Art by Jonan Everett
I’m very tight with my travel budget. As a freelancer, I have no company that will cover my business-trip costs. Given that, many people assume that I’m an economy-seat kind of girl. In theory, the bottom-dollar seat on the plane would make sense for me.
You can often find one-ways and tickets between popular hubs for well under $150 when choosing the cheapest ticket available.
But as someone who travels more and more each year, I must take a full view of all my travel costs, and airfare is just a small portion. As a result, I sometimes find myself sitting in the lap of luxury, enjoying first-class accommodations on my favorite airlines without feeling any guilt or shame.
Here’s why it sometimes makes sense to upgrade, and how to get upgraded on a flight without breaking the bank. Note that these tips are for domestic flights only. You can probably use the same criteria to decide if first class is worth it for long-haul flights. However, my experience with those is limited.
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1. Know Whether First Class Exists
Living in Nebraska, I’m all too familiar with the so-called puddle jumper. That plane with one tiny seat on one side — usually over a heating vent — and two smaller seats on the other side is a staple travel option for those of us in flyover country.
It’s silly to pay top dollar on these flights, which usually don’t even have a separate first-class section. In fact, first class on these planes is a designation given to the first few seats, with a bit more legroom — in some cases — and all the beer you can drink for your 45-minute flight. I’ll pass.
Not sure if your plane offers true first class? Use a site like SeatGuru to look up your flight number and get the truth about what you’re paying for.
2. Never Book First Class From the Get-Go
I know few people who pay for first class when they first purchase their tickets. That’s because airlines usually offer these same expensive seats at a discount as it gets the closer to your booking date.
While it’s not a sure thing, probably about 80 percent of the flights I’ve taken in the past two years on Delta and American have offered me the chance to upgrade to first class on a one-way basis — after I’ve booked the tickets. I’ve been offered the same for companion tickets, too, and the cost savings usually looks like this:
Booking a round-trip direct flight from Omaha to New York City costs me $368.80 for a standard flight. First-class would cost me from $620 to $850. Two weeks before my flight, I check to see if I can change seats. I'm then offered a first-class upgrade for $102 each way, totaling $204 for a round-trip flight upgrade. I saved from $48 to $481, depending on which flight I choose.
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3. Meals and Other Goodies Matter
I remember a particularly harrowing month when I had back-to-back trips. My husband, who was concerned for me, noticed that I had hardly any time between flights to properly eat, much less rest.
When I was offered a flight upgrade for $45 on one leg of my midweek flight, I jumped on it. Not only did I end up with a decent chance of catching a nap, but I also got a full meal, drinks, and the opportunity to catch up on work.
Keep in mind, though, that not all first-class experiences are the same. I have some not-so-great stories of eating dreadful cheese platters with dried-out meats that looked as if they came from a Lunchables package. But with a little planning, it’s possible to make first class work for you. I really enjoyed my free glass of wine on that trip!
4. Check Out Other Classes of Tickets
With the introduction of basic-economy class, many people hate flying more than ever. This and similar new classes are rock bottom on pricing, but often don’t come with anything, even the ability to bring a full-size carry-on. When tempted to save money with these bargain fares, consider whether you might be better off with standard or main-cabin tickets.
These will give you a bit more flexibility with seating and storage. Plus, they offer the flight upgrade options mentioned above.
The bare-bones tickets don't offer upgrades, which is why I steer clear of them.
Plus, with many airlines making available a nice compromise between economy and first class — sometimes called “comfort plus,” among other names — you can still get your legroom, free drinks, and first on/first off boarding. These upgrades are usually a mere $19 to $50 per leg of your flight.
5. Use Your Upgrades Wisely
Did you ever wonder why a first-class upgrade was just $50? It was probably for a 30-minute flight! If you’re going on a short hop with no time to even power up your laptop between wheels up and wheels down, it’s difficult to see how you’ll get your money’s worth for first class. Save your upgrades for the trips that count: those on which you’ll need to rest, eat, or settle in for a long work session.
How to Get Upgraded on a Flight: The Bottom Line
Travelers like me are probably the biggest reason the most accomplished frequent fliers no longer have access to free upgrades on the day of their flights. (Certain programs only give these spots to earners if no one else purchases them.) We'll snag a flight upgrade for a discount, weeks before check-in, keeping the first-class area full and our stress levels low.
I still consider myself a budget flier. For example, I opt to bring my own snacks from home rather than paying to eat in airports. But when you're up in the air, sometimes there's no substitute for the experience you get from a flight upgrade.
For those of us who spend long hours away from our loved ones, getting little sleep and being overwhelmed by airport restaurants, the simplest of first-class pleasures often feel worth it.