How to Bid on a Cabin Upgrade on Your Next Flight

June Casagrande
By June Casagrande 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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You booked a flight. In economy, of course. You didn’t even bother looking at the first- or business-class fares because, really, who has that kind of money to shovel out for legroom and a glass of wine?

But then you get an email: You’re eligible to bid on one of those big, comfy seats you never even considered — a chance to move up to business or first class for a fraction of the full fare.

Should you do it?

More and more travelers are facing that question as airlines jump on the bid-for-upgrades bandwagon. For the carriers, it’s a way to make more money on seats that would have otherwise stayed empty. For travelers, it’s a chance to spend 10 or 12 hours in the air not touching elbows with a stranger.

“This appeals to pretty much everyone that doesn’t want to pay full price,” says John DiScala, the blogger behind Johnny Jet. He won an upgrade to a $2,000 lie-flat seat on Scandinavian Airlines with a bid of $400.

Who can bid on an upgrade?

More than 50 major airlines are now offering passengers the chance to set their own price for an upgrade to business or first class on a platform called Plusgrade. It’s mostly international carriers right now, including Lufthansa, Air Canada, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. The big U.S. domestic carriers — American, United and Delta — aren't participating. Hawaiian Airlines, however, does offer some travelers a chance to bid on upgraded seats on domestic flights.

But not every flight on these airlines, and not every passenger on a flight, will get a chance to bid. Availability is based solely on how the airlines manage their seat inventory.

How do I bid on an upgrade?

Once you’ve booked an economy class seat, the airline may send you an email inviting you to bid up. You can also log in to the airline website, navigate to your booking, then explore any upgrade opportunities listed there.

To bid, you use a slider indicating how much you’re willing to pay to move to the next cabin of service. The sliders have a minimum bid amount, so you can’t bid one dollar to get from economy to first. The tool also tells you how strong your bid is.

If your offer is accepted, you’ll get an email before departure — often just a few days before your trip — telling you that you won and that your credit card has been charged for the amount you specified. If your bid isn’t accepted, there’s no charge and you’ve lost nothing (except the anguish of wondering whether you could have nabbed a bigger seat with just $20 more).

Is bidding on an upgrade worth it?

Your chances of winning your bid are best when the airline’s chance of selling the seat is the worst.

“If you travel when business travelers are not (Saturdays and during the summer), you have a much greater chance of getting the upgrade,” DiScala says.

And while the upgrades offer huge savings over paying full fare for business or first class, costs usually run into the hundreds. So bidding isn’t for everyone. If you can work or sleep in a standard economy seat, DiScala says, the upgrade might not be worth the money to you.

“More and more airlines will adopt this because they want to make as much money as they can and this is a great way to do it,” he says. “The biggest losers are the loyal frequent flyers since fewer seats will be available for the free or discounted upgrade.”

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