One of my least favorite parts about flying is entering a cabin and walking past row after row of business or first class seats. I hate squeezing past as fellow flyers relax in spacious comfort and flight attendents float down the aisles with trays of champagne. These days, at least a dozen airlines offer great economy seats, especially on international flights. The new 777-300er from American Airlines between London and New York or Los Angeles is probably the best economy experience of any American airline, with dozens of movie options, decent food and free flowing (emphasis on free) wine and spirits. Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific, among others, also offer better than average amenities to passengers seated in the rear of the plane.
Despite this, my envious side starts to perk up when people seated fifteen feet away are having a significantly better flying experience. The major factor between their experience and mine is the price of admission. Business and first class never come cheap and often cost many times the price of an economy ticket. While I could just buy a business class ticket to resolve my personal struggle (Julie thinks my obsession with this is crazy), I am way too thrifty to pay the price. However, in the last few years, airlines have started offering people like me another option: bidding for airline upgrades. It’s kind of like Ebay for a better seat and it’s a great way.
I follow the airline industry pretty closely, reading trip reports and articles about seat designs or new aircraft from Boeing or Airbus (again, Julie thinks I’m crazy). Yet somehow I never realized that a bidding process existed for airlines until recently. How did I overlook this for so long? While I initially thought that only a few obscure carriers participated in these programs, I was shocked to discover the sheer number of options. The current list of participating airlines (March 2015) is: Aer Lingus, Airberlin, Air China, Air Mauritius, Air New Zealand, American, Avianca, Austrian, Brussels, Cathay Pacific, Copa, Czech, El Al, Etihad, Estonian, Garuda Indonesia, Icelandair, KLM, LOT, Lufthansa, Malaysian, Qantas, Sri Lankan, TAP Portugal, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia.
This is how it works: About a week prior to departure, you should receive an email notifying you of the opening of the bidding window. You have from then until 72 hours before the departing time to put in a bid to upgrade your seat. What is great is that the bidding is not for the entire trip, but just per segment. Simply select your flight (or flights) and enter a bid. There is a colored scale with prices, ranging from red to orange to yellow to green, corresponding to the likelihood of a successful bid. If you place a bid that falls in the red area, the lowest available price, and the chance of winning the upgrade is unlikely. Bid in the green and if there is space available, it will almost be a guaranteed upgrade. Obviously, the point is to try to get the upgrade for the lowest cost. If your bid is declined, there is no charge and you retain your original ticket.
While I think this is a great way to travel hack my way to business class more frequently, there are still some downsides to the program.
1. It is still not cheap. The airlines usually sets a minimum price, so there is no way to accidentally on purpose get upgraded for $1.
2. The upgrades are not usually not available if you purchased your ticket during an airline’s promotional sale. The same holds usually if you’ve purchased your ticket through a third party (like Expedia) but airlines vary on their policies here.
3. Not all participating airlines send an email reminder, so it is up to you to log into your booking and initiate the bidding process, which is probably why many people aren’t aware of the programs.
4. The payment is also final and not refundable. So if you put in a crazy bid and win an upgrade, your credit card will be charged immediately and you will not receive any credit in case of a last minute trip cancellation, so be prepared to pay what you bid. The reward is getting all of the perks of business or first class, including lounge access and extra baggage allowance, though those perks are only valid on the segment you upgraded, not the rest of your itinerary.
5. Finally, only certain routes are available, so do not expect it to be an option every time you book a journey on one of the carriers listed above.
So while there are some definite negatives for the Ebay approach to upgrades, for me they absolutely do not outweigh the sheer pleasure of sitting in the front of the plane for a long flight, particularly if it means that I get amazing food, a lie-flat seat and unlimited champagne. It provides access to the premium cabin for those who either can’t or won’t spend the money for a full business class ticket, and for a lower price.
So, does it work? Well, we are flying from London to Abu Dhabi tomorrow morning on Etihad and won an upgrade. So this time tomorrow, after a few hours in the business class lounge at Heathrow with free food, drink and even massages, we will be relaxing in business class on the 8 hour flight to the Middle East. Champagne will flow, the food will be endless and there will be a big smile on my face.