Four Ways to Fly First Class on the Cheap

A few years back, Los Angeles-based video producer Eric Allen was heading home from Europe with a friend who’d hurt his leg. The friend decided he’d feel better in first class but being charming didn’t get him a first-class upgrade.

“So, he threw a fit,” said Allen, “and we ended up drinking champagne all the way from Frankfurt to Los Angeles. I don’t think that would happen today.”

You’re right, Eric – it wouldn’t happen today. Gate agents are immune to charm – in other words, flattery won’t get you frills nor will bullying, as they’ve seen and heard it all. But try these tips to getting into first class or business class for less – or a close approximation to that kind of luxury.

First Class Upgrade – Dos and Don’ts

Follow these two simple rules before you do anything else:

  • Do: Sign up for your airlines’ miles programs today. Try to be loyal to one airline
  • Don’t: Do not pay for first class that does not exist

Yes, you can pay for first or business class that doesn’t exist – partly because of last-minute aircraft changes and partly due to the fact that more than half of all flights today are on regional jets. Many of these smaller aircraft, especially the 50-seaters, do not have premium seating. Know before you go by clicking on the flight’s seat map.

Fly First Class or Business Class for Less – 4 Tips

Here are four different approaches (sample as many as you can):

1. Become an Elite Miles Member

This is the year to reach elite status (lowest level: typically 25,000 miles a year). Why? Because the airlines want you – well, what they really want is you to come to their websites to buy your tickets (and also buy extras like early boarding). To lure you in, they’re offering all sorts of bonus miles.

Fee Generation: We’re now part of the Fee Generation, and elite status means you get a pass from such things as baggage fees which can add really add up (the FareCompare Domestic Bag Fee Chart will show you more).

Buy miles if necessary: If you need some miles for upgrades, purchase them at your airline’s kiosk. Note the gotcha: miles purchased at kiosks generally won’t help you achieve elite status.

Look at “secret” miles program: American has had one for years – other airlines do, too. If you want to switch allegiance, these airline shortcut-to-miles “challenge” programs can give you a big boost in status. Phone your airline’s miles hotline to see if they have such a program and if you’re eligible.

Maintain elite status: It’s tough making elite status, but once you’re there – you keep getting miles thrown at you, so it’s easier to maintain status. Hang in there, and consider joining the mileage runners to keep your status. See my fun article called Frequent Flyers: The Art of Mileage Running for more.

2. Become a Premium Economy Flyer

Fly the cheap seats with some luxury by spending a little more for premium economy. I call it the new business class. Look for United’s premium economy option to be adopted by Continental once their merger is finalized.

Look for premium upgrades at the kiosks: Plus, Virgin America sometimes offers these mini-upgrades in the cabin. It can be worth it.

3. Compare Last-Minute Coach and First Class Prices

Sometimes, economy airfare for next-day travel – or travel within a couple of days of purchasing your airfare – can be close in price to first class (and once in a blue moon, it can be more expensive than first class). Always check.

Couple of examples I spotted just last week:

  • Economy fare on American for next-day flight from Los Angeles to Seattle – $300. Price for first class – $400
  • Economy fare on United for next-day flight from Chicago to Dallas – $1,950. Price for first class – $1,874

4. Fly Southwest with EarlyBird

First class on Southwest? No such thing, but their EarlyBird boarding gives you an approximation of airline luxury (well, for Southwest): you get early boarding, which means plenty of bin space for your carryon and your choice of seats. Best of all, it only cost $10. Once you’re safely ensconced in that aisle seat, go ahead – stare down anyone who dares try to settle into that middle seat next to you.



Published: May 9, 2012