T here are a number of economic ways to purchase an airline upgrade which can get you in the business class or first class cabin relatively cheaply. In this article we will consider paying for upgrades with either cash, miles or using a third party intermediary called OptionTown.
1. Upgrades with Cash - A number of airlines offer the chance for flyers to pay for a one-class upgrade with cash. Often these can be priced significantly less than purchasing the business or first class seat outright. Airlines do this for a number of reasons - to increase revenue, hedge an overbooked cabin or just filling empty seats in the higher class.
These cash upgrades are sold either at the airport (check-in counter, gate, kiosk machine or airline lounge) or online (manage booking page or online check-in).
For example, British Airways offers various pro-active upgrade possibilities to passengers online prior to travel. It may occasionally sell upgrades at the airport in some outstations (US, Canada, Asia).
Intra-European BA upgrades (economy to business) are priced £60 to £125 one-way. On longer flights expect to pay £100 to £250 to get into premium economy and £400 to £800 from premium economy to business class. Note that BA will give you miles and tier points for the class you travel in.
KLM sells upgrades through online check-in although these are offered very infrequently and seemingly on a random basis. More likely on ex-Asia flights, expect to pay from €250 for an upgrade to business class, which is very good value.
Other airlines selling upgrades in a similar way are American Airlines and Air Canada.
One twist on selling upgrades is Virgin Atlantic which runs upgrade auctions - passengers can bid online for upgrades to premium economy.
2. Upgrades via OptionTown - a relatively new phenomenon is the Upgrade Travel Option. This company processes upgrades for a growing list of airlines currently Malev, SAS, Air Asia X, Malaysia Airlines, Air India, Blue 1, Arik Air, Spanair and Air Baltic.
You pay a small one-time fee to register, input your flight details and you are offered the chance of an upgraded seat (one-way) for a reasonable fee. You will be notified if the upgrade clears at least 4 hours before departure. If your upgrade fails to clear you get an automatic refund.
Typical prices for an OptionTown upgrade are £470 with Malaysia Airlines on London-Kuala Lumpur; £141 with Air Asia X on London-Perth or AUD105 for Melbourne-Kuala Lumpur; $192 on NYC-Stockholm with SAS. Some of these look excellent value.
3. Upgrades with Miles/Points - another form of paid upgrade is using frequent flyer miles or points to purchase an upgrade. In general mileage upgrades are allowed on many partner airlines within Star Alliance and Skyteam but not on oneworld and other independent airline programs.
Upgrading from (premium) economy to business class on longer-haul flights is one of the better uses for your miles. By having a revenue ticket you will also earn miles and status qualifying points as well.
There are 2 problems with using points for upgrades. Some airlines require you to either first pay for an upgradeable fare which can be one of the more expensive tariffs. American Airlines and United Airlines ask for a "co-pay" supplement to upgrade from discounted economy fares. Secondly, award seats are capacity controlled so upgrades need to be requested in advance - with priority given to top-tier frequent flyers.
Example, British Airways charges 20,000 Avios points to upgrade from any World Traveller Plus (premium economy) fare to its Club (business) cabin on London to east coast USA.
Dont forget, if you are short of miles for an upgrade award many airlines will allow you to purchase miles to top-up your account.
Note, if you reach top-tier frequent flyer status many airlines (examples: AA, BA, Finnair, LAN, Lufthansa, Turkish, Thai, EVA, Air NZ) will offer a number of complimentary upgrade voucher instruments.