How To Upgrade On SriLankan (For Cash)

Filed Under: Other Airlines, SriLankan

As you guys know I’m presently enroute to the Maldives, and planning my outbound flight was a bit of a last minute ordeal. I had originally asked you guys which option you think I should take on the outbound.

Then I had a schedule conflict come up, which caused me to push back my trip by a day and actually have to choose based on schedule rather than which would make the most interesting story.

So in the end I booked an American AAdvantage 67,500 mile first class award from New York to Colombo.


I booked Cathay Pacific first class from New York to Hong Kong, and then SriLankan business class from Hong Kong to Bangkok to Colombo. For the second segment I could have just flown Cathay Pacific nonstop in their reverse herringbone business class, but I figured the least I could do was take a bit of a detour to try out SriLankan.

That meant I just had to find a way to get from Colombo to Male. That’s only roughly an hour-long flight so redeeming Avios seemed like the obvious option, until I looked at the cost. While economy would have cost 4,500 Avios, the taxes and fuel surcharges for the short flight were $90.


Meanwhile a paid ticket on the flight was $150. I’ll gladly pay $60 to save 4,500 Avios, not to mention the fact that I earn elite qualifying and redeemable miles this way. I did look at the cost of business class, but it was prohibitively expensive — about three times the price of economy.


After ticketing I went online to select seats, and something caught my attention. I could bid for a cash upgrade to business class. As a matter of fact, SriLankan seems to offer paid upgrades almost across the board, and even has a website dedicated to it.


Despite my millions of flown miles, I don’t remember the last time I had the opportunity to bid for an upgrade. That’s because virtually all my travel is either:

  • Paid travel on American, where I’m eligible for complimentary domestic upgrades, or can use systemwide upgrades for my longhaul flights
  • On award tickets where I’m already traveling in a premium cabin

Even though there was limited value to an upgrade on such a short flight, I thought it would be a good experiment, if nothing else.

I visited SriLankan’s paid upgrade website, where I entered my record locator and last name. The website explained that upgrade bids can be placed up until 48 hours before departure, and then if you’re successful with your bid you’ll be informed between 24 and 48 hours before departure.


As luck would have it, I made my booking about 50 hours before departure, so literally right before the cutoff.

The upgrade scheme is interesting in that it gives you a range you can bid for the upgrade. In this flight’s case, the range is anywhere from “No Offer” to $250. And there’s an “odometer” of sorts which tells you the strength of your upgrade offer.

Mine defaulted to $115, which was in the “Fair” category, so I checked to see how much lower I could make it while staying in the “Fair” category. $100 seemed to be the lowest I could go and still be “Fair.”


Now, these upgrade costs are actually quite high for a short-haul flight. Based on what I’ve read online, Colombo to Male is miscoded by SriLankan when it comes to paid upgrades, in that they view it as a mid-range flight rather than as a short-haul. So an upgrade on a flight to Kuala Lumpur, for example, might be cheaper than an upgrade to Male.

But I figured I’d give the upgrade a shot in the name of science. Once I entered my $100 bid I was brought to a payment information page, where I had to enter my credit card information and email address.


After that I was brought to a page confirming my offer.


About 36 hours before departure I received an email from SriLankan confirming that my upgrade offer had been accepted.


What’s interesting is that when your upgrade is accepted you’re rebooked in paid business class — “I” class — so you would earn bonus miles based on that new class of service.


Admittedly $100 for an upgrade to SriLankan’s regional Airbus A320 business class on a sub-90 minute flight isn’t the greatest value in the world, but I was keen to finally experience the process of bidding for an upgrade.

SriLankan’s A320 business class

Bottom line

I think paid upgrades on SriLankan have the potential to be really useful. Based on all the routes I’ve searched, SriLankan doesn’t seem to sell very many business class seats at all, so I think upgrading is damn near guaranteed.

This FlyerTalk thread has a lot of data points about upgrade costs on SriLankan, and as you’ll see, most rates are much more reasonable than on this route.

Have you ever done a cash bid for an upgrade on any airline? If so, how was your experience?

SriLankan’s A320 business class

  1. Congrats on the upgrade! I flew Sri Lankan last December and successfully bid for an upgrade by paying $15 more than the minimum upgrade they would accept. From what I’ve read online, it seems to depend on the J availability. I was travelling in the middle of the week and from checking expertflyer, the flight in J was barely full.
    Enjoy Male!

  2. @Gene it’s all about how you use them. They are great for short-haul, last minute flights like this when the airlines want highway robbery prices, $300-500, for a sub two hour flight and you can get upwards of a 10-cent per mile redemption for Y.

  3. This might actually be interesting for BA flyers looking for tier points. In the right category and length of flight, booking the upgrade which rebooks the ticket might be a way to catch a 2000 mile plus flight and get a nice helping of tier points for a discount price, for those trying to catch elite status on BAEC (which of course, u can credit UL to).

    I’ve flown UL in business several times, between Doha and Colombo, Colombo to KL, and then most recently from BKK back to Colombo. While the equipment was quite good on the longest of the flights, the service and friendliness (and indeed the food as I don’t eat meat), has been above standards of US flights (not a high bar to be sure).

  4. Hi Lucky;

    Thanks! I’m in the same exact boat. Can you compare the date change (or flight time change) options/fees for the two tickets?

    Also, if one has a second bag, I”m guessing that would make the difference lower after bag fees (Although perhaps Emerald One World gets a second bag in coach on Sri Lankan airlines?)

  5. I have booked return economy flights AUH to MLE via CMB, return. and have bid for an upgrade on the AUH – CMB sector as this departs at 23.00. I have bid $235 pp, which if I remember correctly just put me in the good area. Your post gives me hope! Flight is on 24th September so will let you know. I might even go back to the site and bid on the other sectors, using @joey tactics.

  6. I bid for upgrades on NZ — I was in premium economy and bid for upgrades to business class from LAX-AKL-LAX.

    In both cases, my strategy was the same was Ben’s — I chose the lowest amount possible in the “fair” category. I was already on a heavily discounted premium economy fare, but nevertheless both of my bids were accepted (~$440 each way). I’ve heard that they pay attention to elite status when deciding whether or not to accept bids, and I’m *G, and so perhaps that can help explain my “good luck”. The cabins were both ~80% full, though I should note that it was during July, and so not exactly peak season.

    They didn’t change the booking code into a paid business class fare, so no bonus miles.

  7. Lucky, if I were you I would’ve paid much lower than that. I think the whole point of the odometer is to get more people to more than they need to so they generate extra revenue. I’m not sure what the minimum bid amount was for you but I wouldn’t have paid too much over that amount, especially considering this is such a short flight and there’s not much to loose.

  8. I booked BKK-CMB-MLE paid $100 for the BKK-CMB upgrade, got the new business config. Didn’t bother with the short segment from CMB-MLE. Interestingly, they allowed me to apply for upgrade on award tickets (companion) but rejected at the upgrade window. I tried it as an experiment and it didn’t work. 😉

  9. 4500 Avios will get a <500 mile one-way flight in NAmerica which is worth a lot more than $40 or even $50.

  10. I typically do these upgrades on Air China long haul. Can’t beat $550 for a 14 hour flight.

  11. @ Adam – Air New Zealand’s implementation of plusgrade only factors in NZ tier status (with published % up-weightings for each of the status tiers). Another carriers’ Star Gold doesn’t alter the algorithm.

  12. haha … strictly for educational purposes only.

    Thank you Professor Ben! aka the Robert Parker of premium travel.


  13. We flew MH recently and they have the same scheme. The offer screenshots that you provided look identical to MH too.

  14. I’m not sure that Sri Lanka ever offers mileage seats in J. I’ve been looking for weeks between Singapore and Male (via Colombo) and have never seen even one seat. Now I know why. They save them all for this stupid cash bidding game.

  15. Malaysia Airlines also offer this upgrade bidding system but If you succeed , your miles are still counted based on your original paid ticket. Time to fly Sri lankan.

  16. @ Turgutbey — I could be mistaken so someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the ticket has to be issued by SriLankan.

  17. @ Jonathan — Ultimately I got a private business class cabin on a (literally) brand new plane, so can’t say I found the value to be that bad. 😀

  18. @ Beachfan — Yep, with bag fees (if applicable) that could indeed make the cost difference even lower. Not sure I follow what you’re asking with date changes? Sorry!

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