You Can Bid for Discounted Flight Upgrades With These Airlines

Here’s how to try your luck for cheaper first-class, business-class, and premium economy seats on dozens of airlines worldwide.

A young woman sitting in a business-class seat, holding a phone.

Submitting a winning bid could mean you’ll be flying in business class but paying far less than your neighbors.

Photo by Shutterstock

Savvy travelers have myriad tools in their arsenals to score upgrades on their flights, ranging from using credit card points and membership plan miles to earning upgrades through loyalty programs and negotiating for an upgrade on your next flight in exchange for volunteering to be bumped from an oversold flight. However, one arguably lesser-known option is to bid for a first-class, business-class, or premium economy seat.

An increasing number of airlines now have programs where they essentially auction off seat upgrades. The strategy allows airlines to earn some additional revenue while giving travelers the chance to score a premium seat for a fraction of the price. Here’s what you need to know about bidding for airline seat upgrades.

How does the bidding process work?

Airlines that offer bidding programs typically open up their online bidding platform somewhere between two and seven days before a scheduled flight (and close it as few as five hours before the flight, according to the airlines stated bidding terms). Some airlines, like Icelandair, will email fliers to let them know that submitting a bid to upgrade is an option, though many airlines don’t do this. For airlines that don’t alert passengers, you’ll need to visit the bidding page on their website (more on that below) and input your booking reference number to see if you’re eligible to participate in an upgrade auction before naming a price you’d be comfortable with. (If you’re not eligible, it’s likely because the route itself doesn’t qualify, you purchased a Basic Economy fare, or you didn’t book directly with the airline.)

You may be upgraded automatically depending on factors such as how many seats are available, how much you bid, and how close it is to the flight. If not, you should receive confirmation (or rejection) by the day of departure.

Beyond better seats, winning bids also usually have access to all the perks of the upgraded fare class, including access to lounges, checked baggage allowances, free alcohol, and more. However, the terms around your original booking (whether or not you can get a refund, how many miles you accrue, etc.) stay the same, no matter if your bid is accepted or not.

How much does a bid cost?

Airlines will set a certain sum as the bidding floor, so you’ll have to offer at least that amount to be in the running. It’s often at least a few hundred dollars, so sadly, you can’t offer $10 and hope nobody else bids.

In a traditional auction, bidders will see (or hear) the competing bids, but that’s not the case here. Airlines will tell you to make the best offer you can to try to beat out competing offers from other fliers, but they don’t readily offer insight about how many other people have submitted bids and for what amount. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to take a temperature check.

On websites like Expert Flyer, you can look up a flight and see how many unsold business-class and premium economy seats there are. Conventional wisdom argues that if there are numerous unsold seats, you can probably get away with a lower bid, whereas if only a few seats are available, you’ll want to bid higher. Even offering a few dollars more than the minimum should increase your chances of winning, as many people will offer the lowest possible amount and cross their fingers.

It’s worth noting that the bids are per leg, not for the entire itinerary, and that you’ll be asked to provide your credit card information when you bid. Should you win, the funds will be taken automatically, and depending on the airline, you might find it hard to get a refund for the upgrade if you change your mind later.

Airlines that offer upgrade auctions

More than 50 airlines worldwide, big and small, offer bidding programs. Most of them are operated by a third-party travel technology company called PlusGrade, which handles all the auctions.

Some of the larger airlines that offer the opportunity to bid for an upgrade include:

By clicking the links above, you can see each airline’s full bidding program and policies. None of the U.S.-based “Big Three” airlines (American, Delta, and United) participates in bid-based upgrades. In fact, the only U.S. airline with an auction program is Hawaiian Airlines.

Is bidding on seat upgrades worth it?

It depends. If getting a first- or business-class seat is important to you, it may not be worth buying an economy ticket and risking it (either because your bid didn’t win or because the higher tiers were sold out and there were no seats available for bidding on).

But for those who don’t want to or can’t pay full price for higher classes of seats (or don’t qualify for a “free” upgrade by using miles or airline status), being able to offer a bid of their choosing can make those seats more affordable and attainable.

Bailey Berg is the associate travel news editor at AFAR, where she covers breaking news, trends, tips, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. When not interviewing sources or writing articles, she can be found exploring art galleries, visiting craft breweries, hiking with her dogs, and planning her next adventure (at present, she’s been to 75+ countries and hopes to spend time in every one someday).
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