How to Upgrade to First Class for Less

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When I flew home last week on the roughly eight hour overnight flight from Honolulu to Houston, I flew upfront in a lie-flat seat and slept for 80%+ of the flight so that I could hit the ground running back at home. Given the amount of travel I had crammed in a two day period and the awaiting demands of life when I got home, spending the extra to sleep in a lie-flat seat was 100% worth it to me. After the flight was over, I encouraged other parents to consider doing the same when the opportunity presents itself as it can make the difference between being a zombie and wasting a day when you land vs. picking up where you left off with kids, work, and life in general.

The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN

While many agree that it is worth it to splurge when possible to sleep upfront, based on some of the comments in my post as well as this post over at Miles for Family, not everyone agrees that it is realistic for ‘average middle-class families’ to afford or “waste” the additional miles or money to sit up front. Before I go further, let me clarify that the crux of the original post was that I think it is okay to splurge and sometimes sit up front. It isn’t advocating that you need to always sit up front or that economy is the worst and to be avoided at all costs. The overwhelming majority of my flights both with and without my family are done in economy, but sometimes there is a situation where the price differential is manageable and the payoff of being rested on a long, overnight, or otherwise special flight makes it worth it.

New Singapore Business Class. Think you could you sleep better here or in economy?

Only you know your mileage and cash budgets, and there is nothing wrong with always traveling in economy, but in my mind, there is also nothing wrong with sometimes deciding the situation is ripe to do things differently than you normally do and spoil yourself or your family a bit with a lie-flat seat. After all, miles are here to make the otherwise impossible, possible.

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My oldest daughter snoozing in business class to Europe

Through this discussion, I have learned that some travelers still think that it will cost thousands of additional dollars to enjoy a life-flat seat over the cost of an economy seat, which just reinforces that I need to keep talking about this issue from time to time because there are many other pathways to the front of the plane than paying thousands of extra dollars. Even if you think sitting in first or business class will never make sense for your family, I still think it is useful to a little bit about some of the various ways to upgrade to first or business class for less.

Use Miles to Book First Class With Award Chart Sweet Spots

Usually, the best case scenario is that you are securing first or business class simply by using additional miles instead of additional money since that is a much easier additional cost to swallow. It isn’t uncommon for a premium cabin seat to cost 2x the number of miles of economy, though keep in mind that the cash selling price of business or first class can easily be 3x, 4x, or even 10x the cash cost of economy so paying 2x the number of miles actually isn’t terrible in some cases, if you have the miles to spend.

That said, if you want to fly upfront without spending at least twice as many miles, you will want to find the more strategic ways to get that done. As an example of what this means, United now wants a minimum of 40,000 – 50,000 miles each way to fly on a premium cabin saver award from the US mainland to Hawaii. However, you can book a round trip premium cabin saver award on United-operated flights via Star Alliance partner Singapore Airlines for just 60,000 miles per round trip. Considering that United wants 45,000 miles to fly that route in economy, it isn’t really that large of a leap to spend 60,000 Singapore KrisFlyer miles to fly round trip in first/business class to Hawaii and back vs. 45,000 United miles to fly that route all in economy. Singapore miles are also pretty easy to acquire since they are a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Rewards.

We have used that very strategy in the past to fly the family to Hawaii in business class, though United is being a bit stingy with premium cabin saver awards on many routes to Hawaii at the moment, so be sure the availability you want is there before going full-force into this strategy.

Another one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon if you want to fly to Europe can be found via ANA. To stick with United as our example, they now want 60,000 – 70,000 miles each way to fly to Europe on a business class saver award. However, you can book a round trip business class saver award to Europe on a United operated flight via ANA for just 88,000 miles. You can transfer miles to ANA from Amex Membership Rewards at a 1:1 ratio. That is obviously a huge discount over the 120,000 – 140,000 miles United would want for a round trip business class saver award if you book with them directly, but it also isn’t that huge of a leap from the 60,000 miles United would want to fly that trip on an economy saver award as shown below. Sometimes if you want to fly upfront with your family, it isn’t about spending a ton more, it is about spending smarter.

It isn’t award chart sweet spots alone that make business class attainable, but it can also be attained through limited-time promotions. For example, if your account is targeted for the current 20% transfer bonus from Amex Membership Rewards to Aeroplan, you can also use that option to fly in a lie-flat seat to Europe on a Star Alliance airline for 46,000 miles each way.

Earlier this year we also saw the ability to fly in business class to Europe from just 25,500 miles + less than $100 in taxes on Iberia operated flights, so some good opportunities are relatively static, but others come and go via promotions that are covered here and on other similar blogs.

There are dozens of these sort of examples out there just waiting to be found, but the point is that it isn’t always a huge increase in the number of miles required to fly upfront, especially if you are willing to learn and utilize some award chart sweet spots.

Look for Inexpensive First Class Upgrades

While sometimes the cash cost to upgrade from economy to business or first class can be approximately eleventy million dollars each direction, sometimes it can be a much, much smaller figure. After booking and even at check-in, I regularly see opportunities to upgrade my United flights from economy to first from about $150 each way. While I wouldn’t normally spend that much on a routine domestic hop, I have occasionally taken them up on that offer when the plane is an internationally configured plane with lie-flat first class. In fact, as an anniversary gift earlier this year, that is exactly how I surprised Josh with a lie-flat ride home from New York to Houston. He was all smiles when I handed him his new first class boarding pass in the boarding line!

In the case of my recent Hawaii trip, I relied on strategy and luck to spend a little more to fly lie-flat first class home. While I flew economy to Hawaii, I booked the cheapest first class flight home that could work, and it was one that required a connection in Los Angeles. It would get me home if I needed to fly that route, but I crossed my fingers and toes that when it came time to check-in to the flight 24 hours out, that I would be able to do a Same Day Change to the nonstop flight from Honolulu to Hawaii with the lie-flat seats.

The cheapest first class route was a couple hundred dollars more than an economy seat on the Houston nonstop, so it did cost more, but not thousands more. The price tag of the first class nonstop seat was a couple grand and well thus out of range. There was risk in this strategy that there wouldn’t be space available to change to on the nonstop, but since it was just me on this trip, I decided it was worth the gamble and it luckily all worked out just fine. I paid about 40% of the going price for my first class lie-flat seat home by using this strategy.

I’ll also add that increasingly airlines are pricing premium cabin seats at more realistic levels than they have been in the past. As an example, I just booked Josh on a roughly four-hour flight for work where economy seats were $120 and first class was $225. Don’t tell him but I still just booked economy, though if it was a special trip or situation, then it may have been worth the splurge.

Use Miles or Upgrade Certificates to Sit Upfront

If you, a family member, or friend has an airline elite status that awards annual upgrade certificates, this can be the perfect way to purchase an economy seat and get yourself into first or business class with little to no additional cost. Most of the major US airlines award these confirmed upgrade certificates to their higher tier elites and they do not typically require that the person that uses them is the same person that earned them. In some cases, you can even earn them without being an elite traveler such as with the American Airlines BusinessExtra program where you can earn an upgrade certificate valid all the way to Hawaii for just 650 Business Extra points.

If you don’t have access to any upgrade certificates, you can often use miles and/or miles + a copay to move from economy to the front of the plane. This is not always a good deal, but it isn’t always a bad deal either. With American, the cost to move from discount economy to first/business class starts at 15,000 miles + $75 for a flight within the lower 48, Alaska, and Canada, For a Hawaii flight it is an additional $100 co-pay. United’s mileage upgrade award chart is a little more complicated but does still exist. These opportunities exist on international carriers as well such as the ability to move from Premium Economy to Business Class on British Airways flights from the US to Europe starting at 25,000 – 30,000 Avios, though like anything, always do the math as sometimes you have to purchase a higher fare class to use the upgrade.

British Airways Business Class

Choosing When to Upgrade to First Class

Even though we have some elite status levels and I live, breathe, and eat miles and points, we still aren’t in a position where it makes sense to sit upfront the majority of the time. We have four people to book for in this family and most of the time that means we are sitting in the back to stretch our miles and budget. However, just because we usually sit in the back, doesn’t mean we always have to sit in the back. I’d estimate that on one to two longer or special flights per year we make a concerted effort to confirm business or first class upgrades, and with this one possible exception, I have yet to regret spending the extra miles or money in those situations since we usually do it in a strategic and thoughtful manner when the seat is genuinely better and having the extra comfort is likely to make a real difference in our in the air and on the ground experience.

I’m not here to convince you that your family should upgrade to first or business class, but I am here to encourage you to not rule it out completely from here until eternity. It isn’t always an unbridgable gap to go from 32B to 1A, and the benefit of arriving rested and ready to explore or get back to work and family life can make the incremental amount worth it every now and then even if you, like me, continue to take most of your flights towards the back of the plane with this gorgeous view of the wing.

Does your family sometimes use some of these “first class for less” strategies or are you 100% economy? If you upgrade on occasion, how do you decide which flights to upgrade vs. when to sit in the back?

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

Comments

  1. “…though United is being a bit stingy with premium cabin saver awards on many routes to Hawaii at the moment…”

    Oh, glad you slipped in that tiny caveat in your long post. Except ‘a bit stingy’ is a massive understatement (as you well know). Many times UA doesn’t even bother to offer F even at Standard (aka Obscene) rates. Finding Saver F during periods where most families can travel is lower odds than finding a needle in a dozen haystacks. In other words, don’t count on it. And even IF you find the Saver F unicorn, finding F with lie-flat is even more daunting.

    • Of course I would mention that – my goal is to help families, not end up with them banging heads against the keyboard. I hope that United loosens back up with the Hawaii premium cabin award availability closer to what it was a year or two ago. Things go in waves, and I’m more than ready for that wave to return!

  2. The real answer is “it depends”. My company has a very friendly travel policy and I can fly international business or domestic first on flights longer than 4 hours. Thus, I often fly in the front but I struggle when I see my tickets to Europe cost $9,000 on Delta. When it comes on family vacation it really depends on the route and my mileage availability. I find difficult to justify spending lots of miles to upgrade my family of 4 when the cost to upgrade would allow us to boo another vacation to the same destination. If flying from the US to Europe which in my case is often less than 8 hours I go on Economy. If it is South America or Asia that is a different story. Nowadays miles are very difficult to use or are basically useless. I quoted a MSP-MIA-MSP for my family of 4 using miles between Christmas and New Year on AA since I had miles there and it came to 400,000 miles for the four of us. That is insane in my opinion. Thus, unless the deal makes sense I make the effort to fly Economy and use the miles or money for other trips.

    • I agree that getting the best deal for your miles requires flexibility or luck, but the great deals are absolutely still out there. I certainly wouldn’t pay $9,000 for business class to Europe, but I am fully planning on spending 88k for RT business class to Europe for a 2018 trip.

    • I’m not personally familiar with it being possible to upgrade an American Airlines mileage award on Cathay unless you simply rebook in a premium cabin with miles, though maybe someone else is aware of a cash co-pay upgrade program they may have that I don’t know about since that isn’t a normal route of mine.

    • You can upgrade for the difference in miles if a seat in your desired cabin becomes available. You have to update with whichever miles you originally booked with, in this case AA miles. Pretty sure you still have to call AA to do the upgrade, but I’m also pretty sure that there still isn’t any change fee to upgrade from one cabin to the other.

  3. With Alaska as our primary airline, we typically use MVP gold guest upgrades to get first class seats. When I can use them in conjunction with companion fare certificates it makes for a great deal.

    • How do you get the Alaska MVP gold upgrade?

      I think this is a great idea to do it when it makes sense. As a mother of 5 kids sometimes spending money or points to make the trip easier is worth it. We haven’t ever done it, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do it.

      Another idea on deals that pop up for this. How about when SAS had the kids fly for free to Europe? I think it worked on Business class too right? Could you buy those tickets through Chase?

  4. Outstanding post! I didn’t know any of that. I have a long way to go in my learning curve.

    BTW, I love the photos of your family. Really adds a personal touch.

  5. I would only add that the Amex Plat Biz 50% back has been a killer app for me. I signed up about 6 months ago so am still enjoying it. Imagine being able to fly anywhere in biz class with the flights and airlines of your choice. I can easily find US domestic one-way fares for around $500, which is 25k MR and then we normally earn at least 2500 airline miles back (plus EQM!). It’s such a no brainer I can see why they underestimated it’s popularity.

  6. Even better – a few times, I’ve found low-level Biz or First awards were available, but low-level Economy awards were not. I’ve then booked the premium cabin as the cheapest option.

    For example, United Saver Biz to Europe is 60,000 miles (on UA metal across the pond). United Standard Economy was 65,000 miles prior to Nov. 1 (now its pricing varies, but is still around 65,000 miles). So, if Biz Saver is available, and Economy saver is not, the Biz award is actually about 5,000 miles cheaper.

    • Yes and this happens more than you would think during leisure travel periods like the holidays when business travel drops up.

  7. First of all, thanks for linking to the rebuttal post on my blog. Somehow I missed it because the trackback never showed up.
    Anyway, I actually agree with your points here. Obviously, I give Nancy (who wrote the post) creative freedom to say whatever she wants. She was very concerned about coming off as catty, but that’s the opposite of who she is. I think she was very respectful, something we always try to maintain in our posts. And yes, that has not always been the case, I know! 🙂
    The upfront vs. coach debate really fires people up. It’s similar to Disney in that respect. I can see both sides, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s unrealistic to say that regular families without status can fly upfront on a regular basis. That’s just not the case. But that’s not what you said either in your previous post. You needed to upgrade one seat, one way. That’s something that is somewhat attainable even for regular folks like myself. I don’t have status, obviously, but using extra miles to be more comfortable now and again is nice. And I agree, there are some awesome sweet spots. Redeeming 45k Korean miles on round trip Delta first-class seat to Hawaii is a steal, especially when you live in Florida. There are many other good deals to be had. I agree on not limiting yourself to only one way of doing things.

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