The Puzzling Process Of Paying To Upgrade On Vietnam Airlines

Ford and I have taken a couple of intra-Asia flights on Vietnam Airlines the past week. For the first we outright paid for business class, as it was only marginally more expensive than economy.

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However, our last flight showed business class as being sold out at the time we booked, even though no seats were taken on the seatmap. About a week before the flight I received an email asking if we wanted to upgrade to business class at a discount.

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I figured there was no point in even trying if business class was sold out, though I checked how full the flight was again. Well, it seems there may have originally been some glitch, as business class was once again for sale, with the highest amount of visible inventory — still no seat was taken on the seatmap.

It’s quite common for airlines to offer paid upgrades as the departure date approaches nowadays, as it’s a great way for airlines to generate additional revenue for seats that would otherwise go out empty. I shared my experience paying to upgrade on SriLankan a while back, and found it to be an easy and straightforward process.

The idea is that you bid on an upgrade, and they show you a chart that says how good your odds are based on how much you bid. Then a few days before departure they’ll start clearing upgrades, and either your offer will be confirmed or denied.

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Vietnam Airlines’ upgrade system is a bit different. You’re brought to a page with the price to upgrade. You don’t choose how much you want to bid on an upgrade, but rather are charged a fixed amount.

In this case there was a non-refundable fee of 21,000VND just to make an offer (that’s ~$0.95), and then the cost to upgrade was 1,293,750VND (~$58). Fair enough, though it’s a bit odd that they’re charging a non-refundable transaction fee if you’re offering them exactly the amount they want for the upgrade.

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It’s an odd system to begin with, because typically when an airline offers an upgrade for a fixed amount, they confirm it right away. In this case I was informed that I would be notified of our upgrade within one to three days of the flight’s departure. They charge the upgrade fee upfront, and if you don’t clear you’re refunded within five business days.

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Well, sure enough a few days out I received an email with the headline “Upgrade approved subject to availability.”

Say what now? If you ask me, that’s sort of contradictory. Is the upgrade approved (as in, confirmed), or is it subject to availability?

The email says:

Your upgrade to Business has been accepted subject to availability upon checking in.

Please present a copy of this email to the Vietnam Airlines staff at the airport check in counter and the staff will advise you if the upgrade is successful.

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So I don’t know what has actually been “approved” if we haven’t yet had our upgrade confirmed.

Bottom line

I’ve seen a lot of airlines’ upgrade systems, though this is probably the strangest I’ve seen yet. I don’t mind the fixed upgrade cost, but if they’re not going to let you bid it seems like they should confirm the upgrade when they offer it. At a minimum, they should confirm the upgrade when they say they’ll confirm it (meaning you can select seats and are booked in that cabin), rather than still making it subject to availability.

Or maybe this all doesn’t mean what I think it does?

Has anyone experienced something similar to Vietnam Airlines’ upgrade system?

Comments

  1. Air Asia X uses the same provider. Got the email that upgrade is confirmed, but at the airport was told it was a mistake amd Business is full. Took almost a month to get money back…

  2. @lucky

    Could it be that they continue to sell J throughout the upgrade window? If so, this seems like an interesting way to “confirm” upgrade revenue for the airline, while preserving the option value of selling the J seats to last minute travellers.

  3. I used Optiontown to upgrade a flight on Cambodia Angkor Air. Took a while for the check in agent to find our reservations. It was clear the airline was not aware of any business class passengers that day. No priority check in, boarding, we were served the same drinks as everyone else. Waste of money. All we got was bigger seats.

  4. I used Optiontown for a Vietnam airlines upgrade recently. The process is indeed strange – I just showed the email and was upgraded (check in agent had to call through to someone else to do this). It wasn’t requested by them. I received a full business class service (KUL-HAN), but no lounge access.

  5. Sounds like they want to have their cake and eat it too by waiting until the last possible moment to issue the discounted upgrade just in case someone else pays full price.

  6. I use this almost every week. This is very common for domestic flights. Just make sure to arrive 1 hour before departure and you’ll get the upgrade. I was upgraded 100% of the times.

  7. I’ll be flying on Vietnam airlines next week from Ha Noi to Paris. I read reviews online about OptionTown and it seems like when you check-in at the airport the agents most of the time are not aware of upgrades through option town. So instead of using OptionTown I’m going to take my chances and try to upgrade at the airport.

  8. We bought some biz tickets outright on VN when we visited the region earlier this year, but on one short flight where the biz cost was much higher, we selected the OptionTown option to have the middle seat blocked subject to availability so we’d have 3 seats for the 2 of us in Y. Like your upgrade experience we paid the cost and a small fee up front and were advised that if no seat was open at the airport, we’d be refunded all but the admin fee. We got an email confirming our tentative upgrade a few days out, but we’re only able to confirm the blocked middle seat at the airport. None of the agents had authorization to block middle seats, so we had to wait a while for a supervisor to process the OptionTown paperwork. They did need to see our OptionTown confirmation, so make sure you have it printed or available on a device. A convoluted process but we wound up having extra space on a short, crowded flight for about $15

  9. I used Optiontown a few times before for upgrades on SAS. To be honest I prefer them than the common upgrading system, given that they actually upgrade your booking class also…

  10. We used this in April 2015 for our honeymoon and actually got a confirmed upgrade TPE-HAN. It arrived as an email the day before. We printed the email and then received business class tickets at the transfer counter in Taipei. TPE is a PITA to transfer IMO, so I wish we could have just had them printed at SFO, but it may have been because EVA was the SFO-TPE carrier. I still think agree and think it’s convoluted, but wanted to offer a data point of a confirmed upgrade through Optiontown 1 day before flight.

  11. The upgrade is usually approved at the airport when you check in however you may not receive the lounge access and other benefits other than getting a business seat. This upgrade is processed by the third company called Optiontown rather than with VNA directly.

  12. I agree with @Dan C.

    It seems that the upgrade doesn’t clear until you check-in at the airport. Makes sense to be there early to get the last few J seats available, as I imagine there are other customers who also paid for an upgrade (aside from last minute travelers willing to pay in J).

  13. I have used Optiontown for VN before and it works just fine.

    I had a concern as I was not able to print out the confirmation which the email said I needed to take to the airport. So I took screen shots of it on my phone.

    However when I checked in at the business class desk, my boarding pass was already printed, and there were no issues. I was just advised that I did not have access to the Business Lounge, as it was an upgrade.

    I have seen lots of comments about Optiontown – as I fly Air Asia a bit too – and if your upgrade does not go thru, the charges are refunded to your credit card within a day or two.

  14. I have used Optiontown on Aeromexico before. I did appreciate that unlike auction systems I didn’t have to put a lot of thought into how much to bid, at least.

  15. I used them in August to upgrade a domestic Viet Air flight, we have flown with them a lot. Again I paid in advance and they said they would notify me 3 days out. The main reason we did it was for the extra luggage allowance. We never got an email advising yes or no (and all emails from them came in Vietnamese and google translate had to help!) so we packed our bags assuming we had the upgrade. When we checked in, I just said we had paid to upgrade and it was no hassle. Cabin was 90% empty too. In future I would just pay for business upfront as not much of a price difference, especially if we need the luggage allowance.

  16. I believe you don’t understand – OPTIONTOWN is a separate entity that has been authorized to sell updates for multiple airlines across ASIA. They have no direct tie up with the AIRLINES. You are basically paying small amount to upgrade instead of actual amount. Airlines doesn’t know about upgrade till last minute.

  17. I used Option Town on one recent VN flight from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok and you simply walk up to the Business Class counter and show them the confirmation email. One thing I will suggest is that you upgrade at the airport ticket purchase counter instead of using Option Town. I did this for two other VN flights and the upgrade price was the same as the one quoted with Option Town for those flights but you get lounge access (even though the domestic lounges are nothing to write home about). In all, I upgraded twice at the airport HAN to DAD and DAD to SGN, and used Option Town for SGN to BKK. I will note, there were tons of empty seats on board…in one instance, my partner and I were the only two seated in Business on an A321.

  18. i just don’t understand why you can’t ever fly coach class? you flew in the above flight for like 1 hour and 30 minutes and paid 115 us to upgrade, i mean are you going to get a life threatening disease if you fly coach?

    i hour and 30 minutes and you can’t fly coach? unbelievable.

  19. I flew VN MEL to SGN in May and put in an upgrade request about 2 months before departure date. Around 48 hours before departure (give or take) I received the email to advise I had been upgraded subject to availability.

    Checked in via the priority line at the airport and showed by email confirmation to the agent. She advised the upgrade would not be confirmed till I got the the departure gate but she said it should clear as they had lots of spare seats on the flight. She handed me an economy boarding passes and said listen for my name at the departure gate. Around 10 mins before the first boarding announcement started I got called up to the gate and handed my J boarding pass.

    J was only around half full although I had some friends on the same flight who put in their upgrade request a few weeks after I did but didn’t receive an upgrade . They got an email on the day of departure to advise their request had not been successful.

  20. Sucks that Vietnam Airlines doesn’t give lounge access for business class upgrade. I used optiontown for SAS business from LAX to Stockholm and I was allowed to use the star alliance lounge at LAX.

  21. @ Eric , re lounge access on VN, on the flights to and from Australia they let you bid extra to get access to the lounge . Ex Australia I recall the figure was around $50 AUD (just under $40 USD) and ex Vietnam it was around $20 USD. I didn’t bother departing Australia as didn’t have time for the lounge pre departure and ex Vietnam the lounge you got access to was a priority pass lounge I already had access to.

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