Why You Should Think Twice Before Upgrading Your Flight With Optiontown

A few days ago I wrote about my puzzling experience with a paid upgrade on Vietnam Airlines. In the process I’ve learned quite a bit, so I figured I’d report back with my full experience.

The airline sent me an email about a week before departure asking if I wanted to upgrade to business class at a discount. Nowadays a lot of airlines offer paid upgrades last minute as a way of generating incremental revenue, so I figured it was worth trying to upgrade, partly so I could see what the process was like.

vietnam-airlines-upgrade-3

A few days before the flight I received an email saying that my upgrade had been accepted… subject to availability.

That’s unlike any other upgrade I’ve received, because the way I see it, either an upgrade is accepted or it isn’t. It’s fine if they keep me on a waitlist, but I’m not sure how an upgrade can both be approved and subject to availability.

Anyway, we now took the flight that was eligible for an upgrade, and the process at the airport was quite an experience.

What is Optiontown?

Different airlines use different technology platforms to process these last minute upgrades. For example, many airlines use a system called Plusgrade. My understanding is that the airline is still processing the upgrade directly (because when your upgrade is approved it’s actually approved), though they’re just using an outside platform.

As it turns out, Optiontown is completely different. I don’t know exactly how it works, but if my understanding is correct, this is a third party service that some airlines choose to partner with.

optiontown

Based on their website, Optiontown partners with Adria Airways, Air India, AirAsia X, Biman Bangladesh, Cambodia Angkor Air, EgyptAir, Insel Air, SAS, Vietnam Airlines, and Vistara.

optiontown-airlines

When you request an upgrade through Optiontown, the airline isn’t actually clearing your upgrade in advance. Instead based on some metric Optiontown “accepts” your upgrade, which in reality means that they give you a piece of paper to bring with you to check-in. Then at check-in your upgrade will be cleared based on availability.

However, based on what I can tell, the airline has no advance notice of how many Optiontown upgrade requests there are. In other words, they have no clue if you’ve requested an upgrade, and if Optiontown has “approved” it subject to availability. For that matter, at outstations it sure seems like many agents don’t even know what Optiontown is.

My experience at the airport with an Optiontown upgrade

We used this for a Vietnam Airlines flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi. A few days out we got an email from Optiontown that we were told to print out and bring to the airport.

vietnam-airlines-upgrade-4

When we arrived at Luang Prabang Airport we were happy about our upgrade already, since the economy check-in line was really long, while there was no in the priority queue.

We presented the check-in agent the piece of paper, and he looked at us like we had two heads. He called over the supervisor, and then they went into a back room for 20 minutes. Best I could tell they made several phone calls.

They returned and said “okay,” and then typed for another several minutes. Eventually they printed out boarding passes for us on business class card stock, but we were in row 15.

I said “sorry, but is row 15 business class?”

“Oh…”

After another 10 minutes of typing, we finally got our boarding passes for business class.

So it took nearly 40 minutes for the upgrade to be processed.

How long was the flight? 40 minutes.

vietnam-airlines-business-class

Obviously that wasn’t worth it, though I’m happy I tried it so I can report back on my experience.

Bottom line

Optiontown needs a lot of work. I understand it’s technically a separate company and the process is different than with other airlines, but they need to do a better job of explaining that. When I requested the upgrade I was told the following:

You will be notified via email about your upgrade status usually 1 to 3 days but no later than 4 hours before the flight departure. If not upgraded, the upgrade price will be refunded to you within 5 days after the flight departure.

If being told about your “upgrade status” means getting “approved subject to availability,” then I suppose that’s true. But I don’t think anyone interprets the above to mean that the upgrade won’t actually be cleared until check-in.

Then the process really needs to be streamlined at check-in as well. Taking over 30 minutes to process an upgrade is a waste of everyone’s time and resources, including the airlines’. Just because the process is different on the back-end doesn’t mean it should be so inconvenient and confusing for passengers.

So unless I’m somehow in economy on a longhaul flight with an airline that they partner with and this option is available, I don’t see myself using Optiontown again.

Comments

  1. “Your upgrade has been conditionally approved and subject to availability, weight load balance, supplies of mixed nuts, the allignment of the Moon and the Sun, wind vector maps by which the shortest route is given, and our nightly sacrifice of lamb to the upgrade gods”

    Sometimes if they have just that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  2. SAS isn’t using OptionTown anymore, they switched to PlusGrade a year ago. Upgrades via OptionTown used to be cheaper than the current PlusGrade system.

  3. Hi Ben!

    First of all, thanks for a great blogg!

    Just a quick note, SAS has recently stopped using optiontown, they have a plus grade system now.

    Best
    Dany

  4. I used Optiontown on Aeromexico and it worked seamlessly … 3 days before the flight I got a message that my upgrade was approved and the airline automatically updated my booking into J. No need to do anything unusual at the airport.

    Maybe what happened to you is what happens if they can’t clear an upgrade in advance? Although then it’s not clear how they know whether they have to refund your upgrade fee or not…

  5. Why would you bother buying an upgrade for a 40 minute flight in the first place? I could even sit on the floor for 40 minutes…besides, I don’t normally buy last minute upgrades directly from the airline either. It costs as much or more than paying for it in advance when there’s been a sale, and moreover you only get the mileage credit for the class you originally booked in, not the class of your upgrade.

  6. The thing isthat Optiontown works actually different for different airlines.
    It is kinda stand-by for Vietnam, but as always been a “normal” process e.g. for SAS (before they stopped using it).
    Overall it is pretty wierd, alone the thing that they are still listing SAS which is not working with them anymore (and hasnt for months)…

  7. Interesting story, thanks for sharing.

    Beautiful part of the world to travel, great experiences, though some oddness in travel.

    Last year I travelled Hanoi-Luang Prabang QV931 sold by Lao operated by Vitenam Airlines. Leaves at 1210, we’re at the airport around 8:30-9:00. Shame on me for not checking in ahead of time, total JV move.

    “I’m sorry sir, you’ve been bumped from the flight” “huh? excuse me? We’re 3 hours early, there is no one else here, how can that possibly be?” “well sir others must have checked in at their origins and be connecting through Hanoi”

    So they rebook my wife and I for an evening flight, we’re set to miss a half day in LP, pretty bummed out. I ask about compensation, they insist the best they can do is $100. Which they proceed to produce as a crisp $100 USD bill. I sign a bunch of documentation in triplicate to prove I received the compensation, they photocopy my passport, the works.

    We’re milling about, the 5 or so VA agents working the desk don’t have a line, they continue to make calls and hack away at the computer. “Ah sir, we’ve found you seats” Now I’m very relieved and still not quite thinking straight. I hand back the $100, supervisor folks gently in half and places in his dress shirt pocket.

    No receipt that I handed back the money. Which later while I’m sitting at the gate watching a Russian couple (??) be distressed in a conversation with a VA employee gets me very anxious that I will be shaken down to “return” the $100 again.

    We ended up boarding our original flight that was either full or nearly full without further issue and proceeding with a great LP experience.

  8. Thanks for sharing.

    One another note, you should plan to fly a handful of those Optiontown partners – we’d love to read those reviews!!!

  9. Interesting. We used Optiontown successfully a couple of years ago on flights between SGN and HAN and also for access to the lounges featuring furniture that appeared to be from French colonial times.

    It’s obvious from your experience that either we were fortunate or Optiontown isn’t working as well.

  10. I used OptionTown without any problems several years ago on Air AsiaX from Sydney to KUL flying on their A340. But I can understand having problems at a smaller airport that may not see many of these requests.

  11. In the past you’ve said that you value first class domestic upgrade at $40 an hour because you can work.

    For this you paid $58 for 40 mins. Did you work on the flight?

    I’d not, why did you lie earlier? Just admit that you’re a spoilt brat who can’t stand economy money be damned.

  12. @Barry — I think he did it to report on how it works. That would be his job, to explain all of this to his audience. If you hate it, stop reading it.

    I’ll be in the area soon, as the flights are so short I don’t see the need, but interesting to see how it works (or doesn’t)

  13. HI BEN

    Interesting post yet again. Optiontown is pretty big in India, especially for travellers flying with Air India or Vistara. I’ve been using this service for almost 15 months and have tried it with Vistara 9 times and once each with Air India as well as Vietnam Airlines. Having used it with different airlines, I can comment on the fact that the upgrade experience is different with different airlines. Like for example, it is exactly the same on Vistara and Air India but different with Vietnam Airlines. With Vistara, when you run through the process with option town, it gives you two options to upgrade : 1. Upgrade subject to availability (this is cheaper than option 2 and money is refunded if upgrade doesn’t clear) 2. Confirmed upgrade within 4 hours of the payment.

    Hope that helps you understand optiontown a bit better 🙂

  14. Another one here who has used option town successfully both on VN and Air Asia X.

    I suspect it was because you were flying from Luang Prabang. I had no such issues flying from SGN-HAN-CXR-SGN.

    What I didn’t get in any place except Nha Trang was lounge access.

  15. I used Optiontown twice on SAS and had a great experience both times. I was notified about 3 days before each flight that my upgrades had been accepted and I don’t remember them being “subject to availability”. No issues at the airport either. I think this must be specific to Vietnam Airlines.

  16. I’ve used OptionTown with Air Asia X (KUL-XIY) and it was not as you described so perhaps the problem is more with the airline. I received an email I believe 48 hrs before departure confirming upgrade and I was able to check in online with a confirmed upgrade.

  17. I have used optiontown twice. I got upgraded once when I was boarding. The other one was a day in advance. Both times the business class were empty.

    I have mix feeling about it.

  18. We used OT with AirBaltic from RIX to OSL a few years back. Got upgraded to business about 24hrs before departure. Then, got a new message about 20hrs later saying we didnt!
    Arrived at the airport and checked in for business class, got our business boarding passes and no questions asked. An enjoyable trip with an underestimated airline. A few days later we got a refund from OT saying they were sorry we didnt get upgraded 😀
    I can agree with you Ben, OT is unpredictable, but it has always been in a poitive way for us at least!

  19. I have used it a couple times on AirAsiaX from Syd-KUL and it has never taken more than five mins to upgrade me. VN is not the most technologically advanced airline though.

  20. This is good information. I’m flying Hanoi to Paris next week on VN. I’m going to take my chances and try to upgrade at the airport instead of using OptionTown.

  21. I think the staff in LP are simply not trained to deal with OT.

    I fly every week between HAN and SGN and use OT without any issues.

    Check in agents immediately know what OT is, and upgrade you.

    So I’m not sure if it’s just cause LP ground agents are not well trained or you just had a very very bad incident.

  22. I bought 4 upgrades in 2015 and have not been successfully upgraded in any Airasia flights from Australia to Kuala Lumpur.
    When I asked for a refund optiontown simply said they would credit me in the future.
    I would not use optiontown again.

  23. Dear All Travelers.

    I work for Optiontown. Thanks for the time you have taken to write about our service. Its unfortunate that we could not convey the complete information to customers traveling with Vietnam Airlines, when you tried our service, so I am going to at least give you the complete piece of information here. All Optiontown upgrades are granted with a fully automatic process, which means, if our algorithms choose to upgrade you based on a variety of optimization runs and of course actual seats released by the airline for upgrades, your booking is automatically modified in the airline reservation system to the higher class, and then we notify the travelers via email. However, Vietnam Airlines has chosen a different method to grant upgrades; whereby, after Optiontown system has completed the optimization runs and selected customers for upgrades, the VN airlines want the airport staff to finally award the upgrades based on availability at the time of check-in. I know this is not efficient in terms of time, cost and effort and certainly not very customer friendly, but that’s how the airline wants to run the process. So, in spite of being selected by our algorithms, in the case of Vietnam Airlines, travelers receive the message for a conditional upgrade (subject to availability at the airport). We shall however take your feedback and share it with the airline, hoping, it will allow them to change their process. If there are other questions related to other airlines or any other product, do let me know. Have you tried our Flight Pass product that allows you to buy economy or business class tickets for up to 50% less than market price! http://www.ba.com/flightpass Thanks

  24. I upgraded to business class with Optiontown last year for our flight with Vietnam Airlines. We upgraded from Melbourne, Australia to HCMC, and then a second flight from HCMC to Hanoi.

    The process was a bit of a shambles… When we go to the airport and we went to get our tickets the lady had no idea what we were talking about, and told us to speak to whoever was at the boarding gates, and that she “highly doubts” we would be upgraded.

    Optiontown also says you get exclusive business class lounge access – we were told at the airport this is not correct.

    We spoke to a lady at the gate and she was quite confused also, and said that they very rarely get anything from Optiontown and wasn’t sure what to do.. then called someone else, and eventually after about 20 mins, she gave us two business class boarding tickets.

    The business class experience was fantastic, however once we got to HCMC to get our connecting flight to Hanoi, we went through customs etc and then went to the boarding gate again, told the lady there we were upgraded with Optiontown. She said, No you’re not… you have to go back down to the main area in the airport where they sell the tickets… this was back past customs…. My hubby kicked up a bit of a stink and said there is only 40 minutes til the flight departs, she called someone and left us standing there for 10 mins… said we have to wait…. then she spoke to someone I’m assuming was a supervisor or manager… with a roll of his eyes he handed us two business class boarding passes…

    For the long flight, it was definitely worth it… even if they didnt have any idea what was going on… for a short flight i wouldnt bother though.

    We ended up upgrading to Premium Economy on the way home and it was a complete waste of money…

  25. Good that you had an Optiontown staff clarify the Vietnam Airlines peculiarity. My experience with Optiontown upgrade and extra seats have been positive. I had been advised within the stipulated timeframe when successful, with no hassles to follow. And when not successful, my refunds have been automatic to my credit card with no need to chase them.

  26. SCAM ALERT: Optiontown + AirAsiaX

    I purchased the Optiontown upgrade option for my KUL-Melbourne sector for USD258.Upon check-in at the counter I was told the upgrade it was unavailable.I took my regular seat 35K.

    However, Optiontown REFUSED TO REFUND my USD258 saying that AirAsia confirmed that the upgrade was successful. Even with a proof of my economy boarding pass, neither AirAsia nor Optiontown would acknowledge the fact that I wasn’t upgraded. Both parties kept passing the problem to the other. Optiontown told me to contact Air Asia, and AirAsia told me to contact Optiontown. I had to dispute the charge with my credit card company Citibank. Citibank took the case seriously, weighed the evidence and ruled in my favor. Of course with rejection from Optiontown. This took a long 5 months, and after Citibank has ruled in my favor and case closed. Air Asia finally replied to my continuous contact and AGAIN in favor of Optiontown.

    So BEWARE, better to stay away. NOT worth the hassle.

  27. I got the upgrade confirmation via email went to the airport and got economy class boarding card then I said I upgraded and this is the email 30 minutes waiting time talking with check in supervisor so they gave me business class and my boyfriend economy although we had upgrade for both, in the end we both got it, on the way out the gave us a business lounge but on the way back they said no its not included on the way back same problems with the check in waiting for ages got upgrade as we paid for premium economy horrible service that option town and Vietnam check in

  28. Sorry to hear you had a bad experience .I just recently flew from Perth to Phuket on Airasia X about a week after booking I received an email from Airasia telling me of the optiontown ESO empty seat option or flatbed upgrade. I already had seats and meals so I decided to try the 3 seat option on both flights Kl/Perth leg I got it on both flights each time I received a email about 3 days before the flight. I still checked in 14 days before and just simply used the same barcode and showed them my confirmation email at the gate they wrote on both boarding passes that I had 3 seats . It was pretty much seamless. I have heard a few bad reviews but for me it was great and I will be using it again next time I am trying for the flatbed.

  29. SCAM ALERT: Optiontown + AirAsiaX CASE 2

    I purchased the Optiontown upgrade option for my KUL-OSAKA sector for USD413. Upon check-in at the counter I was told the upgrade it was unavailable.I took my regular seat.

    After that requested for a full refund.. They did only a partial refund USD376.

    And option town totally ignored my 5 emails after i keep asking why the amount paid and refunded does not tally.

    Its a very bad experiance. All please beware

  30. What a joke spare your money, it’s only good for individual travellers. Regardless when you pay far in advanced there is never a guarantee, so you may as well ask on the check-in if you get an discounted business seat.
    Worse if you travel with a family and fork out a lot of money 4 month in advanced they enjoy your interest for no guarantee at all. To make matters worse you can’t even do pre-check-in as they tell you to wait to last 4 hrs this means that all good seats are gone and your family is splatter all over the plan. What a joke, spare your money and book with a prober Airline at least you get seat option right away and a meal and friendly service. For air Asia to allow your details given to opinion Town should be illegal as they try to make you believe first up they belong together. Does it work? for sure like Lotto lol

  31. Paid for upgrade Goa to Muscat to Lon got the Goa to Muscat but not the main trip Muscat to London . Sat in airport was at gate about to board when I got an email saying no upgrade. No one at Dabolim or Muscat knew who option town was it took nearly an hour for some one at Goa to get me boarding pass . Got to Muscat 5 diff people no idea what I was talking about then gave me a boarding pass which was economy not business . Got on plane took off asked someone if all the business seats were full they said no they moved people about . Not happy

  32. Have used Optiontown twice. First time all went good, went straight to the Vietnam Airlines desk at check in showed the upgrade e/mail & was sent to business class check in after only a couple of minutes. No lounge access but everything else worked fine.
    Tried again about 5 weeks later was advised ( very nicely ) by the lady at the Vietnam Airlines desk that no upgrade available but told me she had a nice economy seat with leg room, sent me to the business class check so all good so far.
    Am now trying to get a refund back from Optiontown, have sent 3 e/mails & still no answer. the promise of a refund within 5 days , don’t think so. has now been 32 days 7 I can’t even get an answer from them.

  33. Yes lately is CO get money and run no reply no upgrade calling is not possible phone is not working always stop you can call USA, Australia or England all same
    Most likely this company just collecting money from people.
    My flight leaving in 22 hours and no reply from Opitonstown yet .

  34. My husband and I just flew Volaris LAX to GDL, Mexico. We selected the upgrade to a Flat-Bed with Optiontown. We received confirmation of the upgrade several days before the flight, along with the seat numbers we had been assigned. Check-in at the airport was seamless. For an extra $4 per person it was definitely worth it.

  35. I have recently been robbed by this morally bankrupt organisation.
    After receiving an email about flatbed upgrades that I initially, stupidly, believed was from Air Asia, the email was splashed with their logo, I paid$560 for flat bed upgrades.
    Received an email proir to the flight, same day, congratulating me on being upgraded.
    Ran all over KL airport, as directed, to be told indifferently that was unsuccessful.
    When you consider that amount of flat beds on the flight, 8 seats, there was no chance anyway.
    After 4 months they refuse to answer emails and will not return my money.
    This is a scam, to use customers money, obviously invested, in the money market for free.
    Don’t go near them

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