How to Fly First Class Without Paying Full Price

Jessie Beck

If you’ve ever thought flying in first or business class was an out of bounds dream, think again. There are times when upgrading to first class isn’t just achievable and affordable, but damn-right worth it

For most of us, paying full price for a first or business class ticket is beyond our travel budgets. Fortunately, first class upgrades — though less frequent than they used to be — are a way for money-savvy travelers to fly in luxury at a fraction of the cost. But, how do you get a coveted first or business class upgrade? And is it possible to score a free upgrade or fly first class for the price of an economy ticket?

For those of us who aren’t charging business class fares to the corporate card, but still dream of flying in style, here’s how to get upgraded to first class or fly in a premium class for cheap.

Buy an Upgrade for Your Economy Ticket with Miles, Points, or Cash

Generally the cheapest way to get a business or first class ticket is to purchase an economy ticket, then buy an upgrade. You can either do this soon after booking, or look for last-minute upgrades as your travel date approaches.

Counterintuitively, the price for premium cabin fares actually decrease as you get closer to departure. To see your upgrade options, go to the airline’s app or website, open your reservation, and click on “Upgrade Options”. You can also take advantage of a last-minute upgrade while checking in on your app or at the airline kiosk.

Bid for an Upgrade

Some airlines will allow you to name your price, like at an auction, and bid for a business or first class upgrade. In order to do this, you must have a confirmed reservation, and be ready to pay if your bid is accepted. This is not a guaranteed upgrade, the way paying for one with cash or points is, but it’s a way to gamble on getting that upgrade at a discount.

Upgrade an Economy Ticket with Points During Booking

To upgrade your ticket with miles and points, either do it in the original booking process or after you have purchased an economy ticket on your airline’s booking portal. Just be sure to do the math and make sure it’s actually a good deal.

Buy a Business or First Class Seat with Cash and Points

Buying an award ticket is one of the best ways to get a good deal on a business or first class ticket. For example, a recent search for a roundtrip ticket from San Francisco to Paris booked with points on United turned up a price of 120,000 points, worth about $1,200. The same business class ticket with cash cost $6,000. While double the price of a $600 economy ticket, it’s a bargain compared to the full price business fare.

If you don’t have enough miles to purchase an award ticket, some airlines will allow you to purchase with a miles and cash combination. This usually still gives you a better deal than purchasing with cash.

Get Upgrades for Status

Another way that loyalty pays: if you achieve elite status on an airline, you’re privy to increasingly rare perks such as free bags and, yes, free upgrades. Unfortunately, you have to fly (and spend) a lot to get there. Signing up for an airline’s credit card can help you max out the spending limits, but this strategy isn’t for everyone.

If you’re bidding for an upgrade or relying on your status to give you a bump, pay attention to the fare class of your economy ticket when you’re purchasing it. Airlines will prioritize certain fare classes, and classes of passengers, over others. For example, if you have a flexible economy ticket, you’re more likely to get the upgrade than someone with a plain old economy ticket.

Volunteer to Give Up Your Seat on an Overbooked Flight

Airlines will overbook flights to protect themselves against no-shows and, as a result, will sometimes have to bump passengers from their flight. Usually, they’ll ask for volunteers before involuntarily bumping passengers onto a later flight.

If you volunteer or get bumped, request an upgrade in exchange for agreeing to move onto another flight. In fact, airlines will sometimes give passengers a first or business class seat simply because it’s the last one available.

Ask for an Upgrade at the Check-in Counter

I’ve only had success getting a free upgrade to first class by asking once, on a flight from Washington D.C. to Addis Ababa (serious score!), but it never hurts to ask. You can increase your chances of getting a free upgrade to first or business class if you:

  • Dress nicely, and be nice. Leave the sweatpants at home and choose a nice airplane outfit instead. Also remember to ask nicely — the agents are doing you a favor, after all.
  • Travel during peak hours. It sounds counterintuitive, but you’re more likely to get that upgrade on a full flight than a half-full one.
  • Travel solo. It’s much easier to get upgraded to first or business class when you’re traveling alone than with a friend.

Look For Deals on Business Class Fares

The only way to guarantee a spot in first or business class is to buy a ticket outright and, though rare, you can sometimes find a discount or deal on premium class fares. A couple of ways to find business class airfare deals include:

  • Run a quick search on Google Flights. Go to Google Flight’s explore feature and change the fare class from economy to business or first. This can help you find the cheapest premium class flight to a region within a broad span of time — though still at a higher price than economy.
  • Subscribe to a deals newsletter. Scott’s Cheap Flights is a newsletter that sends subscribers daily flight deals, including mistake fares. Though Scott’s Cheap Flights mostly flags economy deals, they will occasionally come across solid fares for business and first class, like a recent $600 RT deal from LAX – Costa Rica. Premium subscribers will get immediate notification of mistake fares.
  • Compare classes on the airline’s website. When you’re booking, make sure you select “show all fares” to see a comparison of flight prices for all fare classes, including business and first. Sometimes the price difference isn’t crazy.
  • Pay attention to Cyber Monday and Travel Tuesday deals. Airlines will often run discounts around Cyber Monday and even well into the new year, when travel and bookings tend to slow. Subscribe to their newsletters for alerts.
  • Read the fine print on your credit card. Travel credit cards will often have deals and exclusive discounts available to their credit card holders, such as AMEX’s international airline program.

On domestic flights, business and first class fares can sometimes be as little as a few hundred dollars more than an economy ticket and can be worth the extra $100-200. This is especially true if it helps you avoid paying for other add-ons, like checked luggage, priority boarding, or lounge access. You’re going to have to pay the fee anyway, so you might as well get a better seat, right?

For example, I recently paid an extra $80 (one way) to fly from San Francisco to Seattle on a first class ticket. Since I was flying with my bike (and, well, you can’t exactly fit that in a carry on) I would have had to pay $50 to check it on economy. However, it was free with the first class ticket, making the net-net increase a mere $30.

Buy a Seat on a Private Jet

Believe it or not, you don’t have to be a billionaire to fly in a private jet. With the help of private jet share or booking companies like JetSuite, Blade, and LinearAir, you can to book a seat on a private jet. Usually, these jets fly out of smaller, local airports, allow travelers to skip TSA and show up just 15-20 minutes before their flight.

This avenue is generally worth it if you’re traveling with a group of friends, especially if you’re buying out part or all of the jet. Some will let you buy an individual ticket.

With JetSuite you can either find a seat or rent out the full plane, and they’re not that unreasonable. For a single seat on a roundtrip flight from SF to LA, you could get a ticket for about $400. If you’re willing to book last minute (as in, the day before), you book an entire jet using SuiteDeals for as low as $536 each way. For a group of four, that comes out to $1,072 roundtrip for everyone, or $268 roundtrip per person.

This air taxi service connects travelers with small aircrafts that can take you and 2-7 of your friends on shorter air routes. While some flights could still cost you upwards of $1,000 per person, not all of them do. “The average transaction,” [founder] William Herp told TPG“comes to about $2,000 for a passenger configuration of 3-8 seats,” says The Points Guy. If you’re flying to and from regional airports, give it a shot.

Is it Worth it Upgrading to First Class?

It’s usually, but not always worth it to get upgraded to first class. For any flight under two hours, first class really just means priority booking, lunge access, free checked luggage, and maybe a free snack and a drink — perks you could also get with a loyalty credit card.

First class upgrades are most worth it on long-haul and international flights, especially on planes and airlines that have lay-flat seats and truly luxurious amenities (looking at you, Emirates and Cathay).

The other worth-it factor to consider is price. If the upgrade is free, it’s always worth it. But if you’re paying, either in cash, miles, or a mix of both, make sure to compare the total price of your fare and upgrade to a cash economy ticket and a cash premium ticket.

Finally, not all first class seats are equal. After going through all of the above, double check that your deal is the deal you think you’re getting and:

  • Look out for mixed cabin itineraries. If your flight involves a layover, some upgrades will be “mixed itinerary,” meaning you’ll be in economy class for one flight and business or first for the next, which is a poor deal if the first class seat is on a short leg.
  • Check the type of seat you’re really getting. Before you book, look at a preview of the airplane and your seat on a website like SeatGuru. Once, I got a great deal on a first class red eye ticket while booking with points, only to find out that it was an old plane with no entertainment system, no food service, and OK chairs. Oh well.

However you get there, when you figure out how to get upgraded to first class for free or cheap, it’s like winning the travel lottery. Flying in style, comfort, and all within budget: what’s not to love?

 

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