Take Advantage of United/Continental’s Same-Day First Class Discounts

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While I spend the majority of my flights in economy/coach/the back of the bus, I will never pretend that I sit back there because that is my preference.  If given the chance, I would move up to First/Business eight days a week.  However, given that I clearly am not going to pay full fare for a ticket at the front of the plane, I don’t currently have airline elite status that would grant me complimentary First Class upgrades, and I don’t usually want to spend twice the number of miles to sit upfront, my opportunities to sit in first are usually pretty limited.  However, thanks to Continental/United Airline’s lovely same-day First Class discounts, my husband and I have recently been able to move up front for a fraction of the regular price.

These upgrades are “affectionately” known on Flyertalk here and here as “tens of dollars” upgrades.  This is because they often just cost tens of dollars.  🙂  Elite flyers often frown upon these cheap upgrades as there have been some reports that First Class seats are sold at discounts before all eligible elite flyers are upgraded for the flight.  The system is not supposed to offer these discounted upgrades unless there are still First Class seats available after all eligible elite flyers have a seat in First Class saved for them, but the system may not be perfect.  I’m certainly not out to take an elite flyer’s upgrade out from under them, so my hope is that the system works as intended and everyone is a winner.

Back in November I flew to BlogWorld from Houston to Los Angeles late on a Thursday night.  I had just finished a very busy work week and was about to step into a very busy (and fun) weekend of conference sessions, events with other bloggers, etc… When I checked into my flight and saw that there was a First Class seat available at a discount, I immediately snatched it up.  My husband followed me out there the next day and was also able to upgrade for $119.  That is no small chunk of change in our budget, but it is a manageable number.

The promise of a greater likelihood of a flight experience that I might be able to relax a bit, and get a few hours of sleep was very much worth it for me.  Then just last week my husband had a business trip from Houston to Las Vegas.  As usual, he also had a very full week of work both in Texas and in Las Vegas and was very excited when he checked into his flight and saw that for $99 additional dollars he could go from his coach seat purchased for about $200 round trip, to seat 1A at the front of the plane.  He had a full meal, a few drinks, did some work on the computer, and had a very comfortable flight.

In my experience, the inexpensive fares or reward tickets that we usually fly on often get us same day “buy up” offers ranging from $59 – $199 domestically.  The longer flights are usually more expensive to upgrade on than the shorter flights.  Of course, on many flights there are no discounted “buy up” offers available as all available First Class seats have either been sold, or have gone to elite flyers who have been automatically upgraded.  If you are interested in getting a discounted offer to move to the front of the plane, here are a few tips that have worked for me.

  • Check in exactly 24 hours before your flight and see if you see a discounted offer to upgrade to First Class.  You can keep checking up until your flight time, but the best chances seem to come close to the 24 hour mark.
  • Don’t delay if you see that offer and you want to purchase it – once they are gone, they are gone.
  • Be aware that if you change your flight, your purchased upgrade probably won’t go with you.  These are non-refundable purchases, so don’t upgrade unless you are certain you will be taking the flight.
  • Book flights for “off-peak” times.  For example, when we fly on Saturday mornings we have a pretty high success rate of getting upgrade offers.  Many elite flyers are business men and women who fly during the week.  On the weekends elite flyers typically fly a bit less, so your chances of being on a flight with an open First Class seat are higher.  Of course, this is also when there are often more reward seats, so it works out perfectly for us.
  • Don’t get your hopes up too high.  Don’t book a flight with your heart set on getting a chance for a cheap upgrade.  Just consider it a happy surprise when it is available and affordable.  I say this because I think my husband has started to get pretty disappointed when the cheap upgrade isn’t available.  In his defense, he is a pretty tall guy and coach seats really are not made for someone like him.  In fact, he plans to write a little about this exact topic in the near future, so you can hear his thoughts directly.  😉

We don’t always purchase the discounted upgrade even if it is available, but there are some situations for us when spending a little extra cash to make the flight a little more comfortable, special, etc… is very much worth it.  Of course, we are so used to economy that even domestic First Class is kind of exciting for us.    So, if you are flying Continental/United and are interested in getting a taste of the front of the plane for a discounted price, then keep an eye out for these discounted buy-up opportunities.  I know I have a flight coming up in the near future that I will be crossing my fingers for at the 24 hour mark.

Have you ever taken advantage of these discounted buy-up opportunities?  What do you think of the chance to move up front for a discounted rate?

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  1. The tough thing with United is that I will often pay for the E+ seating, especially if I have the little one in tow. Which would mean paying for the double upgrade. Ouch!

  2. With United, advance paid upgrades are more expensive, but if you buy E+ in advance and then decide to pay to confirm an upgrade in advance you’ll only be charged the DIFFERENCE, the E+ payment will act as a credit. E.g. $150 for the upgrade. You’ve paid $39 for E+. So upgrading will be $111 more.

  3. It’s good to hear one of the boarding area bloggers actually fly in coach. As a young guy who can get more miles for my, well, miles, I usually go for the back fo the plane too. While a first class trip for $100 more is nice, I’m still wondering if I add that on a RT Houston to “somewhere fun in Central America” then it becomes that much cheaper! Now if it’s on business and I can justify that little extra expense, then alright!

  4. This was a great topic I learned from thanks.

    Does this apply to American too? If not, how can you upgrade with American similarly?

    If you bought the continental tix with points can you still upgrade?

  5. I am too cheap to pay $100 for an upgrade. If i am not an elite I will be just happy to sit in the back. But I certainly feel you that after a week of hard work who does not want a nice ride home/more work?

    @Erndog: you get the 100% class bonus no matter if you pay or upgrade.

  6. $89 for Houston-Guatemala on Continental once. That was a great deal. Free meal, more room, and since it was an international leg I got free access to the Presidents Club all day. I drank 10 Heinekens.

  7. @Gary, good to know. Thanks!

    @Ben, yep I am a blogger you will typically find in coach….unless I can find a cheap and easy way to head up front. 😉

    @Erndog, I am a nothing on United and I have never received a mileage bonus when purchasing one of these discounted upgrades – though that would be awesome if it worked that way.

    @amitdelia, I have very little experience with American, so I really can’t say. Maybe someone who flies American more can chime in. I do know that if you bought the CO tickets with points you can still get these cheap upgrade offers.

    @Sean, agreed it can add up even at $100 a pop, but sometimes I just can’t turn it down. 😉 I have never had a mileage bonus post from upgrading at a discount, unfortunately….

    @Sandeep, in my experience I have never received a mileage bonus by upgrading this way.

    @Scott, that sounds totally worth it to me!

  8. @Sean and @Sandeep, actually upgrading does not give you the mileage bonus. The T&C state clearly that you only get the miles as per your original booking class. So if you paid to upgrade from coach, you would still get miles only for the coach.
    I have also considered upgrading several times but since it gives a better seat and experience but not give additional miles, I have let it pass so far.

  9. I am a little mixed on the “all elites shall be given a free upgrade” then the airline can sell the seats. The point of first class is to make money and if they can sell last minute first class to get extra margins…i think they should do it. The margins are so thin – i think the airline should do it as follows – upgrade full fare and top 100k/75k elites – sell upgrades – then give the rest of elites whats left.

    being star gold myself – i understand the whole loyalty and keep me happy mentality or i will switch…but revenue should drive the loyalty benefits…it is a business after all to make money.

  10. @MRock, you get the two free checked bags and the Elite Access security and check-in lines.

    @Rajesh, correct. I wish it gave the extra miles!

    @Isaac, the airlines certainly are certainly in business to make money (at least in theory!), and I am sure they regularly look at the cost/benefit of giving space available upgrades to elites vs selling them at a discount.

  11. THANK YOU!!
    This post makes a lot of valid points and good info for a family who ” flies” but is not earning free multi miles from a business account. If you could pls keep many of your posts in this venue, you will be the top blooger……..~thank you thank you thank you

  12. I am flying United next month. I am going from Tampato Houston to Vegas. I would like to try and upgrade from houston to vegas. So when I check in 24 hours in advance for Tampa, IF there are any upgrades, will those show up for the Houston to vegas leg also? We are going out on our honeymoon, so I am hoping to surprise my fiance. (Plus, I am 6’4, and I could use the extra room. LOL)

    • James, I haven’t seen as many cheap upgrades recently, but United may just not be offering them to me due to my elite status. So, it is still entirely possible. Though if you want to lock it in for sure to surprise your wife you may want to consider using miles or similar to confirm the upgrade in advance…or just roll the dice and see what happens at check-in. You are heading to Vegas after all. 😉

      • I have no miles as I NEVER fly. LOL. Thanks for the tip. I even tried to go through United website to look in advance, and all they offer is the economy plus.

        Thanks for your info!

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