Game of Seats: How to Fly in First or Business Class for Cheap

Paying a little extra to get a seat like this is worth a lot on a long flight. (Photo: Thinkstock)

By Robert McGarvey

Don’t kid yourself. Flying in coach is not nearly as nice as flying up front, where there’s vastly more space, the drinks are included, and the food often is decent and of course free. On a flight under two hours, maybe it doesn’t matter. But on longer flights — and definitely any flight to Europe or Asia — flying in front makes all the difference.

At what cost? In a quick search on Hipmunk for a Newark, N.J. to Los Angeles round trip, $314 showed up as the cheapest seat in coach. In business class the same flight was a wallet-deflating $1,189. That differential is typical. Service up front is better, because the passengers are paying for it.

You want it, but not at the full sticker price? Know this: the up front game has shifted in ways that very much may favor you. Historically, airlines served up business and first-class seats, gratis, as perks to their frequent fliers. That is much less common today. Airlines don’t want to give away premium seats when they can sell them. What this means is that unsold seats in front are in play and costs are dynamic especially as the flight time draws near.

Here are five proven techniques for getting upgrades on the cheap, occasionally for free. 

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Always look at the upgrades offered when you check in online, said travel blogger Wilko van de Kamp. He elaborated: “I’ve been offered business class seats during check-in for anywhere between $150 to $300, for both trans-atlantic as well as North American long-haul flights.” 

It doesn’t hurt to ask about any cheap upgrades when you check in for your flight. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Prices definitely vary, from airline to airline and route to route, but at 24 hours before takeoff — when online check-in opens — the carrier has a solid count of empty seats in front, and it is in fast-forward mode to fill them.

The next opportunity is when you arrive at the airport, and there the advice is simple: ask the gate agent, urged travel expert Joe Brancatelli, who blogs at JoeSentMe. He added: “It never hurts to proactively ask and see if there is a cheap upgrade available.” The clock is ticking ever louder and carriers hate to take off with empty seats in front, because that is money lost.

Deals can be stunning. Ryan Lile of the Frequent Flyer Academy said he scored a business-class ticket to Nicaragua last year for only $300 more than coach. Other fliers tout similar coups with the advice being that prices fall on front-of-the-cabin seats as take-off nears. In some cases, they say, just a few dollars more has bought an upgrade and that, really, is money well spent. 

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But paying with cash is not the only route to more comfort. Use miles to buy your way up front, said Ari Charlestein, who operates AwardMagic.com. Have 15,000 American Airlines miles? You can buy yourself an upgrade from discount economy to business on a domestic flight. Every airline offers similar deals.

You don’t have miles to burn? Listen to Charlestein and play credit card bingo, signing up for cards that deliver bonus miles for doing so. Many airlines offer 50,000 miles just for signing up for their credit card. Charlestein said he signs up for 10 to 12 credit cards yearly, just to rack up the bonuses. “It’s a game,” he said, but winners also get tasty rewards.

Prefer free? The advice from multiple sources is to wear your go-to meeting clothes when you plan to ask for a free upgrade. It sounds so retro, but sources insist if you look the part of a front of the plane passenger, you just may score a seat that didn’t sell. 

If you don’t mind getting bumped and waiting, you could score a first-class seat. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Do you have schedule flexibility, and nerves of steel? In that case: volunteer to be bumped, suggested Kyle Stewart, who blogs at The Trip Sherpa. When a flight is oversold and the airline asks for volunteers, make your move, he suggested. “Everything is wide open,“ he said. "The smarter you are, the more you will get. Ask for a confirmed seat in first or business.”

Stewart continued: “The agents can even give you first on an international flight. The system is about re-accommodating the passenger.”

Why would they give away a first-class flight? Simple, said Stewart. What they do not want to do is part with cold, hard cash. And they need to lure passengers from the oversold flight before that plane can take off, so if a front-of-the-plane seat on a later flight is what it takes, consider it done. Be plain. Say you will take the bump but you want a guaranteed seat up front on the next available flight. You just may get your wish.

Bottom line: there are seats up front that are nicer, and one can be yours. Just know your plan and get in motion before the carrier clock times out.

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