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How to fly first class for less

As the flight attendant closes the flimsy curtain dividing upper class from lower, do you ever want to jump out of your seat and yell, “I belong on the other side!” You endure the long hours in coach with your knees pushed to your chest and the arm rests biting into your sides. All the while, you gaze at the heavenly light glowing from the first-class cabin, believing that your true seat is up front.

You may be made for first class, but the costs aren’t always made for you. If you really want that spacious first- or business-class seat, you’ve got to find a workaround. Lucky for you that the airlines offer three different ways to fly first class for less.

Elite upgrades

You can pay your way into the front cabin, or you can fly your way there. The most frequent travelers earn elite status, and the biggest perks of this exclusive membership are free upgrades from coach to business or first class.

The major U.S. airlines employ two styles of upgrades. Airlines such as Continental, Delta, Northwest, and US Airways offer unlimited complimentary upgrades within the Americas to their most loyal customers. American and United give elite flyers four 500-mile upgrade coupons for every 10,000 miles flown. Travelers can then redeem the coupons for upgrades; the number of coupons required depends on the length of the flight. American and United elites can also get complimentary upgrades with no need for coupons when they purchase tickets in full-fare economy class.

To get elite status and its associated upgrades, you’ll need to fly. A lot. To reach the lowest elite tier on most airlines, you must fly 25,000 miles in one year or 25 flight segments. The best way to achieve this goal is to always fly on the same airline. Many travelers do rack up over 25,000 miles in one year but never attain elite status because they use a different airline for each flight. If elite upgrades are important, consolidate your miles earnings.

But of course, every reward has its caveat. Many flyers complain that upgrades have become elusive because too many travelers now qualify for elite perks. I tried to use my upgrade coupons on an American flight from D.C. through Houston to Los Angeles and was denied on both legs. Elite benefits are definitely worthwhile, but they’re never a sure thing.

Use miles

You could use your miles for a free flight in cramped coach. Or you could save up and use your miles to book a free flight in first class or upgrade a purchased economy ticket. Remember, if you attain elite status, you’ll get mileage bonuses on every flight, allowing you to rack up miles faster than ever.

You have two options for using miles to get to the front of the plane. The first is to pay the extra mileage for a first- or business-class seat. Sure, you could get two free coach seats for the miles price of one complimentary first-class seat. But which cabin class will make you happier and more comfortable on a long flight? How you choose to spend your miles is up to you.

Or, you could purchase an economy ticket and use miles to upgrade. You’ll actually get incredible value from your miles if you take this approach. Just remember that to upgrade the cheapest fares you’ll need more miles than to upgrade a full-fare economy ticket. Plus, some airlines charge extra fees to upgrade international flights. For example, American charges an extra $250 per person per one-way flight to upgrade from discount economy class on flights to South America, Asia, and Europe.

You’ll have to weigh the pluses and minuses of each option to determine how much you need that extra in-flight space and how much you’re willing to spend in both miles and dollars to get it.

Cheap first-class seats and upgrades

Your final option is to shell out money for a cheap first-class seat or upgrade. Everyone’s definition of affordable luxury is different, so decide how much you’re willing to pay to fly up front, then compare the fares. Low-fare carriers ATA, AirTran, and Spirit offer business-class products, which can often be less expensive than what’s offered by their legacy-line competitors. Or look for the occasional first-class fare sale from various airlines. Certain websites specialize in [% 14208 | | cheap first-class fares %], as well.

Another option is to purchase an upgrade. Delta offers same-day standby upgrades for $50 to $150, based on distance traveled. US Airways’ GoFirst upgrades are similar; for $50 to $250 per leg, you can upgrade flights within North America 30 hours to 30 minutes prior to departure. Other airlines, such as American, allow non-elites to purchase upgrades only if they’re traveling on tickets in the Y or B fare classes. Given that each airline has its own policy, it’s best to call the airline and ask about its upgrade policy and cost before you book. You should also find out if you will have to pay for upgrade coupons before you know if you’ll be able to use them, or if you will be billed after you’re upgraded.

No easy fix will miraculously transfer you out of your tiny economy space into first-class luxury. But if you’re determined, you can find ways to bump up to upper class without breaking your airfare budget.

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