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, during online check-in or through the airline’s mobile app).
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 £60 to £180 one-way. On longer flights expect to pay £150 to £250 to get into premium economy and anything from £200 to £800 from premium economy to business class. It is possible that after buying a 1 class upgrade you could get a second upgrade offer to a higher class above.
Note that BA will give you miles and tier points for the class you travel in.
If booking an economy flight it is good to check the prices of the premium economy and/or business class fare as well. That way you have a handle on what is good value for any potential upgrades.
For example, taking a random British Airways flight London Heathrow to Austin 3 months out we find the return economy fare is £414. The premium economy fare on the same flight happens to be £832 and the business class fare is a rather expensive £3,520.
The return fare difference is £418 between economy and premium economy – that is effectively £209 each way. Now would you be tempted to pay say £179 to upgrade one leg? Maybe not.
The fare difference between premium economy and business is £2,688, which is an average of £1,344 each leg.
So perhaps you would pay £400 to upgrade a premium economy seat to business class on an overnight flight. That is about 30% of the original one-way fare difference which is around the sweet-spot level for buying upgrades.
KLM also sells upgrades through online check-in. Expect to pay from about €250 up to €1,000 for a long-haul upgrade to business class.
Other airlines selling upgrades in a similar way are Air Canada, American Airlines, Qatar Airways and United Airlines.
Airline Upgrade Auctions
An ever growing number of airlines now allow passengers to bid for upgrades in an online auction. Airlines hope that the gamification of the upgrade process may spark excitement and increase revenue further. Airline upgrade auctions are generally blind auctions and normally only one bid can be submitted.
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 following lists international airlines which offer the possibility of airline upgrade auctions. The majority of the airline upgrade programs are run via third party company Plusgrade. Each airline seems to have branded their upgrade process.
Airlines running upgrade auctions
Aegean – Upgrade Challenge
Aer Lingus – Upgrade Yourself (transatlantic flights only)
Aerolineas Argentina – UpGrade
Aeromexico – Upgrade to Clase Premier
Air Astana – MyUpgrade
Air Canada – AC Bid Upgrade
Air China – Bid for Upgrade
Air Mauritius – UpgradeNow
Air New Zealand – OneUp
Air Niugini – PXPlus
Air Serbia – Upgrade option benefits
Air Seychelles – HMUpgrade
Aircalin – MyPlusUpgrade
Alitalia – Get an Upgrade
ANA – Bid My Price
Austrian Airlines – Bid Upgrade
Avianca – Avianca upgrade
Brussels Airlines – UpGrade
Caribbean Airlines – Caribbean Upgrade
Copa Airlines –FlyUp
Corsair – Mon Voyage Surclassé
Czech Airlines – Plusgrade
Edelweiss – Holiday Upgrade
El Al – EL AL Upgrade
Ethiopian Airlines – CloudNine Upgrade
Etihad – Select Upgrade
Fiji Airwaysa – Bula Bid
Garuda – BidUpgrade
Gulf Air – Falcon Upgrade
Hawaiian Airlines – Bid Up
Icelandair – Class Up
Jet Airways – JetUpgrade
Kenya Airways – KQ Upgrade
LATAM – Opcion Upgrade
LOT – LOT Upgrade
Lufthansa – myOffer
Luxair – Luxair Smart Upgrade
Malaysia Airlines – MHUpgrade
Norwegian – Bid for Upgrade
Philippine Airlines – MyPal Upgrades
Qantas – Bid Now Upgrades
Royal Brunei – RB Upgrades
Royal Jordanian – GoCrown
Saudia – MyUpgrade
SAS – SAS Upgrade
Singapore Airlines – MySQUpgrade
Silk Air – MI Upgrade
South African Airways – StepUp
Srilankan Airlines – Upgrade
Swiss – Bid Upgrade
TAP Portugal – Plusgrade
Virgin Atlantic –Your Bid
Virgin Australia – UpgradeMe
WOW Air – WOW me Up
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. AA charges 25,000 miles and $350 for a one-way upgrade though this can still be a good value if you purchased a cheap fare.
Secondly, award seats are capacity controlled so upgrades need to be requested in advance – with priority given to top-tier frequent flyers.
British Airways charges 20,000 Avios points to upgrade from any World Traveller Plus (premium economy) fare to its Club World (business) cabin on London to east coast USA. With good availability and no extra cash to outlay this is a very good use of points.
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.
Last updated 14 December 2018