Bidding secrets of air travel insiders

Once you sit in first or business class on a flight, there’s no going back to coach.

You enjoy access to a well appointed lounge before the flight, early boarding, oversized seats, an actual meal, increased legroom and considerate flight attendants. It’s plush.

Thanks to a new auction option offered by some airlines, riding in first or business class is not as expensive as it has been in the past.

Much like eBay, customers are invited to compete against each other for an upgrade to business class. Success in bidding on a seat varies. To make sure you’re getting what you want, you’ll need to understand the process. This includes doing research on how different airlines operate, and follow some tips for success in bidding.

The first step is to book your flight in coach or business class. Several days before your flight you’ll receive an email offering a chance to bid on a seat in the next class up. The airline sets a minimum bid amount, and you enter any amount greater than that which you are prepared to spend on the upgrade. If you win, you’re charged that amount and will enjoy all the benefits of the upgraded class.

Currently, 25 airlines, including American, Lufthansa and Cathay Pacific, use Plusgrade to manage the auctions. The rules for each airline vary, so knowing how your flight auction works is important.

For instance, American Airlines’ upgrades are only become available six days before the flight. And not all flights or reservations are eligible for upgrade. Fare rules from the original booking will still be in force, and AAdvantage miles are awarded on the purchased ticket, not on the upgraded class of ticket. You can check the airlines and rules at Plusgrade.

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The goal of the airline is to fill seats and earn revenue from seats that would otherwise be empty. At the same time, they don’t want to discourage their current full-fare, loyal passengers from buying discounted tickets and then attempting to upgrade through auction. So success in auctions is hard to forecast, but here are some insider tips to help you succeed:

Check how full the flight is before you book.
If business or first class is empty, there is a better chance that your bid will win. Also, if coach class is full, it’s likely the flight is oversold, so freeing up your seat might help the airline.

Know the color-coded system.
Some airlines use a color-coded meter to determine how likely your bid is to win. Red means unlikely, yellow means possible and green means likely. But much like Priceline, just because you are encouraged to bid high does not mean that a low bid will not win. So bid what you can afford and with which you are comfortable.

Buy one ticket.
Upgrading as a single ticket appears to be more successful than upgrading multiple tickets. If your family is traveling together, it can get quite pricey to upgrade everyone. Also, if there is only one seat available, you cannot split up your booking. So ditch the kids in coach and relax in extravagance.

Advice from others can be invaluable.
Flyertalk is a great resource for information about auctions and many other subjects. Just go to the website and search “auction upgrades,” or any other subject in which you are interested, and there will usually be forums to help you.

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Before you jump into an upgrade auction, know that they are not without their downside. For the frequent flier at the check-in desk, the “free” upgrade and other perks may be going away. Bidders don’t know what others bid, making it impossible to gauge your bid. If you win, you might wonder if you overbid, and experience buyer’s remorse.

If you’re careful and understand what you are doing, bidding for an upgrade can be a cheap route to a comfy seat. The lounge, early boarding, meal and more can be yours for much less than you’d expect.

So go for it, and enjoy the lap of luxury.

Have you ever made a successful bid on a first-class seat?

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Kent Lawrence

Kent Lawrence is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He is a husband, father to two, executive pastor, travel enthusiast and sometime writer. You can contact him at

  • PsyGuy

    I refuse to spend real money bidding for imaginary improvements in quality. Next thing you know they will have some kind of death match for food or some kind of hunger games. I personally think these auctions are so that some small group of execs at airlines can get their rocks off.

  • ctporter

    Having flown in middle seats in the very back of coach to China and to Europe, if there is a chance to upgrade for less than it costs to purchase a full FC fare I will do it, and count myself lucky if I win. Not that I expect I will have more business trips in the future, but it would be nice!

  • DD

    The improvements are hardly imaginary. The difference between coach and business, particularly on long haul flights, is huge. I travel to Asia frequently on business and I’m lucky enough to work for a company that pays for business class on international flights.

  • PsyGuy

    They are imaginary to me. I’m 5’9″, 160lbs there is no difference in comfort for me regardless of class (I don’t understand all the whining about pitch, I keep my seat up in its upright position the entire flight), and I fly regularly internationally.
    A slightly nicer and fancier prepared meal, some average wine, cheap blankets and pillows, I don’t see any part of the upper class experiences (and I have flown both business and first) that justify the significant differences in cost.

  • TonyA_says

    On most or maybe all international flights, business class is plenty good enough.
    That said bear in mind that this article is about bidding for an upgrade.
    The previous article was about a pax that paid $710 for a one direction upgrade on Aer Lingus over the Atlantic.
    It is up to you to determine whether you want to pay this kind of money.
    However, I want to make one criticism about the article. Previous to this bidding invention, the empty upper class seats might have been given to those with miles, certificates or status. So plusgrade might have simply taken from poor folks what they used to have and then sell it to highest bidder for cash. I would have thought an advocate publishing with Boarding Area would have complained against such a practice since this has a negative impact on frequent flyers.

  • bpepy

    My husband is 6’3″ with very long legs and it is agony for him to fly in coach across the country. The most miserable flight he had was from CDG to IAD on Air France economy where the man in front of him reclined his seat all the way and practically had his head in my husband’s lap. I probably would have “accidentally” spilled my water (or worse) on him!

  • PsyGuy

    Throw a towel over his face then pour the water, simulates drowning.

  • PsyGuy

    even business class is a significant price increase from discount economy (or basic economy).

  • bodega3

    Generally you find business class in many international markets to be at least double the price of coach. However, I recently issued a business/first class Caribbean ticket that was only $400 more than coach. The UP fares are in a lot of markets and are a good deal for those wanting something other than coach.

  • bodega3

    To each their own. The comfort level is significant for me to pay for business/first. Just flew on a new UA plane and the seat in first class was fabulous. Roomy, comfortable and love the foot rests. I could recline and not bother the passenger behind me. I used miles, so $75 extra for 6 hours of flying…well worth it!

  • PsyGuy

    Both of those prices are for me are a waste. $400 for a couple (TWO) more inches in pitch and width, some sub par wine, a slightly better microwave meal, considering I’m perfectly comfortable in an economy seat.

  • Pocahontas

    Such a racket. US taxpayers on the hook for billions to fund the FAA, TSA, and get treated like dirt b/c corporations have discovered it’s cheaper to upgrade their employees’ tickets – than to pay their fair share in taxes for said programs.

  • bodega3

    That is fine. Enjoy which ever class you wish. Another thing, when you fly business/first internationally, you get to use the carrier’s lounge, which is a better place to hang out than at the gate.

  • y_p_w

    You must be flying on the wrong airlines. The time i flew first class the choices were Dom Perignon, Krug, $100+ bottles of French reds, XO Cognac, and Sevruga caviar. On business class it was just Moët. I don’t know if it was worth paying extra for it (how I got it is my secret), but I could see why it cost more.

  • JH

    On a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to NYC I was bumped ,to first class because of full coach and two identical tickets, one of which was mine. I got a well-padded wide leather seat with ottoman, rack of lamb meal, great wines or whatever, cognac, the offer of a massage by a gorgeous female cabin attendant, and the seat-ottoman went together to form a wide single bed with full size pillow, sheets, comforter…. So you think the difference between coach (terrible on Virgin Atlantic) and first is imaginary?

  • mrbofus

    I’ve never paid for business or first class, but the times I have gotten upgraded, the improvements are far from imaginary. In terms of the seat alone, the seats have more cushioning, are wider (you can shift around more without hitting the person next to you), you can lay flat and sleep if you want, etc…

    Not to mention the food is significantly better; it’s not just “a slightly nicer and fancier prepared meal”. While food in business or first class still will not win any awards, it is FAR and away much more palatable than what you get served in coach.

    You also don’t have to wait in line for the bathroom since there are far fewer people per bathroom in business or first than there are in coach.

    The fact that you can also use a business or first class lounge before and/or after the flight can also make a huge difference. Being able to get a massage and take a shower (in the nicer lounges) upon arrival is great. Being able to eat real food before/after your flight is a great option too. Not having to fight for a charger is also great.

    Etc, etc…

    All that said, those benefits haven’t been worth paying for, in my case, but that doesn’t mean those benefits don’t exist.

  • PsyGuy

    As I wrote, a little squirming and a few inches just isnt worth anything to me. I fit quit well in economy seats with plenty of room.

    I don’t eat the food they serve on airplanes, I’m a Buddhist vegetarian and bring my own. On my US to Japan flights I usually bring a couple bento box meals and a BIG bag of almonds and dried cranberries.

    I’ve never really had to wait in line for the toilet , usually everyone is asleep, and it’s just me and the crew.

    My bank card provides access to airport lounges but I never really get to use them anyway. I never have much time at my connecting flight, that I have enough time to get to my gate and grab a bottle of water.
    I bath before departing, and wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a shower in an airport lounge or club.
    I do not enjoy massages by most western massage therapists and swedish massage is very ineffective for me.
    I have a high capacity battery in my iPhone it lasts all day.
    Again I have access to those clubs and lounges without needing a FC or business ticket.

  • PsyGuy

    I find coach seats plenty wide for me. I weigh 160 lbs and am 5’9″ I don’t need more padding.

    Don’t eat lamb, I’m a Buddhist and a vegetarian. They were not great wines, they were serviceable. You can get the same wines in economy for a couple bucks, not worth the price of a FC or Business class ticket.

    The stew and massage issue is something you would seem to value. I don’t sleep on planes, and typically keep my seat upright the entire flight.

    Yes, those differences are imaginary to me. A slightly less bad microwave meal, you realize that lamb was made days before, par cooked, than blast chilled, transported and reheated in a convection oven the same as the salisbury steak in economy, you were essentially eating leftovers.)
    The wine was not great it was a young vintage, and without getting into snobbery just about every wine that makes it even to your local market scores in the top ten% of the rating scale. You were not poured anything truly spectacular. The airline would not waste anything with such nuance in the high altitude pressurized cabin of an airplane. Your senses have no idea what you drank really tasted like.
    You slept on the equivalent of a fold down cot, with chain hotel grade linens.
    It was not a real massage it was a neck massage and it was more a rub down then anything.

  • PsyGuy

    Those wines are specially made low price lines for the airline. Just as Coach makes a line of bags for Costco and outlet malls. At 30,000″ you wouldn’t know what a fine wine was.
    You can get that cognac, and the wines and all those back in coach as well for a couple of dollars.
    Having had Beluga caviar I can appreciate the flavor and the experience but it’s not complimentary to my palette.

  • PsyGuy

    I seldom have time to hang out at gates, though I have a bank card that gives me access to those lounges/clubs, and even if I had to pay $50 is FAR cheaper than the price of a FC/Business class ticket.

  • Don Spilky

    As a longtime CE fan and reader, here is a line I never expected to see in his blog “Flyertalk is a great resource for information about auctions and many other subjects. ” WOW.

  • y_p_w

    I doubt that Dom Perignon or Krug is faked. Heck – my folks had a friend who worked at an airline and one of the deals was that they were required to throw out inventory and basically the employees got to keep it. We ended up getting a couple of bottles of Dom Perignon and one Pol Roger Churchill once. I’ve bought this stuff before as gifts, and it most definitely was not a low priced line.

  • TonyA_says

    I guess he’s flying Saudi Arabian or similar airlines since there’s no booze. Since we moved to the Boarding Area, we’re supposed to know this stuff. Churn cards, manufacture spend or buy 2:1 Lifemiles and enjoy FC cabin – those are no secrets.

  • PsyGuy

    They aren’t “faked” they are simply low quality production runs of the distributer.

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