First class for less than you might think

George Hobica, May 09, 2008
Fares from Washington DC:

    The next time you board a plane and walk through First Class on the way to your cramped coach seat, don't be jealous. If it's a domestic flight at least, has found, you could be sitting there yourself.

    Okay, so you may think airlines are evil and would rather have empty seats in first or business than see the likes of you sneaking in. Wrong. If the seat has not been sold, or is not being filled by a loyal frequent flyer, it's entirely possible that you could have upgraded your ticket – sometimes for less than you'd think.

    "It provides the airline with…revenue on seats that might otherwise go unsold," says Tim Smith of American Airlines, which starts the bidding on available seats at $45, for each 500 miles of your flight. All you have to do is inquire with an agent on the day of travel or check in at a self-serve kiosk and see if you're automatically offered the opportunity.

    Goodbye middle seat, hello, hot towels.


    Many airlines make upgrading so simple, you can almost count on getting in if you play your cards right. Virgin America is a prime example of the easy upgrade. I recently paid nearly $500 for a one-way first class ticket from JFK to San Francisco, only to find out just a day or so before my flight that I was one of the only people in the cabin. The fare was well worthwhile: The seats are roomy and plush -- among the best in domestic first. Plus, the service is top-notch, everything on the airline's extensive entertainment system is free and the food (Watermelon-Mint salad for breakfast? Yes please!) pretty decent.

    I felt like a sucker, however, watching the cabin fill up within 24 hours of my flight – I knew that I had probably paid far more than any of my seatmates. Why? Because Virgin America sells off available first class seats for as little as $50 each way, up to $175 for transcontinental fights. Someone who booked a last minute seat in first would be paying upwards of $800 (a sample non-advance one-way fare in first), whereas someone who booked coach in advance for under $300 round-trip is now flying in first, last minute, for hundreds less than what it would have cost if booked far in advance.

    This style of upgrade used to be one of the few redeeming features on America West, now part of US Airways. But, surprise – the entire US Airways  fleet now offers the same deal, but gives you a leg-up over other airlines: You can call reservations 24 hours in advance of your flight, and any unsold seats are yours, starting at $50 each way. It's a similar scenario on AirTran, where upgrades to their decent business class cabin start at $40. The airline says that this is only for those traveling on Y Class (or full-fare) tickets, however, for a “limited time”, all passengers may upgrade from any fare on a standby basis; either at the departure gate or by using the airline's ByePass self-check in kiosks at the airport.


                US Airways pioneered it, but now many airlines are trying it: off-loading first class seats automatically at self check-in kiosks, with upgrade fees based on mileage flown. For example, while checking in for a United flight from New York's LaGuardia to Denver not too long ago, an unexpected question popped up on the kiosk screen: Would I like to upgrade, for just a little over $100. (Turns out I did.) Last summer, I paid $75 to fly in an empty first-class cabin on Delta from JFK to Atlanta. The plane had come in from India, and was returning to home base, with virtually nobody on it. Delta spokespeople did not get back to me with details on how the airline unloads empty first class seats. United's Jeff Kovick says that the offer is made for the first time at check in, and that customers should feel free to inquire if not asked. Incidentally, this goes for most airlines, all of which are increasingly looking for ways to increase revenue.


    Lots has been made recently about what are known in industry jargon as "Q-UP" or "Y-UP" fares – discounted, but restriction-laden, "secret" first class fares that frequent travelers pride themselves on being able to snag out from under the nose of less experienced flyers. 

    There are many sources of information on how these cheap first class seats can be booked, but some airlines are just putting it right out there. American, for instance, is now showing discounted first class fares when you click the new "Price & Schedule" search on its home page. A recent check for a one-way seat from San Francisco to New York in mid-June found an "Instant Upgrade" fare of just $749 one-way, as opposed to the lowest unrestricted first-class fare of $2,309. Big savings, absolutely -- but don't forget, if there are any seats left on the day of travel, you might snag for for even less. Taking chances sometimes does pay off.