The Lesser-Known Hack for Upgrading Your Flight at a Discount

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

Lufthansa business class seats including one in the lie-flat position with a pillow and blanket atop it

Lufthansa is among the airlines that auction off upgrades, including for business class, on several flights from the United States to Germany.

Photo by Shutterstock

Savvy travelers have myriad tools in their arsenal to score upgrades on their flights, ranging from using credit card points and membership plan miles to negotiating for an upgrade 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 for essentially auctioning 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 online bidding between two and seven days before a scheduled flight (and close it as few as five hours before the flight, according to the airlines’ 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 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.

If you win an upgrade bid, do you get added perks?

Beyond better seats, winning bids usually include 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 to bid on an upgrade, so sadly, you can’t offer $10 and hope nobody else bids. There’s also usually a price ceiling (which is lower than what you would have paid if you’d initially bought a premium seat) so you can’t overbid.

In a traditional auction, bidders will see (or hear) the competing bids, but that’s not the case in this virtual auction. Airlines will tell you to make the best offer you can to try to beat 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 business-class and premium economy seats are still unsold. 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. Also, the bid is for only one person, so if there are multiple people on your ticket who would like to vie for upgrades, you’ll need to make bids for each person separately.

Should you win, the funds will be charged to your card automatically, and depending on the airline, you might find it hard to get a refund for the upgrade if you change your mind later (unless the flight is canceled, in which case you’d definitely get your money back).

People sitting at the bar and at various tables in Cathay Pacific's light and airy business-class lounge in Hong Kong, the Deck

An accepted upgrade bid often comes with added perks, including access to lounges like Cathay Pacific’s business-class lounge in Hong Kong, the Deck.

Courtesy of Cathay Pacific

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 the auctions.

Some of the 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. Similarly, some airlines with stellar (and coveted by AFAR staffers and contributors) first- and business-class seats, such as Air France, KLM, Emirates, and Qatar, sadly don’t offer bidding programs.

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 to bid 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 (starting at the minimum) can make those seats more affordable and attainable.

This story was originally published in January 2023 and was updated on January 18, 2024, to include current information.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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