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How to Score a First Class Upgrade for Cheaper Than You Think

By Peter Vanden Bos
Read time: 5 minutes

Cramped seats, packed overhead bins, tiny bags of pretzels (if anything at all) — it’s all par for the course when it comes to flying these days. But while that may be true of economy class, it’s a much different story if you’re lucky enough to be flying in first class. Booking a first or business class seat gives travelers more room to stretch out, personalized service, complimentary in-flight meals and cocktails, and a host of other perks that might just make you forget what it’s like flying at the back of the plane. Many travelers think expensive first-class tickets are out of reach, but you might be surprised to learn that there are ways to score that seat upgrade for less than you think. Read on to discover four ways to fly first class for less.

Make Use of Your Frequent Flier Miles 

Business traveler holding cup of coffee next luggage in airport lounge
Credit: Westend61 via Getty Images 

You’ve probably already enrolled in one or more airline frequent flier programs, so make sure to add your frequent flier number to your itinerary each time you fly. You’ll rack up points based on the money you spend on airfare or the number of miles you fly (except for some basic economy tickets) and you can later cash these points in for free flights. Essentially, you’re getting cash back every time you fly. Plus, if you have a co-branded airline credit card or a travel rewards credit card, you can easily add to your stash by earning miles from everyday spending. 

In addition to redeeming miles for a new booking, most airlines will allow you to upgrade an existing ticket to a higher cabin using frequent flier points, cash, or a combination of both. While carriers such as American Airlines publish a handy chart detailing the number of miles needed to upgrade, others such as Delta Air Lines have variable pricing. In those cases, you’ll want to log into your itinerary on the airline’s website or app and see how much it costs to upgrade your seat. You’ll typically see both a cash price or a points price — if you’ve already got the hard-earned points from previous flights, it’s a great way to score an upgrade without paying for it out of pocket. 

Achieve Elite Status — or Travel With Somebody Who Has It

Pair of travelers sitting on floor looking at phone next to their luggage
Credit: Frazao Studio Latino/ E+ via Getty Images 

While there’s probably no such thing as a “free” upgrade anymore, the closest you can get is by achieving elite status with an airline. Fly (and spend) a certain amount each year, and you’ll be rewarded for your loyalty with perks like priority service, free bags, and waived fees. Perhaps the most coveted perk of all is the complimentary upgrade.

If any first-class seats on a flight remain unsold by the time of departure, airlines — including Alaska, American, Delta, and United — will offer their elite members space-available upgrades, prioritized based on their elite status tier. These complimentary upgrades are typically available on flights within North America, to the Caribbean, and to some destinations in northern South America. These types of complimentary upgrades usually aren’t offered on long-haul international flights; however, top spenders in these frequent flier programs can sometimes acquire upgrade certificates that can be used for any destination the airline flies to. 

Don’t have elite status? Many programs will allow the elite member to also upgrade companions traveling with them for free — even if they don’t hold any status with the airline. Or, if a friend or family member with elite status won’t be able to use all their upgrade certificates, they might be able to upgrade you instead. Finally, some airline credit cards offer elite-like perks — for example, cardholders of the Delta Reserve Card are eligible for complimentary first-class upgrades once all elite members have been cleared from the upgrade list.  

Keep an Eye Out for Discounted Upgrades Closer to Check-In 

Passenger holding passport and suitcase in airport check-in hall
Credit: d3sign/ Moment via Getty Images 

Of course, for airlines, it’s better to sell a first-class seat than give one away for free. If any premium seats remain unsold close to the departure date, airlines will often try to incentivize last-minute upgrades to fill the cabin. For example, Air Canada offers a “Last Minute Upgrade Purchase” option during check-in if seats are available — often for far less than to book a first-class seat outright. The airline (like many others) also allows travelers to place a bid on an upgrade to a premium seat up to 48 hours prior to departure, which can be another way to score a cheap first-class upgrade. 

It also doesn’t hurt to ask the agent at the check-in counter or gate about any upgrade possibilities. While there’s a slim chance of scoring a free upgrade just for looking the part, you might be offered an attractive price. That’s particularly true if the flight is oversold — if you volunteer to take a later flight, you can negotiate an upgrade to a higher cabin as part of your compensation for being flexible. 

Or, Just Book a Premium Fare From the Start

First class passenger looking out airplane window holding glass of wine with laptop open in front of her
Credit: BJI / Blue Jean Images/ blue jean images via Getty Images 

At the end of the day, some travelers aren’t willing to roll the dice on a last-minute upgrade. If you prefer peace of mind knowing you have a comfortable travel experience ahead of you, consider searching first or business class seats from the start instead of hoping for an upgrade later. 

The best way to find discounted premium cabin fares is by using Google Flights. The site’s handy calendar feature makes it easy to find the lowest fares — just enter your origin and destination, number of passengers, and type of trip (round-trip, one-way, or multi-city), making sure to specify first or business class for the class of service. You don’t even need to have a specific route pairing in mind — the site also has a map feature to explore destinations with attractive pricing. 

A good rule of thumb is to search for days of the week that have less demand from business travelers — typically Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. And if you’re flexible, consider flights with off-peak departure times such as early in the morning or late at night. 

Finally, certain credit card programs also offer their cardholders handy tools for securing cheap first-class flights. For example, cardholders of the American Express Platinum Card have access to the International Airline Program, which provides discounts on first, business, and premium economy fares on participating airlines. Cardholders can also use their points to upgrade an existing ticket. 

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