How to Get Cheap Upgrades to First Class

Reyna Gobel
By Reyna Gobel 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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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.

Frequently asked questions

In terms of dollars, this will vary widely based on the time of year you’re flying and your destination. For cheaper first-class tickets by using points and miles, look for sweet spots with airlines (and their partners) that have fixed award charts like American, Alaska, Air Canada, All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific or Korean Air.

There is no specific price to upgrade to first class. Prices will vary widely depending on the airline, destination, length of flight, capacity and the type of seat you currently have.

Generally, most first-class or other premium-cabin seats will become more expensive as the departure date approaches. While this can vary by airline, route and season, your best bet is usually to book as far in advance as possible, especially if the ticket includes good change or cancellation policies.

The best way to get complimentary upgrades to first class is to be a high-level elite status member with an airline. Many airlines will have upgrade options or waiting lists for elite members to get moved into first class.

Paying cash to fly first class can be very expensive, and the high cost may diminish some of the fun. For maximum enjoyment, try to book first or business class tickets with points earned from credit cards (rather than paying cash). It can certainly be worth experiencing a flight in first class.

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:

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