Up until last January of last year, I had never flown in first class. Ever. Since then, I’ve flown in first or business class on more than 20 flights. Did I suddenly hit the lottery? Unfortunately, no. I just learned a few methods of hacking the system that have allowed me to fly up front with little to no extra out of pocket cost. And it’s been glorious. Anyone who tells you that first class isn’t anything special has probably never flown first class. It’s awesome. Your first time up front will leave you never wanting to go back to coach again.
But the question of the day is, how does someone get to fly up in first class if they don’t have a ton of money to burn on exorbitant tickets? Luckily, there are ways. With a little creativity and know-how, anyone can fly up front with little extra expense. Here’s how:
Use miles to “buy” first class tickets
This is probably the most straight-forward technique. Basically, you earn enough miles to book a reward ticket in first class. Of course, first class and business tickets cost more than those in coach, so you’ll be burning more miles. In the US, domestic first class tickets typically start at around 50,000 miles and go up from there
It’s a personal decision as to whether or not it’s worth it to book first class with miles. By using more miles for better seats, you’re possibly passing up the opportunity for an additional free flight back in coach. Travel less often but in luxury or travel more often but cramped in the back. Personally, I think it’s worth it to use miles to upgrade on long-haul and redeye flights, but not so much with domestic flights or those under 5-6 hours. For those, I’m okay with just sucking it up and dealing with the crappy economy seats. But again, this is a personal call.
Out of pocket cost: As low as $5 in taxes & fees
Pay for upgrades
If airlines have first class seats still available prior to the flight, they may sell them for a discounted price. Often, this price will continue to drop as you get closer to the flight, with online check-in being a prime time to scoop up an upgraded seat. On a recent KLM flight from Toronto to Amsterdam, I was offered the opportunity to upgrade to lie-flat business class for under $300 per person. Considering those seats likely cost closer to $2000 originally, I thought that was a pretty sweet deal. If you’re not offered the option of paid upgrade by online check in time, it might be worthwhile to ask at the airport when you check in. They’ll sometimes sell seats for dirt cheap in an effort to monetize as much of first class as possible, so there’s no harm in asking!
Out of pocket cost: Varies
Use miles to upgrade a paid ticket
Depending on the airline, this can be easier said than done. Typically, you’ll have to buy your economy ticket in a certain fare class that can sometimes be just as expensive as buying the first class ticket outright. Then, you’ll need to determine how many miles you need for the upgrade and if you’ll also have to pay an additional fee. In general, the more expensive the ticket, the less you’ll have to pay in miles and fees to upgrade. If you plan to consider this option for flying in first class, make sure you check the airline’s upgrade charts and crunch the numbers before deciding if it’s worth.
Out of pocket cost: From $0 to a few hundred + fare cost
Get airline elite status
The easiest and cheapest way to fly first class is to earn frequent flyer elite status with an airline. After flying a certain number of miles in a year and sometimes spending a certain amount of money, you can earn different levels of status with an airline’s frequent flyer program. Although these status levels come with a number of perks (ex. free checked bags, waived fees, priority boarding, etc.), one of the best perks many airlines offer is the ability to upgrade to first class seats for free. What will typically happen is frequent flyers with status will be placed on a waitlist for upgrades based on their level of status or other factors. As flight time approaches, open first class seats will be assigned to passengers on the list, as available. I’ve had Gold or Silver status (the two lowest levels) with Delta over the past two years and I’ve been upgraded to first class for free on about 50% of my flights. Not too shabby!
Of course, getting status with an airline is sometimes easier said than done. And with some airlines instituting a spending requirement for status, it can make it even harder for those of us who fly mostly on discount/cheap airfare. But if you travel more than a couple times a year and are willing to stay loyal to an airline, it’s not that difficult to achieve low-level status. There are some credit cards out there that can help with earning status, as well.
Out of pocket cost: $0
Set up alerts for mistake fares
Every once in a while, a pricing glitch or human error causes a mistake fare to become bookable and, on rare occasion, that pricing error might be in business or first class. A couple months ago, a United mistake fare popped up allowing people to book first class seats from Europe to the US for just $50. Although this fare wasn’t honored, others have been in the past. The best places to find mistake fares are on the Flyertalk message boards or by setting up text alerts via Twitter with travel deal tweeters.
Out of pocket cost: Varies, depending on the deal
There you have it: five different ways to fly first class without having to break the bank. You really don’t need to be rich, just savvy, to enjoy a little luxury in life. And what’s life without a little luxury now and then?