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There are several ways to fly first class: Pay for it outright, purchase a last-minute upgrade, use elite status earned from frequent travel, or apply travel rewards or mileage.
Here's how to get the best deal on first class through last-minute upgrades and wisely using elite status.
Upgrade for cheap at check-in
I look at first-class upgrades on domestic flights as a nice perk, but not necessary. If the price difference is under $100, I upgrade.
Airlines will often offer first class as an upgrade during electronic check-in.
On a recent trip from San Antonio to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, I had a one-way coach ticket on American Airlines that cost about $150. I bought that ticket two weeks before the trip. During the check-in process (I checked in on the way to the airport), I was offered an upgrade on the Charlotte-to-LaGuardia segment of the trip for $76, bringing my total to $226. If I had originally booked a first-class ticket for the entire trip, I would have spent upward of $1,000.
» Learn more: Why you should fly first class at least once, and how to afford it
Opportunities for upgrades can be random. My upgrade might have been available because I checked in less than 24 hours before my flight. The airline might have felt comfortable offering cheaper upgrades because anyone wanting or needing to fly first-class already booked it.
It can be worth it to wait until a few hours before your flight to score a cheap first-class upgrade. Typically, elite frequent flyer members are quickly approved.
Use elite status
When you fly at least 25,000 miles annually, several airlines offer discounted and free options when upgrading to first class.
For instance, United Airlines offers complimentary upgrades to MileagePlus Premier members flying in the U.S. with the exception of a few routes, so some flyers might have to choose their airports carefully to get the upgrades. The airline also offers upgrades to cardholders who make $25,000 in annual qualified purchases. United will instantly confirm elite travelers who have full-priced coach tickets, and elite travelers can get their companion traveler upgraded with them.
American Airlines’ AAdvantage elite members earn 500-mile upgrades that can be redeemed for flights of any length. For example, a 2,000-mile flight requires four upgrades. Elite travelers earn four upgrades for every 12,500 miles flown.
No matter which strategy you employ, always create a budget so you use upgrades when they make sense for you.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card