How to get a free flight upgrade and other expert-approved travel tips

Flying. (Getty Images)
All the tips and tricks you need to know about flying. (Getty Images)

Ever wondered how to get a free upgrade? Or what really happens in the flight deck during an emergency? We spoke to a former cabin crew member, with over two decades of experience, to find out.

Leigh Quigley has worked for airlines including British Airways, Qantas, United and Norwegian and spent ten years as cabin manager.

Here, he reveals the flight secrets you’ve always wanted to know, just in time for your summer travels.

Where are the most (and least) bumpy seats on a plane?

The worst of the turbulence is always at the back of the aircraft. The least affected seats are located around the wing.

Seats at the very front will be affected by turbulence – but being fast asleep in a lie-flat bed after a large G&T always helps!

Passengers are sitting and sleeping on an airplane. They get stuck in their seat in a long and boring flight.
Try and pre-book seats by the wing for a smoother ride. (Getty Images)

Is it safe to fly through a thunderstorm?

Pilots will always navigate around bad weather whenever possible. However, due to air traffic control restrictions, aircraft do occasionally have to fly through storms.

Lightning, although scary, is not dangerous, even if it strikes the aircraft. Thunderstorms have been attributed to a few plane crashes over the years but these are very rare.

Do you have tips for getting upgraded for free?

Free upgrades are essentially a thing of the past. Airlines have tightened up the rules, making non-essential upgrades hard to justify for ground and cabin crew.

On the rare occasion that an airline is forced to upgrade (normally due to overbooking, as airlines typically oversell seats by up to 30%) they often reward a frequent flyer – so get collecting those points!

You’re less likely to be upgraded if:

  • you are travelling with someone

  • you ordered a special meal (like vegetarian or kosher) as airlines won’t serve an economy meal in a premium cabin for fear it will devalue the product

You may stand a chance if:

  • your in-flight entertainment isn’t working and the economy cabin is full – but this is down to the discretion of the on-board manager

Young woman doing the check-in at the airport and getting her boarding pass at the counter
You'll be more likely to be upgraded if you haven't already opted for a special meal. (Getty Images)

Any tips for overcoming fear during turbulence?

Turbulence is often uncomfortable, but the good news is that it is not usually dangerous. Always keep your seatbelt loosely fastened as most injuries are caused by unsecured items or people flying around the cabin.

I have hit the ceiling twice in turbulence and a colleague cracked three teeth when she hit a trolley.

Keep busy – watch movies, read a book and listen to soothing music.

What happens in the flight deck in an emergency?

Each situation is different, but in most cases the pilots’ priority will be to get the aircraft safely on the ground as soon as possible. Pilots can communicate with engineers on the ground, who can provide additional support.

Aviation safety has come on leaps and bounds over the last few decades and most systems on commercial aircraft are designed with triple redundancies built in for protection.

What happens if someone is taken seriously ill on the plane?

Crew are trained to deal with a wide variety of medical emergencies but in a serious situation, the priority is to get the aircraft on the ground and the passenger to hospital as soon as possible.

Many airlines use a system called MedLink: an electronic tablet crew can use to talk directly with a doctor on the ground who can help diagnose and treat a condition and make a recommendation to the pilots for the best course of action.

There is also a doctor’s kit on board containing medication.

Air hostess is showing how to use oxygen mask before taking off
If oxygen masks fall down, put them on quickly. (Getty Images)

How long can oxygen masks provide passengers with oxygen?

Each aircraft varies, but drop-down masks usually provide 10 to 20 minutes of breathable air. This gives pilots plenty of time to get the aircraft down to a breathable altitude (under 14,000 feet).

At 40,000 feet you only have around 15 seconds of useful consciousness so if one of those masks appears, always put it on without delay and strap in quickly.

Most decompressions are caused by a failure in the pressurisation system, not structural damage, so once the aircraft is at an altitude where we can breathe unaided, the danger is pretty much over.

What kind of emergency landing is safer – on water or on the ground?

Until the miracle of the Hudson, there had been few, if any, successful emergency landings on water.

The best case scenario is to make an emergency landing at an airport where emergency services are on hand to respond.

Is it true that pilots have to eat different meals in case of food poisoning?

Years ago, this was taken very seriously and pilots were forced to eat different crew meals. That’s no longer the case.

Some airlines have done away with crew catering altogether and many crew now bring their own food.

The majority of a flight will be driven by auto pilot. (Getty Images)
The majority of a flight will be driven by auto pilot. (Getty Images)

What percentage of the flight is on autopilot?

Flying has become more and more automated over the years. In most cases, around 90% of a flight will be on autopilot and most commercial aircraft can even land on autopilot.

A pilot will normally manually fly the aircraft for the first and last 6,000 feet (just a few minutes at the beginning and end of each flight).

Watch: Flight attendant delights passengers with hilarious safety demonstration