Three ways to score a first-class upgrade

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 7, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AskEd & AnswerEd, business travel, Ed Perkins, elite status, frequent flyer, low-cost airline, mileage redemption, upgrade.

As I noted a few weeks ago, getting an upgrade from coach to business or first class is often difficult, often expensive, and almost always confusing. This follow-up report was prompted by a question from a reader that started out, very simply, this way: "I don't understand how upgrades work." And that's all we really need to get started.

When domestic first class generally costs roughly triple the price of coach, and international business class generally costs eight to 20 times the price of economy, many of you probably say, "I'll stick with the rear cabin, thank you." If you have to pay the difference yourself, chances are you'll agree, and remain with the cattle car.

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Almost everyone who pays the asking price for a first- or business-class ticket has that ticket largely or fully paid for by someone else—an employer, directly, or the U.S. government through a tax deduction. Sure, a few well-heeled personal travelers buy at the top, but for most of us, finagling an upgrade is the only way we ever get a seat in the front cabin.

The reason we finagle is simple: Flying in coach/economy for more than an hour or so is a miserable experience. Seats are far too small to accommodate us comfortably and the cabin service is, at best, underwhelming. Only one or two airlines, worldwide, offer coach/economy seats anyone in his/her right mind would describe as "comfortable" or even "adequate." But most of those same people can't justify the regular fare differences. So we finagle—with money, frequent flyer status, or both—sometimes with an assured seat, sometimes as a gamble. Here are the options.

Buying your way up: The sure thing

You can sometimes buy your way into business or first class, with a confirmed seat, for much less than the posted fare difference:

  • You can often buy international business class at around 50 percent of the full-fare price. Some discount agencies regularly sell those tickets. The big transatlantic airlines sometimes offer their own business-class sales. The AmEx Platinum card offers twofers in business class on a bunch of international lines, and Diners Club Carte Blanche offers twofers on British Airways on premium economy and business class tickets. Even at half price, however, an international business-class ticket generally costs several times the price of a seat in the cattle car.
  • A few startup lines offer transatlantic business class for much less than their giant competitors. The best current deal is Maxjet, which sells some of its business-class seats to London for as little as $699 (plus taxes and fees) each way from New York or Las Vegas, or $499 from Washington. That's not much more than double what you'd have to pay for economy. Eos, L'Avion, and Silverjet offer similar service but at somewhat higher prices.
  • Some small domestic lines sell business or first class for less then the legacy lines. Among them: Spirit and Sun Country, but those fares are still much higher than those lines' lowest coach fares.
  • Some domestic lines offer a special coach fare that provides an immediate, confirmed upgrade. US Airways calls it "Y-up." Other lines have different names. Although the upgrade is "free," the base coach fare is at or close to the top of the coach price range, so the net result is that you still pay double or more. It's a good deal only if circumstances force you into an expensive coach ticket, anyhow.

Buying your way up: Maybe

When you can't get a confirmed upgraded seat at a decent price, you can sometimes play "rostrum roulette" with low-cost standby upgrades:

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