Let's face it: Once you have a taste of business and first class, it's tough to go back. But, unless your employer is picking up the tab, who can really afford to shell out the $15K for a private suite on Emirates? If you can, keep it to yourself. With banks capping cash bonuses at amounts that wouldn't pay for one Swedish nanny, much less two for the banker with no kids, times have changed. And when times get tough, it's time to get creative.
There is a difference between a domestic and an international upgrade. The good news is that for domestic flights within the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, you're more likely to get upgraded if you have airline status. Also, airlines will sometimes offer an upgrade purchase option for $100 or so at the airport if first class has empty seats. For some airlines like Delta, members with elite status automatically receive unlimited, complimentary, domestic upgrades when they're available. That also includes a travel companion, so if you don't have status, fly with someone who does. And just every once in a rare while, the gate agent will even upgrade commoners, with no status at all.
International flight upgrades are a completely different story. It's in these situations that the airline Scrooge comes out. It costs them money to put fliers in first class, which means there's little generosity in an industry where margins are razor thin. Thus, it's rare that just your pretty face will get you an upgrade at the airport for an international flight. For those who claim that dressing up for business and first class will work? It doesn't hurt, but 99.9 percent of the time, it won't help either.
The glass-half-full news is that you may already have the tools you need to work the system, including your credit card points, frequent flyer miles and airline status. If a flight isn't oversold (more on that later), then you'll need to do some pre-planning, at least seven days in advance to insure your first class seat. Prices skyrocket within seven days of departure, because airlines capitalize on companies that have no choice but to send their worker bees on a last-minute trip. You definitely don't want to compete in this arena if you're looking to economically get into first and business class. Here are a few of our inside techniques:
When you buy your fare matters. Generally, the airlines re-price and run sales on Tuesdays, so by 3 p.m. or so, you'll find the best prices available until about Thursday. This is prime time to shop and book your fares. The most expensive times to book your fares are on the weekends, so avoid that danger zone.
Buy an upgradable coach ticket. Certain Coach fares will allow you to use your miles and upgrade certificates to upgrade to first class. In some instances, the pricing is not egregiously more than buying a regular coach ticket, and it's mostly less expensive than buying first class outright.
Upgrade one-way only. On long-haul flights with major time differences between destinations, being able to rest comfortably sets the tone for your trip. If buying first class or a round-trip upgradable ticket is too rich for your blood, look into a one-way upgradable fare. Sometimes just a few hundred dollars more will get you to first class, one way. It's better than nothing, and often worth it when you're flying out so you arrive fresh and new. And, it's much more palatable to fly at the back of the bus on the way home when you're still on a vacation high and have photos to get you through the long flight.
Ask for a discounted business/first class ticket. Airline prices have gone up over the past two years because of fuel costs and fewer flights, but sometimes you can get a discounted business/first class ticket for around $2,100 to destinations like Milan or London. Half the challenge is knowing to ask for the discounted ticket, because the oh-so-helpful ticket agents don't always offer it.
Pay with points. Check with your credit card on options that will allow you to pay for a ticket with your credit card points. For example, when you book with American Express, you have the option to pay for all or part of your ticket with points. Combined with buying the upgradable fare or the discounted business/first class ticket, and you may end up paying the same price as a coach ticket. Even better, if you rack up lots of credit card miles from work and personal expenses, this ticket may be gratis.
Pay with mileage. Yes, it is often 250,000 miles or more for a first class ticket. But once again, there's a loophole. If you're willing to have a stopover (or two) and your dates are flexible, the 100,000-mile first class ticket does exist. Don't try to book this type of award ticket online. Call the airline and settle in for at least 45 minutes as you make them price out the best options for you. Nothing that's good comes easy, a philosophy that applies to getting the best price on your first class seat.
If you're rolling the dice and hoping to get upgraded on the day of your international flight, your best chance is at the gate, where they have discretion. This fairy godmother moment usually only happens when the flight is oversold. This is the time to turn on that charm. Technically those upgrades go to those with airline status first, but it doesn't hurt to ask nicely to be put on the wait list. The stairway to first class can be treacherous, but it's well worth working the system for those long flights.