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what is an airline upgrade

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although I have done a substantial amount of air-travel, it has mostly been for pleasure. ..thus the inexperience in the matter of upgrades to flights. I read of people obtaining upgrades from coach/economy to business or first class. How does one even go about asking for that? Is there a cost? what can be done to increase one's "luck" factor?
I will be flying from YVR to southeast Asia, perhaps Bangkok in January 2012...any tips?
Thanks for all comments and observations

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