He bid on an upgrade and won. Then the surprise $ 1,620 bill arrived

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By Christopher Elliott

Thomas Ansberry bid on an upgrade for his recent Icelandair flight from Cleveland to Reykjavik, Iceland. But he paid a lot more than he expected and now wants us to help him get a refund.

Ansberry’s problem is all too common. Few people understand the arcane airline rules surrounding a bid on an upgrade or bother to read all of the fine print. His case is instructive for anyone who is tempted to bid for a better seat on an upcoming flight.

A false start, and then a $35 bid on an upgrade?

Ansberry and his wife planned to fly from Cleveland to Iceland in February. But Icelandair canceled their outbound flight.

“That forced us to use either New York or Toronto as our departure and return city,” he says. “We chose Toronto. We had to pay more to leave from this departure city closer to Iceland.”

It’s also a 4 1/2-hour drive to Toronto — a major inconvenience.

“A day or two before we left for our trip we were offered to upgrade to first-class via Icelandair’s bidding process, which I was totally unfamiliar with,” Ansberry recalled. “But it appeared to be simple enough.”

The Ansberrys could only imagine the upgrade to Icelandair’s Saga Premium cabin, which included priority boarding and check-in, better seats and all the amenities that come with it.

What if the airline said “yes” to his $35 offer?

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“Our coach seats cost $370,” he says.

Icelandair says “yes” to his bid on an upgrade

When Ansberry arrived in Toronto, Icelandair texted him with some good news. “The airline sent us a congratulations message that we could be upgraded for just the difference between our airfare and our bid,” he says.

Since Ansberry was using his U.S. cellphone, which didn’t have a Canada plan, he claims he didn’t read the entire message.(Our advocacy team wonders how that’s possible, since he would have had to click the “accept” button — but maybe we’re missing something.)

“Doing the math, that was $370 plus $35, or $405,” he says. “That’s what I saw on my cellphone so I accepted.”

Alas, had he checked the link when he bid on an upgrade, this is what he would have seen.

If you're going to bid on an upgrade, make sure the cost.
This email alert shows a $405 upgrade bid per person on each flight. “The offer amount is in addition to and does not include the original flight ticket cost”

That’s still a decent deal for an upgrade, but not quite the same as $35.

“I’d like to stress that I never placed a $405 each bid and wonder how Icelandair can change my bid,” he says. “I felt Icelandair should have simply refused my bid and there would not have been this confusion, especially when we were out of the country and had no use of our cell phones.”

Ansberry says he and his wife are on a fixed income and don’t want to spoil their great credit scores by failing to pay their $405 upgrade fee. He thinks Icelandair should have rejected his bid instead of assuming he would pay $405 per seat.

“We need your help,” he adds. “Somewhere there should be a middle ground.” (Related: She canceled her Iceland trip through Blue Lagoon in time. Where’s her refund?)

How to bid on an upgrade

Icelandair calls its bidding system Class Up. It happens to be one of the best-known upgrading systems in North America.

According to the airline, if your flight is eligible, you will receive an email 10 days before you start your trip. You’ll receive a link so you can bid to upgrade your ticket from Economy to Saga Premium. Ansberry also could have checked his eligibility for Class Up by entering his name and booking number at the top of the Icelandair webpage.

These are the steps for using the bid process, according to the airline:

  1. Make a bid. Decide the amount you’re willing to pay for a seat in Saga Premium (in addition to your original ticket cost).
  2. Submit payment details. Provide your contact details and credit card number for payment. Your card will be charged only if your bid is successful.
  3. Submit and wait. Submit your bid, then savor the anticipation as you wait to hear the outcome. We will notify you by email at least 36 hours before your flight.

So what went wrong with Ansberry’s upgrade? He accepted the bid without reading it.

A closer look at Icelandair’s Class Up terms and conditions suggests that it might, indeed, be able to revise the bid amount — a kind of counter-offer. But it would be up to a passenger to accept it.

A few pointers about bidding on international flight upgrades

Sadly, upgrade confusion is common. Here’s another recent case we mediated. But there are a few useful takeaways from Ansberry’s case when it comes to bidding on an upgrade:

  • Make a realistic bid. As nice as it would have been to fly in Saga Class for just $35, it wasn’t realistic. (Oh, I know, some of you still think you’re flying “free” when you collect enough frequent flier miles, but that’s a debate for another day.) My advice? Find an advance-purchase premium class fare for the same city pairs and bid 40 percent of that fare.
  • Check the fine print. Had Ansberry taken a moment to read the terms on Class Up, he might not have been blindsided by a $405 upgrade fee. Pro tip: You can search keywords within a site by going to the search bar and typing “site:icelandair.com class up.” That reveals all the relevant pages on its upgrade program.
  • Read before accepting. Never, ever, blindly accept an offer you haven’t reviewed. If you’re outside the country, find a strong wireless signal and upload the page. But clicking “accept” without first checking what you’re accepting is a recipe for disaster.
  • If you encounter some funny business, you can always reach out to one of our executive contacts. And by the way, here are the Icelandair executives. A brief, polite email to one of them might help.

A thorough review of Ansberry’s paperwork showed there was no ambiguity about his bid. He had no written proof that he’d submitted a $35 bid or that it had been accepted by Icelandair. In fact, he signed off on a $405 bid, which the airline accepted. If it’s any consolation Ansberry and his wife said they enjoyed their upgrade. For us, though, it’s case closed, unfortunately.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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