Bid for an Upgrade on Your Next Flight

Say you buy a cheap economy ticket. But also say you're a bit on the large side or old enough that getting in and out of a sardine-can seat isn't as easy as it once was. So you'd really like to escape the cattle-car seat squeeze and lousy cabin service that come with that economy ticket. Unfortunately, at list prices, first-class and business-class tickets cost up to 20 times more than economy tickets—prices that are nonstarters for most travelers. Until recently, your only hopes for a comfortable seat were if you were at an exalted level in an airline's frequent-flyer program, if you had started with a full-fare economy ticket, or if you had enough miles or purchased certificates for an upgrade. But now, a handful of big airlines give you an additional option: Bid for available upgrades.

As far as I can tell, the 14 airlines that currently offer upgrade bidding use the "Plusgrade" bid management system: American, Air Mauritius, Air New Zealand, Austrian, Brussels, Copa, Czech, El Al, Estonian, Etihad, Sri Lankan, TAP, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia. These airlines limit bids to selected routes, flights, and times. And they typically do not announce those specifics in advance.

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Bid upgrades are one-class. Among the 14 lines using Plusgrade, Air Mauritius, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia offer premium economy on long-haul intercontinental flights. On those lines, travelers with economy tickets can upgrade only to premium economy, and only travelers who buy premium economy can upgrade to business class. On other airlines, upgrades from economy class are to first class (domestic U.S.) or business class on intercontinental flights. And some lines' short-haul flights do not offer a true upgrade cabin at all.

Where airlines do offer upgrades, details vary, but the basic bidding principles are common:

  • Some airlines may email you when upgrade bids are available for some or your entire itinerary.
  • If not, you have to check for yourself. Once you have an economy ticket, you can log onto the airline's website and check your booking to determine whether the line is accepting upgrade bids. Minimum advance bidding times range from three to seven days.
  • If bids are available, select a price you're willing to pay for the flight—or for each leg of your itinerary if you have connections. The standard approach is to use a "slider" to indicate the value, and apparently most if not all airlines include an indicator of how likely your bid will be successful.
  • Some lines allow you to bid with frequent-flyer miles/points as well as cash.
  • Enter the details of the credit card you plan to use to pay for the upgrade.
  • Wait for an email from the airline to see whether your bid is accepted. If it is, the airline automatically charges your card; if not, you don't pay anything.

Obviously, the bidding process requires that you be willing to remain in your original cabin if your bid isn't successful. If you want to assure yourself of a comfortable flight, you either have to buy a premium ticket or upgrade with miles or certificates. But if you're willing to roll the dice, you may be able to move up front for a price much lower than any other way.

At this point, I can't make any recommendations as to how much to bid for an upgrade. I checked the three large online websites where travelers can report bidding experiences—BetterBidding, BiddingForTravel.com, and TheBiddingTraveler—and only one, BetterBidding, had any entries related to upgrade bidding (specifically, one experience report). Presumably, these websites will be able to provide more data in coming months. Meanwhile, urban legends hold that the bidding site's estimated odds generally push you to bid more than you need to bid—if true, certainly not surprising. Although I'm not mounting a bidding website, I'd like to hear from anyone who has tried a bid.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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