There are a number of ways to purchase a cheap airline upgrade which can get you into the premium economy, business class or first class cabin.
Airlines are forever finding ways of maximising revenue from empty seats. One way is to try to sell passengers an upgrade to a higher class for either a cash fee or using frequent flyer miles.
Upgrades with Cash
A few 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.
These cash upgrades are sold either at the airport (check-in counter, gate, kiosk machine or airline lounge) or online (via “manage my booking” page or during online check-in).
For example, British Airways offers various Proactive Upgrade possibilities to passengers online prior to travel. It may occasionally sell upgrades at the airport in some outstations (more likely in the US, Canada or Asia).
Intra-European BA upgrades (economy to business) are priced £70 to £180 one-way. On longer flights expect to pay £150 to £250 to get into premium economy and £400 to £600 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. Expect to pay from about €250 for a long-haul upgrade to business class.
Other airlines selling upgrades in a similar way are American Airlines, United Airlines and Air Canada.
Paid Upgrades via OptionTown
A number of airlines use third-party company OptionTown to process fixed fee upgrades. Airlines using the Upgrade Travel Option are:
Adria, AeroMexico, Air Arabia, Air Asia, Biman Bangladesh, Estonian Air, Firefly, Insel Air, Jetstar Pacific, SAS, Spicejet, Vietnam Airlines and Wideroe.
You pay a small one-time fee (£2/$3/€3) to register, input your flight details on one of the above airlines and you may be offered the chance of an upgraded seat (one-way) for a quoted fee.
You will be notified if the upgrade clears anywhere between 24 and 4 hours before departure, depending on the airline. If your upgrade fails to clear you get an automatic refund.
Airline Upgrade Auctions
An ever growing number of airlines now allow passengers to bid for upgrades in an online auction, similar to purchasing an item on Ebay. Airlines hope that the gamification of the upgrade process may spark bidding war excitement and increase revenue further.
How do airline upgrade auctions work?
Passengers with a confirmed booking are invited to place an online bid for an upgrade on a flight sector. Note that on some airlines the cheaper fare classes may not be eligible for an upgrade.
Often there is a minimum bid amount required and there may also be a strength gauge showing the likelihood of the bid being accepted. Payment details are then left with the airline. The upgrade auction will end at a specified time before the flight departure.
If the airline accepts the bid the passenger is notified and the upgrade is processed with payment taken. If the upgrade is declined then no payment is made and the passenger checks-in as normal in the original class.
The majority of the airline upgrade programs are run through third party company Plusgrade.
The following lists international airlines which offer the possibility of airline upgrade auctions. Where available we note (1) the auction end time and (2) when the upgrade is processed by. Notation used is T-72h (72 hours before flight departure) or T-7d (7 days before flight).
Airlines running upgrade auctions:
Aer Lingus – Upgrade Yourself, transatlantic flights only
Air Astana – MyUpgrade, (1) T-72h (2) T-48h
Air Berlin – AirBerlin Exquisite, (1) T-72h (2) T-12h
Air China – Upgrade, (2) T-24h
Air Mauritius – UpgradeNow, (1) T-7d (2) T-3d
Air New Zealand – OneUp, (1) T-7d
Austrian Airlines – Smart Upgrade, (2) T-3d
Avianca – Upgrade your experience, (2) T-24h
Brussels Airlines – Upgrade, (1) T-3d (2) T-24h
Copa Airlines – Upgrade, (2) T-8h
Czech Airlines – Upgrade, (2) T-24h
El Al – EL AL Upgrade, (1) T-72h (2) T-30h
Estonian Air – Service class upgrades, (2) T-48h
Etihad – Select Upgrades, (2) T-24h
Garuda – Bid Upgrades, (1) T-4d (2) anytime before flight
Icelandair – Class Up, (1) T-72h (2) T-48h
KLM – Upgrade Yourself, (2) T-30h
LOT – LOT Upgrade, (2) T-48h
Lufthansa – myOffer, upgrade to premium economy (1) T-72h (2) T-24h
Malaysia Airlines – MHUpgrade, (2) T-48h
Qantas – Bid Now Upgrades, cash+points only, (2) T-12h
Sri Lankan – Upgrade, (2) T-24h
TAP Portugal – Plusgrade, (1) T-96h
Virgin Atlantic – Your Bid, upgrade to premium economy
Virgin Australia – UpgradeMe, (2) T-24h
Upgrades with Miles/Points
The other way to essentially “pay” for an airline upgrade is by using frequent flyer miles or points. Most airlines allow upgrades to be purchased on their own flights, subject to availability. In terms of alliances, Star Alliance and Skyteam offer upgrade awards within partner airlines; Oneworld does not.
Upgrading from (premium) economy to business class on longer-haul flights is possibly 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.
British Airways, for example, 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.
Don’t forget, if you are short of miles for an upgrade award some airlines will either allow you to purchase miles to top-up your account or make a part-miles, part-cash upgrade.
Upgrade Vouchers on sale
Finally, note a grey-area of people buying/selling upgrade vouchers on sites like Ebay and Craigslist.
Some airline programs give elite frequent flyers a number of upgrade voucher instruments per year. Invariably a few of these will end up for sale online – even though this is generally against the program rules, although sellers seem to circumvent this by selling “consulting” services and gifting the upgrade.
We don’t recommend this as a cheap airline upgrade opportunity so please tread very carefully if you go down this route, as there are a lot of scammers around.