How to Decide If Paying for a Seat Upgrade Is Worth the Money

QSuite business class of a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 jet airliner on display at the International Paris Air Show in Le Bourget

If you’re flying on a beer budget but have a taste for champagne, a cabin upgrade might be an ideal solution. But you’ll want to be sure you’re getting your money’s (or miles) worth.

Here are our five top tips for moving forward in the cabin, without looking back.

1. It’s always worth it when you’re bidding.

Cathay Pacific is the latest airline to offer this service. On select routes and fares types, the airline will let customers bid to move up one cabin class.

A large number of airlines around the world offer bid-to-upgrade options for premium economy or even business class.

The best part of bidding is that you get to decide how much you’re willing to pay. Bids can start for a small fraction of the price you’d pay for a ticket in that cabin. But there are a few catches.

First, you may not always find this option available for your flight. Airlines will limit the routes on which this offer is available. Even on routes where bids are typically offered, if the airline has met its passenger minimum for the cabin, you may not get a chance. You also may not get a bid option if you’ve bought a deeply discounted “bare fare” ticket. And you won’t find out whether you’ve won the bid until very close to departure — usually between 48 and 24 hours — but you lose nothing if your bid is refused.

2. For long flights, last-minute upgrade offers can be a good value.

Many airlines send out last-minute promotions by email or text when they have empty seats to fill at the front of the plane. These upgrades are often a very good deal.

Some airlines even offer last-minute upgrades at the check-in counter, at the check-in kiosk, and with last-minute announcements on in-flight entertainment screens. Keep an eye out for those, and if you don’t see them, it costs nothing to ask.

3. You could use miles, but check the exchange.

Occasionally, airlines will offer crazy good deals to fly in luxury for miles with a small transaction and taxes fee. But airline miles can be tricky.

Because you can trade them for goods, they are a form of currency — but they’re not regulated like money. Airlines control the value and can change the rules on free flights and upgrades whenever they like. If you don’t fly often, those miles may have more value when exchanged for a free flight.

If you’re a very frequent flier, you may already qualify for upgrades based on your status. Spending miles for an upgrade might only make sense if chances of a free upgrade are slim, or if you have miles about to expire. And if you’re playing the mileage game, it’s smart to do your homework on what mileage experts suggest for your program.

4. Upgrading is mostly a long game.

Unless you’re very tall and very worried about legroom, paying to upgrade on short flights is probably not worth it. On U.S. transcontinental flights, you may be glad you spent a bit extra, because you’ll get a private cabin and even lie-flat seats. But if you’re flying within Europe, business class is pricey but not substantial.

Because some short-haul economy fares these days can be every bit as expensive as flying long-haul, short-haul upgrades make even less sense. Save your money for when it really counts: as a cure for long-haul misery.

One good way to decide is to divide your total costs, including the upgrade, by the hours you’ll be flying. Is that hourly rate worth the added comfort the airline offers in the next cabin up?

5. Save up for the trip home.

Upgrades can also be booked for separate flight legs. If you can’t afford to upgrade your whole journey, the return might be the best one to splurge on. After a tiring trip, spend the money, pamper yourself a bit, and enjoy that champagne.

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