Is there a cheaper way to fly first class?

There are all manner of sites and companies and promotions that allow you to fly really cheaply. But is there a service that enables you to fly first class more cheaply than if you just by the ticket? Maybe a company that keeps track of all open first class seating and sells it for cheap a week or a day before the flight. Or something like that. Anyone know?


It’s hard to imagine a company that keeps track of available first class tickets for two reasons (as previously explained to me when I was a major airline employee

  1. Flyers in first class fly in first class (partially) because they want extra room, and don’t want to have to deal with the riff raff in peasant class. So an extra seat is OK by them.

  2. First class seats are a great way to make someone happy (i.e. frequent flier).

You won’t find first class tickets for sale at discount fares. Demand is high, and supply is limited. When there are first class vacancies, they are going to the frequent flyers.

So, your options: pay big money or fly one airline a whole lot to gain cred. (I get $100-$150 first or business class upgrades regularly on American Airlines for having flown with them so much lately.)

If there was a much “cheaper” way to get into first class seats they couldn’t command the high price they do… and there wouldn’t be any available.

I guess the cheapest way to get first or business class seats would be to book economy and deliberately arrive late at check-in. If the flight is overbooked and economy seats are not available any more, chances are that they’ll give you a free upgrade. It’s a bit risky, but it could be worth a try.

Then again, I never tried that (most importantly because my family belongs to the overly cautious sort of persons, urging me to arrive an hour earlier than the check-in time announced by the airline “to be on the safe side”), so it might be an urban legend.

There are? Please clue me in.

First of all, if you arrive late at check-in (generally you’re supposed to be there twenty minutes before departure), the airline is under no obligation to seat you. Second, I suspect that the airline would rather give an upgrade to an open first class seat to a high-status member of their frequent flyer program rather than someone who just showed up late.

But one way to fly first-class relatively cheaply is to use frequent flyer miles to buy an upgrade from an economy-class ticket.

It would not work.

Enright3 and Pasta are right on the money


15 year veteran corporate travel consultant.

Flying first class to San Diego in 3 weeks

Our company’s safety manager, a charming bloke with a british accent that women seem to swoon over, claims he gets upgrades nearly half the time by just asking for them. He always shows up well dressed, compliments the ticket agent (usually female) about one thing or another before slipping in how tired he is from his whirlwind trip to Angola or wherever, and supposedly the magic ducat just falls into his hand.

I haven’t actually seen this, mind, but he does fly rather a lot (which may have more to do with it), so who knows.

I flew to Australia from San Francisco and back this summer on United Airlines. I was booked in a regular old Economy class seat.

I went to the United web site to check in the day before the flight, and the website offered me the opportunity to upgrade to Business class for the trip to Sydney for $620. I got a similar offer when i checked in on the way back to San Francisco.

I booked the original ticket using frequent flyer miles, but my wife’s ticket, which we paid for, was about $2000. So, the extra $600 each way would have given a total cost for a return Business class ticket, SFO-SYD, of about $3250.

That seemed incredibly cheap to me, and i’ll bet it’s well under the normal cost of a return Business class fare between San Francisco and Sydney.

Of course, you will only only get offers like this at check-in when the plane is not full. On the way out to Sydney, the economy section of the plane was half empty.

(I didn’t take the offer, by the way. While an extra $620 each way seemed like pretty good value, i didn’t have a spare $1240 to throw around)

What about hoping that your plane is overbooked for real, and volunteering to take a later flight? I’ve never done that, but I’ve watched people volunteer, and I assume they are compensated for doing so.

I just want to get my ass home ASAP.

I think that given the current air travel trends, this probably won’t work. In my (admittedly limited) recent flying experience, flights are only overbooked when the equivalent earlier flight was canceled. Seems like a long shot to me.

Recent trends are for airlines to reduce the number of flights they offer so overbooking is likely to be more common. I fly fairly often and it is reasonably common to find the flight overbooked and the airline offering compensation to people who will wait.

As for the OP, as others have said: spare first class seats go to the frequent flyers. I flew first class to Seattle and back earlier this week - both free upgrades through being a frequent flyer.

Yeah, I realized this right as I hit “submit.” But there is still no reason to believe that the earlier flight you pick will be the one that is overbooked rather than the one that gets canceled. If you luck out and it’s the overbooked one, the sacrificial flier approach might work, but if it’s the one that gets canceled, you might not even get a seat on the next flight. If neither extreme happens, you’re stuck with flying earlier than planned in the same crappy seat… so I still think the approach is flawed.

It’s been years, but one time I volunteered to take a later flight. I was pleasent to the rather harried gate agent and complimented her on handling the situation well. I did mention that the original flight was going to serve lunch and the later one was not. She upgraded me to first saying “The food’s better”. It was better, though other than the legroom it was a drag. Lot of stuck-up people in first.

The one and only time I flew other than coach (Business Class) was 20 years ago flying out of Frankfort Germany. This was our return flight booked on Northwest. On the inbound flight before ours, the plane had a bird strike and was taken out of service. The ticket agents at the Frankfort Airport re-booked my flight on Lufthansa in Business Class at NO EXTRA CHARGE!

For a 7 hour flight, that was a little bit of heaven.

I had no idea that the upgrade was so expensive until I came home and priced our next flight. Oy vey.

I’ve tried to get free upgrades since then but have never been successful. I have been compensated for giving up my seat on an overbooked flight with a free coach ticket voucher. With my previous employer, I flew all the time but not so much in the last few years so things may be different now.

We fly business and first class frequently, using airline miles. It’s too expensive to use cash.

A few things.

(1) Don’t know if you are in the U.S., or where, but there’s a distinction to be made between first class domestic, and internationally. The former are not that much nicer seats or amenities, and hence tend to be given away a little more liberally. (But it depends who you are – if you are in an airline amenity/frequent flyer program, and have high status therein, you might automatically upgrade, for free; but if you’re not in said program, you might find that all the seats were given away automatically to such frequent flyers, so there are none on the market).

International first class tends to be much plusher (and more desirable, because longer flights). So the airlines guard that more carefully, as putting premium-paying business travellers in FC is an absolute cash cow for them. On the plus side, they don’t give these seats away for free even to their own frequent flyers (but, you will face competition from FFs still, as they may have the ability to upgrade, though it’s usually still not super cheap).

Sometimes, you are also facing competition from deadheading crew.

(2) Airlines DO occasionally have first class sales that would allow you to fly trans-Atlantic for, say, $1500 (these tend to occur at slack travel periods or to less-popular destinations).

(3) (RISKY BUT PEOPLE DO IT) I quickly checked the SDMB TOU and convinced myself it was not un-kosher to mention this, as the worst it involves is an arguable breach of contract, not anything in any way illegal. Services exist (Google “buy airline award tickets”) that will sell you “discounted” first class tickets that they acquire by paying frequent flyers (strangers) to book a ticket, using their excess miles to secure an award ticket in your name. The airlines claim that this violates their FF TOU and that if they catch you doing it, they’ll void out the ticket and confiscate the miles, and you’re likely up a creek, as I doubt the award-broker will refund the money you paid him (given that the FF who sold him the miles sure isn’t going to give back what he was paid). How risky this is, I do not know.

(4) I came across this site, which claims to offer heavily discounted premium seats on international flights. I have no idea how legit it is, but have a look.

(5) People have passed along to me some copies of this guy’s newsletter.

It’s decently-researched, and he does a lot of pretty smart legwork in tracking down glitches in the system or (often transitory) angles or market aberrations that can lead to particular strategies for getting premium seats (usually on specific routes or airlines) at non-awful prices. Being a good capitalist, though, he charges for his legwork.

That’s about to get a good bit harder as most of the airlines are jacking up the cash “co-pay” or booking fee, esp. for int’l flights, and upping the mileage “price.” And, the number of flights is, as noted, shrinking.

I’ve flown first class several times in the past, and never had to pay for upgrades. How’d I do it? Through an old-school brick-and-mortar travel agent. They often have first class vouchers for various airlines, or at least they did ten years ago. Book a few tickets through the agent, and then once a working relationship is established, ask for a voucher.