Here are nine hacks to get you up to first or business class, and to fly better while you’re there, whether you’re buying that ticket or trying to charm your way to the front of the plane.
1- Get down to bid-ness
Airlines are getting savvier about filling those front-of-plane seats. While that has meant fewer upgrades even for top-tier elite fliers, the good news for the rest of us is that it is often possible to snag the one or two last seats in first class for a deep discount.
Many airlines are now allowing passengers to “bid” on upgrades. A lot of them even use the same third-party site, called Plusgrade, to take bid offers and rank them (the upgrade site uses a handy little meter to tell you how strong your offer is based on the dollar amount you input).
You simply select the monetary amount you’re willing to pay, enter your credit card information, and you’re only charged if your bid is successful.
Among the airlines now using Plusgrade are Aer Lingus, Air New Zealand, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, KLM, LAN, Lufthansa, South African Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia.
Among about a dozen others. If you don’t mind taking a chance and laying out a little more cash, you can end up upgrading for pennies on the dollar of what that airfare would have cost if you’d bought it outright.
2- Find the seasonal sweet spot
It might not seem intuitive at first, but summer is actually a great time to find low fares on tickets in business and first-class.
Though summer is the high season for travel to a lot of regions, including Europe, that is mainly true for economy travel, where tickets can soar to two or three times their normal prices.
However, this is also when business travel tends to slacken, so airlines slash prices to entice leisure travelers to their premium seats.
Fare sales and even wars between carriers and airline alliances are not uncommon, and in some cases, business-class fares dip within $100 of economy ones on the same flights!
3- It’s all about location
Where you are (or where your computer thinks you are) when you buy your ticket can have a huge impact on your final fare.
Sometimes, when you use foreign versions of sites like Expedia or Orbitz, or those of airlines themselves, you turn up much lower airfares than you would use their U.S. sites.
That’s because airlines price airfares differently in different markets.
Theoretically, you’re not supposed to be doing this, but it’s not illegal, and who’s to say you weren’t in Mexico when you were purchasing that ticket from Los Angeles to Hong Kong anyway?
If you want to be really sneaky, you can even get a VPN so your location is kept hidden while browsing.
4- Strategize your origin
It might go without saying, but your origin and destination, i.e. where you start and end your travel, can be the single most important factor in determining what your airfare is going to be.
But just like airlines price tickets differently in different markets, sometimes if you start your travel in a place where airfares are priced more cheaply, you can end up saving thousands of dollars on business- and first-class fares.
It’s a little-known truism in frequent-flier circles, but some of the lowest business- and first-class airfares in the world are for flights originating in destinations like Colombo, Malé, and Cape Town, among a few other places.
For example, if you wanted to fly from Boston to Colombo (and you should consider it because Sri Lanka is a fast-growing jet-set destination!), it would cost you $4,600 on Qatar Airways — at least.
But if you were flying the other direction from Colombo to Boston and back again, airfares are starting at around $1,500. Sounds tempting, right?
The trick, as you might have guessed, is that you’ve actually got to get yourself to one of these places in the first place.
But if you can do so and you have a reason to return in the future (remember, airlines release flight schedules and start selling tickets 330 days out, so you can plan next year’s trip too!), this can be well worth it.
5- Be an elitist
While upgrades for airline elites — the passengers who fly a certain amount during the year and thus earn perks like bonus mileage, free checked bags, and, yes, upgrades — are getting rarer these days, they haven’t disappeared altogether — especially at the higher echelons.
Some airlines, including American, even offer their top-tier elites a certain number of confirmable upgrades on paid fares each year.
So if you can plot out your travel to fly a carrier enough and earn elite status, you can toast your strategy with champagne from your first-class seat.
6- Get credit
One of the best ways to rack up airline miles quickly, and then use them to book premium award tickets, is to apply for an airline credit card.
The key is applying for high offers when they come along and to pay attention to their bonus-spending categories (where you earn multiple miles per dollar at certain kinds of stores or merchants) so you rack up the miles to book a business-class award.
Don’t forget, some issuers like American Express even offer targeted consumers bonuses of up to 100,000 Membership Rewards points on some cards.
You can then transfer them to the program’s airline partners, including All Nippon Airways, which offers some amazing award values, such as a business class for 88,000 miles round-trip from North America to Europe or 104,000 miles round-trip from North America to Africa or the Middle East that you can redeem for flights on partners like Lufthansa, Swiss, South African Airways, and more.
7- Miles makes the magic
Although you might think booking an award ticket outright is the only thing they’re good for, in some cases, you can actually get much better value from your miles by purchasing a ticket in coach or premium economy, and then using those miles to upgrade to business or first.
Many airlines will let you do so rather easily, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, and Air France/KLM among others.
Some U.S. carriers do, too, but the values are often not as good. Just beware that some airlines require you to purchase unrestricted (i.e. full-fare) tickets in order to be able to upgrade them.
8- Get bumped
With the economy rebounding, many domestic flights these days are oversold. That’s why you constantly hear gate agents asking for volunteers to take a later flight.
If you’re not in a hurry, this can definitely be worth it, especially because you can get compensation for your time.
Often, agents are authorized to offer you vouchers for future airline tickets, but you might also get them to move you up to the next class of service if they’re really in a bind.
Just be nice, ask if a business or first class is available on the next flight, and flash that smile. You’d be surprised at how far being polite can get you.
9- Not all planes are created equal
You bought a business- or first-class ticket, so you’re golden, right?
Think again. Not all planes — even those operated by the same airline — have the same business- and first-class cabins.
If you fly the Etihad 777 out of Los Angeles, expect the old first class “suite”-style seats. Sure, they’re nice, but they don’t compare to the “Apartment” on the airline’s A380 out of New York, which has not only a seat but also a twin-size bed and a whole lot more space.
Want to try Air France’s swanky new business class? You’ve got to nail down whether your flight will be operated on a plane that has it installed already.
Luckily, there are sites to help you do so. SeatGuru is a good general resource that usually has up-to-date information on various aircraft and classes of service, while Routehappy can actually tell you the specific plane and seat on your dates flights.
Knowing the routes your carrier flies, and which aircraft it uses on them can make the difference between a nice experience and a world-class experience.