.

    In the end, Kuoni stepped in and paid for the flights, but, BA, of course, wouldn't upgrade. They did kindly provide Biz Class Lounge access, which was >meant< to be at both ends.

    In London before departure, that meant I could spend time in the lounge doing last-minute Wifi work before the flight (as someone who works practically 24/7, it's rare for me NOT to be working). But on the return flight, as I was preparing to start writing some reviews at the airport after check-in, I was told that the Business Class lounge was going to be very busy, so they couldn't even give me that. An hour before the flight, I walked past their Business Class Lounge in Cape Town, only to see tons of space with few people inside.

    So when I write the articles - and when I write future articles where I would previously have credited BA - you can imagine that I'm not going to be so keen. Why keep giving them all the free publicity when competitor airlines offer a service that's just as good (or better) and who are willing to help make my trip more easier and more time-efficient?

    After all, just as it's the airline's business to sell seats, it's my business to sell travel articles and to tell people how to get to a destination. And there's nearly always more ways than one.

  12. I've been upgraded a handful of times - once on a paid-for ticket (holiday rather than work) after a cock-up over my husband's ordered meal, and a couple of times on press trips, including a flight to New Zealand.

    I'd never expect or demand an upgrade, and as it seems to be harder and harder to even get a comp flight, I wouldn't expect the PRs to be able to hand them out, especially if they're paying out of budget rather than it coming free from the airline. Having said that, I don't see a problem in asking - or in asking for a lounge pass, which I tend to have more success at getting.

    Yes, it's a much nicer experience, but I've flown economy enough to know what it's like, and it's not going to affect my mention of the airline, which is usually only a factbox anyway (another reason why I wouldn't expect an upgrade). It also means I can sleep and be fresh for the inevitably packed itinerary, rather than needing a day to get over jetlag. And yes, it puts me in a very good mood when I am.

  13. I would agree with Matthew Teller on the merits or not of an upgrade especially if you have a free ticket. It all depends on the personnel on the ground and how much they value and respect a Press card. Same airline, same flight, same airport different personnel will react in a different way. PS. I've only got an upgarde once in my life. They are much rarer than people believe.

  14. I've been upgraded, quite unexpectedly only once, by Virgin Atlantic on a press trip to Miami/Florida Keys.

    As a travel writer with a fear of flying (!) this soothed my nerves significantly. Funnily enough, a lady behind me who was weeping and wailing at some turbulence, had been shifted up from economy because of her flying phobia was freaking out the other passengers.

    On the way home, it was cramped economy, tech delays, free phone calls home and stuck on the tarmac.

    I like to think a travel writer can see and put both sides of the coin in perspective. An upgrade is very welcome - it is still a genuine experience, and who's to say that you aren't writing for business travellers or airmile upgraders too.

    1. Good point about who you're writing for, Fiona. In fact, since I specialise in luxury travel, I'm nearly always writing for people who fly Biz or 1st.

      But no matter who I write for, I still don't get an upgrade. Maybe it's because I'm short so they think I don't need the extra leg space ;)

  15. Not sure if I can much more to some of the excellent points above but think I might have to take advantage of the chance to rant. I agree with Lara and Jill on the whole......

    One extra point - I do know that I remember awful flights much more vividly than bad hotel experiences. The sheer awfulness of a bad economy flight experience tops any bad hotel stay I've had....and then some. I am still reeling about a recent flight with Qantas, an awful co-passenger on EVA and another one on BA. Not to mention the airline food, the service blah, blah, the usual gripes. I've pretty much forgotten the laundry that wasn't delivered in time at such and such hotel and the receptionist who could barely speak English in a top hotel. Whatever, pales in comparison to a bad flight.........

    Plus, let's not forget if you're flying to cover just 1 or 2 stories the price of the flight has the ability to wipe out the fee, making the trip financially pointless.

    I've been comped flights with national airlines that fly to and from destinations I write about a lot but have never had an upgrade. I've also taken a discount. No qualms at all, none. I've taken 12 flights since last Nov and anything that makes flying more palatable I'll take and be grateful for. My understanding is that to secure a complimentary flight from PR's, two fundamental factors have to be fulfilled - 1) the airline has to be actively promoting that particular route and b)the airline needs to want coverage in your particular media outlet. Oh, and it mustn't be a holiday period either. So, all in all, a rather large criteria to get lucky with.

  16. Speaking from the PRs side, I work with an airline who request a minimum of 150 words of body copy as well as factbox credit. I thought that was crazy when I first started on the account, but when you see the amount of journalist requests we get, and the total lack of written word on travel pages about the airline experience, I'm not so sure.

    And we're happy to be flexible - if you can blog or squeeze in a mention somewhere we're eternally grateful.

    One clever way around this was successfully carried out recently in the Evening Standard - they ran a short editorial piece on celebs who've travelled with the airline and saying why it's a cut above.

    Sometimes journos just need to work with us and rather baulk at the request, think of cunning ways around it. You give a little, we'll fall over ourselves. We do genuinely want to help but it's quid pro quo.

    1. Thanks for your comments Samantha. Problem is usually for a freelance they are writing a destination feature. And editorial coverage of the flight is just not an option in that case if you are writing for traditional media. I was particularly frustrated with my experience above because I did just that -suggested blog posts etc as a way to offer coverage of the flight experience - and didn't even get a reply.

      1. I've done the same, Jeremy. When the airline said they wanted more coverage, I suggested various realistic options, none of which were deemed sufficient. Apparently, unless it was going to be a DPS in Conde Nast Traveller entirely about their new Business Class Loos, I wasn't getting even getting a stand-by seat, much less an upgrade.

  17. Some brilliant comments here. I think Lara really nailed it for me.
    My worst one was a flight I never took. Thomsonfly had agreed in principle to fly me to Cancun for a feature in the Daily Mail's Weekend magazine. And then about 3 weeks before I was due to leave changed their minds. (Yes - 3 weeks!)
    I was dealing with BGB who handled the PR for the account. They were very apologetic... but it really rammed home how little sway the PR co really has. Even a good one like BGB. And reminded me why frankly I never completely trust PR people to deliver. I am always slightly paranoid until I get on the plane.

  18. I reckon 'we have filled the plane with paying punters so forget it'.
    Very short term thinking...
    Thankfully Rob Bates at Mango PR at the time was on the Visit Mexico account and managed to wangle something with KLM. Still meant I flew London-Schipol-Mex city-Cancun instead of direct Gatwick to Cancun. Relatively new service for Thomson at the time too. I figured they'd be really pleased to get coverage. But I have never understood airlines... completely schitzophrenic.

    1. Bizarrely, the one free flight I ever had was courtesy of Thomson Airlines - to Cancun. They were only ever getting a brief paragraph in an online top ten for it, and I could never quite understand why they leapt at the chance so enthusiatically.

  19. I think one factor that's consistently central is what you said about providing some coverage of a route or destination that's entirely new to the carrier. If you also have the instaneity of being able to blog about it in addition to a mention in your print media outlet, so much the better. I don't know about Qatar Airways or Brussels Airlines, but frequently with smaller or start-up carriers, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack just to track down the appropriate media relations manager to even pitch a proposal for comp travel. It also helps when it's a new route into a totally foreign country if they actually know how to land the aircraft there - e.g., a comp flight I once took to a certain Central American country where the European pilot suddenly announced we were diverting to another country because the runway was "too hard to spot in the cloud cover." Kind of funny much later, and definitely not so at the time, but believe it or not I didn't say a single bad thing in print about the airline experience:)

  20. I love love love getting upgraded for obvious reasons. And if I can fly biz/first, I arrive at my destination feeling much more sane, which, on a press trip is really helpful as I don't fly as well as I used to, I don't sleep, flying is horrible, whine whine whine.

    But not for an INSTANT would I EXPECT to be upgraded because of my supposed "status" as a travel writer. I'll ask, sure, because I've got a lot of nerve. And I full expect to hear "Ha. No." Not only do I expect it, I see it as a very reasonable answer. I didn't pay for it, after all.

  21. Sophie

    Travel writers are critics essentially. All critics get free stuff to review - from film and music reviewers who are given free DVDs, movie tickets, CDs, etc - to car reviewers who get to drive new cars and take them on holidays to digital/gadget writers who are constantly getting new gizmos.

    Travel writers, like other kinds of critics, should have a well-developed sense of ethics and critical faculties, and should be able to ensure there's no conflict of interest, though like any industry, there are going to be those who don't.

    I'm at a loss how this business would work if that wasn't happening. Do you/others expect a writer to pay $3000, say, (can cost a whole lot more on certain routes) for a business class ticket for a review they might be getting paid $600 to write, or a $1500-2000 feature where only one sentence might go to mentioning the Business Class flight. Very few travel magazines pay expenses these days, and I don't think people realise that.

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