When it comes to unwritten frequent flyer benefits, it’s hard to top a free upgrade to First Class. Sometimes, bump-ups happen when flights are oversold: known as ‘operational upgrades’ to surprise and delight. But other times, getting a free upgrade is rare, and requires a little bit of strategy.

Sure, there are the classic clunkers like turning up early, dressing nicely and asking politely. And 99.9% of the time, you’d probably be laughed at and handed a boarding pass for your original seat! But as it turns out, on very rare occasions, that strategy just might work. That is, if you’re smart about which flight you book – and have the right frequent flyer status.

As it happens, I’ve just cracked the code on Cathay Pacific, getting a bump from Business Class to First Class on a recent overnight flight. Here’s how it all played out.

What it takes to get a free First Class upgrade

Here’s the trick. Many of Cathay Pacific’s Boeing 777 aircraft have six palatial First Class suites right up the front. These planes fly all over the world. And sometimes, they pop up on routes where First Class isn’t actually sold. And herein lies the opportunity.

For instance, Cathay Pacific doesn’t sell First Class on any flight to or from Australia. But it does use some of its four-class Boeing 777s on Australian routes. What that means is that the plane has a First Class cabin but, officially, doesn’t have any First Class passengers.

Did you know: When Cathay Pacific installs the new Aria Business Class seats to its existing Boeing 777 fleet, it’ll remove these six old First Class seats.

So what to do with those suites? Leave them empty? No, that would be silly. Instead, you may be able to sit in the First Class cabin if you’re booked to fly in Business Class. Yes, a literal free upgrade to a First Class suite. But you can’t just waltz on in – it’s one of those ‘unpublished’ benefits of frequent flyer status.

Cathay Pacific First Class boarding pass
First Class lounges may be a perk of oneworld Emerald, but First Class flight upgrades aren’t to be expected.

I’m told that, generally, Cathay Pacific’s top-tier Diamond and Diamond Plus frequent flyers have first dibs. On these flights, those Diamond-bejewelled travellers can select a seat in First Class from the time of booking. But if there are still suites left over, other travellers might be in luck.

How I wrangled an upgrade

Here’s the situation: I’m booked to fly from Melbourne to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific Business Class. While I don’t have Diamond with Cathay Pacific, I do have Platinum status with Qantas. Qantas and Cathay Pacific are partners through the oneworld Alliance, and both these tiers align with oneworld Emerald. In other words, when you don’t have Cathay Diamond, Qantas Platinum is the next best thing.

I notice through ExpertFlyer that the flight has a First Class cabin – but that First Class isn’t being sold. So, I draw on the strategy that’s often laughed at. Dress presentably, check in early, and ask politely ‘if seating allocations in rows one and two might be possible for other oneworld Emerald members as well’. By the wording of the request, it makes it clear to the staff that I know what I’m talking about – rather than saying ‘can I have a free upgrade to First Class?’

Knowing this isn’t a formal benefit of oneworld status, I fully expect my enquiry to be dismissed. But the helpful check-in staff are happy to press a few buttons, ask a supervisor, and see what’s allowed.

Before doing anything, the staff first check how many Diamond members are booked into Business Class. That’s to make sure that Cathay’s own elite flyers have all been taken care of first: and that’s completely fair. But when they confirm that all the Diamond members from Business Class have already been ‘upgraded’, I’m handed a new boarding pass. Gone is my old Business Class seat in 11A. I’m now flying in serious style in 2K.

It’s safe to say that a free upgrade to First Class onboard beats any lounge on the ground. And it’s one of those many ‘hush hush’ privileges that can surprise and reward serious frequent flyers.

Seriously, what’s the catch?

Here’s the thing. Because Cathay Pacific isn’t selling First Class, most of the usual service staples of First Class aren’t provided. For instance, there’s no caviar or vintage Champagne. You are, in effect, receiving Business Class service while sitting in a First Class seat.

This means the food and beverage choices available here are an exact mirror to what’s been offered in any regular Business Class seat. And given Business Class is exactly what such lucky travellers had originally booked anyway, that’s also completely fair.

Happily, though, Cathay Pacific still uses First Class bedding to adorn these suites. And, with a hint of First Class service, the crew offer to make my bed as I’m off changing into my (BYO) pyjamas. I find my suite set up with multiple pillows, a mattress topper and a proper duvet. Given this is an overnight flight and sleep is my main goal, this really brings the experience closer to First Class standards, despite the ‘Business Class service’ mantra.

Which Cathay Pacific flights might have free First Class upgrades?

So, which routes can you try this on? Really, it varies depending on how aircraft are scheduled – and this may change at short notice. But for now, these First Class-equipped aircraft frequently appear on selected Cathay Pacific flights to Melbourne and Perth. Specifically:

  • Melbourne to Hong Kong on CX178 (the flight I’ve taken here).
  • Hong Kong to Melbourne on CX163.
  • Perth to Hong Kong on CX170.
  • Hong Kong to Perth on CX171.

So, if you’re already flying Business Class on one of these flights and have top-tier frequent flyer status, you might be in luck. If you’re anything other than Cathay Diamond, you can only ask at the airport upon departure. The option to change seats won’t be available online or during (or after) online check-in.

Remember, though, you’re asking for a favour. This isn’t a published benefit of status and isn’t something that Cathay Pacific is obligated to do, even if you’re a oneworld Emerald member. For that reason, my advice is to always assume you’ll travel in the cabin class and seat that you’ve originally booked. Ask what’s possible, sure – but just do so without expectation. Who knows, you might just be in the right place at the right time, as I was.

Also read: My experience with oneworld’s little-known status perk, priority standby

Photography by Chris Chamberlin. Chris travelled on a Business Class ticket as a guest of Cathay Pacific, but his seat change request was made only at airport check-in as an ordinary passenger, drawing on Qantas Platinum (oneworld Emerald) frequent flyer status achieved under his own merit.

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How to get a free First Class upgrade on Cathay Pacific was last modified: April 10th, 2024 by Chris Chamberlin