The days of cashing in miles or trying to sweet-talk your way into an upgrade are mostly behind us. Today the major airlines are looking to sell a ticket in business or first rather than give it away. “I don’t recommend going to the airport without a premium ticket in hand,” says Matthew Bennett, editor of First Class Flyer, a subscription newsletter that publishes advice and premium-fare alerts. Here are the tactics you need to know.
Watch Prices Like a Hawk.
It might actually be easiest, and surprisingly affordable, just to buy a first- or business-class ticket. “The prices for premium cabins, especially domestically, are lower than they have been,” says Chris Lopinto, the co-founder of expert flyer.com, a site that helps air travelers find award seats. His favorite fare-monitoring tools include Kayak, Hopper, Yapta, and Hipmunk, all of which can easily be set up to notify you when premium fares drop and provide a prediction window for the best possible times to fly at that price.
Look for "EasyUp" Fares.
Little-known last-minute discounts on full-price economy fares, sometimes referred to as “EasyUp” fares—technically K, Y, and Z fares—can come with an automatic upgrade, meaning you’ll have a confirmed seat up front. These deals are not widely advertised since airlines don’t want to irritate passengers who bought premium tickets. First Class Flyer announces EasyUp fares as they become known. You have to be flexible and spontaneous to take advantage of these fares—and you’ll need a travel agent to find them for you.
Wait for It.
Counterintuitively, first-class seats get cheaper in the few days before a flight, whereas economy-class tickets typically get more expensive as you near your departure date. If your schedule and budget are somewhat flexible, sometimes it pays to wait. If you’re already holding an economy ticket, American, Delta, and United will occasionally e-mail offers that can be as low as $24. These paying passengers will get the upgrade instead of the elite frequent fliers, who might choose to wait fruitlessly for a free one at the gate.
Think Outside The U.S.
Some of the cheapest first- and business-class fares can be found for international flights that originate outside the United States. For example, traveling to Asia or Europe via Toronto can score you a premium seat for less than flying from New York City—which makes the short hop to Canada worth it. European fliers departing out of Dublin or Milan have access to affordable premium fares because airport taxes are low and there’s lots of competition from legacy and low-cost carriers alike—you can often find transatlantic deals for less than $2,000.
Wing It at The Airport.
asking about paid upgrades at check-in, suggests Chris McGinnis, editor of the frequent-flier blog travel skills.com. When airlines have premium seats left over and there’s no upgrade list, they’ll try to sell them at a discount. Before a recent United flight from San Francisco to Tokyo, McGinnis asked at check-in how much it would cost to upgrade to business class. Surprisingly, he was offered a seat for $600, bringing his total airfare to around $1,600. Had he paid for the seat in advance, it could have cost him around $5,000.
And if all Else Fails...
Choose an airline that has a hybrid premium-class cabin. Some carriers, like Virgin America and JetBlue, have front cabins that deliver the comforts of first class without the steep cost. JetBlue’s Mint can cost as little as $599 each way. Can’t afford the upgrade? Opt for premium economy, such as the Main Cabin Extra seats on American Airlines, which have a greater seat pitch (though not the premium amenities). Starting in 2017, American will begin premium-economy cabin service on its new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.