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

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