How to Get a Flight Upgrade for Almost Nothing

Caroline Costello, April 29, 2015
Fares from Washington DC:

    Land a legitimate upgrade for a fraction of the standard cost, regardless of frequent-flyer status. Just name your price.

    Passengers have reportedly grabbed highly-coveted first- and business-class upgrades for a few hundred dollars on international flights by bidding for seat upgrades. It works like this: First, you book a ticket. Shortly before departure, your airline lets you know that upgrades are available for seats in higher classes, and you enter a bid for the better spot. The cost of comfort is up to you (and is highly dependent on seat availability). Most airlines accept payment in the form of cash, frequent-flyer miles or points, or both. Some airlines only offer bidding on eligible routes.

    Auctions for upgrades make sense. Carriers that have empty seats in upper classes can fill them for more than the cost of economy tickets, and flyers can grab upgrades at affordable prices. Although it seems as if auctions may upend the status quo when it comes to award flights for frequent travelers, the Wall Street Journal reports, "Airlines holding the auctions say they take care of elite-level frequent fliers by processing their upgrades before awarding seats to auction bidders."

    Most airlines run auctions through a platform called Plusgrade. Although a lot of major carriers use the same technology, they all handle auctions a little differently. In general, an airline will put forth an auction by invitation only. A week or so before your scheduled flight, you'll receive an email asking if you'd like to consider bidding for an upgrade. Some airlines will initiate auctions via website; in this scenario, you would visit your account on your airline's website and bid from there.

    Related: 6 Ways to Get the Best Coach Seat on an Airplane

    For now, upgrade auctions are only on offer from airlines based overseas. American is the only U.S. airline to have offered bidding for upgrades. It tested a partnership with Plusgrade in 2013, but the initiative fell through. American's website page about bidding for upgrades has been taken down, and a representative from the airline told me the bidding program was "on a trial-basis only and is no longer in use."

    So you're flying on an international carrier and you want some more legroom. How much must you bid to win? It depends on the airline and the flight. While you can find plenty of stats on hotel bidding, there's not a lot of available data on the flight side. There is no big resource where you can check historical information on bidding results like there is for the hotel industry. I did some digging on forums, however, and found a few reports of winning lowball bids:

    • On a Reddit post about bidding for upgrades, user edbgon reports receiving a $200 upgrade on a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Singapore.
    • According to Reddit user vwcx on the same post, a Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi upgrade to business class on Ethiad was secured for $110.

    I asked Ken Harris, CEO of Plusgrade, for advice on successful bidding. Harris told me, "Flyers should always put their best foot forward when bidding for an upgrade. One of the great aspects of the bid model is that it engages and empowers the passenger to get a value-added experience at a price they are comfortable with. ...Every time a passenger is invited to request and upgrade, there is a slider tool and an indicator to help guide and provide feedback on the strength of each offer."

    It's true: Most carriers will outline a minimum bidding price. You can check seat availability in upper classes by pretending to book a ticket on the same flight, or on ExpertFlyer, a site that tracks seat availability via algorithm. Common sense says one should aim low for empty flights, and bid higher for full ones.

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    Read the original story: How to Get a Flight Upgrade for Almost Nothing by Caroline Costello, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

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