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Buy a better seat: Upgrade from coach to first class for under $50

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on January 13, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Jessica Labrencis, upgrade.

If you’re not an elite member of an airline’s frequent flyer program or a company-funded business traveler, the luxury of business and first class probably seems unattainable while you’re cramped in coach with a cheap ticket. However, opportunistic travelers can get a better seat—and you don't need miles to do it.

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When flying a major U.S. carrier, your best chance of getting a cheap upgrade is by flying Delta. On the day of departure, Delta offers standby upgrades that allow passengers to upgrade at the departure gate for as little as $50 if your flight has extra room in the forward cabin. Upgrades are available to both members and non-members of Delta’s SkyMiles frequent flyer program, and are only offered on domestic and Caribbean routes. (Upgrades are not available on fares in the L, T, and U range, however, which are the most deeply discounted.)

To calculate the price of an upgrade, Delta charges a dollar amount per 500 miles.

  • $50: Up to 500 miles
  • $75: 501-1000 miles
  • $100: 1001-1500 miles
  • $150: 1501 or more miles

Other airlines, including Northwest and United, offer upgrades for travelers using self-service check-in kiosks. These upgrades are not available to all passengers, however. Northwest’s E-First upgrades are available to passengers flying on fare class Y, B, M, H, and Q on flights within the U.S. (including Alaska), and to Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. The E-First upgrades are available for a “nominal fee” when first-class seats are available. Northwest does not publicly release prices for E-First upgrades ahead of time.

United’s EasyCheck-in kiosks offer upgrades to business or first class (from economy and business class, respectively) on a somewhat random basis. According to the United representative we spoke with, the kiosks offer upgrades to every third eligible passenger at varying prices. Upgrade prices depend on destination and type of fare.

And, United also allows travelers with full-fare economy tickets (fare classes Y, YUA, BUA, and similar) to purchase domestic upgrades at the airport. Upgrades cost $325, and are sold in 500-mile increments (or $200 for Mileage Plus frequent flyer members).

Other major airlines, including American, offer similar upgrades for full-fare economy ticket holders. Keep in mind, however, that full-fare economy tickets are very expensive, and if you’re a budget traveler, it’s likely that you will be flying on a cheaper discounted fare.

Low-fare carriers

America West offers inexpensive first-class upgrades for all travelers, regardless of fare class, which makes even travelers with deeply-discounted coach fares eligible for upgrades. Upgrades can be purchased from 30 hours to 30 minutes prior to departure, at check-in kiosks, ticket counters, the departure gate, online, or by calling America West (800-235-9292).

America West, like Delta, charges by miles flown.

  • $50: Up to 500 miles
  • $100: 501-1000 miles
  • $150: Over 1000 miles
  • $200: Nonstop coast-to-coast flights

AirTran also offers upgrades on its full coach fares (fare class Y) online, at its airport check-in kiosks, airport reservations counters, and the departure gate. Travelers on nonstop flights can upgrade to business class for $35 to $75, depending on the flight.

Low-fare carrier ATA also offers inexpensive business-class upgrades. The airline is converting its old single-class planes into two-class planes with 12 business-class seats in each. While the airline upgrades its planes, business-class upgrades will be available on select flights at the departure gate only, and must be purchased with a credit card.

Spirit, a small carrier that serves, among other destinations, Atlantic City, Myrtle Beach, and Las Vegas, as well as Nassau, Cancun, and San Juan, offers inexpensive Spirit Plus business-class upgrades at airport ticket counters, check-in kiosks, and online. Upgrades cost between $30 to $80, depending on flight.

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