Image: Virgin America
Virgin America
Many airlines make upgrading to first class easy. Virgin America sells off available first class seats for as little as $50 each way, up to $175 for transcontinental flights.
updated 5/23/2008 6:09:11 PM ET 2008-05-23T22:09:11

The next time you board a plane and walk through First Class on the way to your cramped coach seat, don't be jealous.

If it's a domestic flight, at least, you could be sitting there too, has found.

You may think airlines are evil and would rather have empty seats in first or business than see the likes of you sneaking in. Wrong. If the seat has not been sold, or is not being filled by a loyal frequent flyer, it's entirely possible that you could have upgraded your ticket — sometimes for less than you'd think.

"It provides the airline with … revenue on seats that might otherwise go unsold," said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines. American starts the bidding on available seats at $45 for each 500 miles of your flight. All you have to do is inquire with an agent on the day of travel or check in at a self-serve kiosk and see if you're automatically offered the opportunity.

Goodbye middle seat, hello hot towels.

The easy way in
Many airlines make upgrading so simple that you can almost count on getting in if you play your cards right. Virgin America is a prime example of the easy upgrade. I recently paid nearly $500 for a one-way first-class ticket from JFK to San Francisco, only to find out just a day or so before my flight that I was one of very few people in the cabin.

The fare was well worthwhile: The seats are roomy and plush — among the best of any U.S. domestic first-class seats. Also, the service is top-notch, everything on the airline's extensive entertainment system is free, and the food (watermelon-mint salad for breakfast? Yes please!) is pretty decent.

I felt like a sucker, however, watching the cabin fill up within 24 hours of my flight — I knew that I had probably paid far more than any of my seatmates. Why? Because Virgin America sells off available first-class seats for as little as $50 each way, up to $175 for transcontinental flights. Someone who booked a last-minute seat in first would be paying upwards of $800 (a sample non-advance one-way fare in first), whereas someone who had booked coach in advance for under $300 round-trip would be able to fly in first, last minute, for hundreds less than they would have  paid if they had booked that seat in advance.

This style of upgrade used to be one of the few redeeming features on America West, now part of US Airways. Surprise! US Airways now offers the same deal across its entire fleet, but gives you a leg-up over other airlines: You can call reservations 24 hours in advance of your flight, and any unsold seats are yours, starting at $50 each way.

The situation at AirTran is similar. Upgrades to seats in AirTran's decent business-class cabin start at $40. While the airline says that this is only available to those traveling on 'Y' (full-fare economy) tickets, for a “limited time” all passengers may upgrade from any fare on a standby basis, at the departure gate or by using the airline's ByePass self-check in kiosks at the airport.

The surprise
US Airways pioneered it, but now many airlines are trying it: off-loading first-class seats automatically at self check-in kiosks, with upgrade fees based on mileage flown. For example, while checking in for a United flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Denver not too long ago, an unexpected question popped up on the kiosk screen: Would I like to upgrade, for just a little over $100? (I would, as it turned out.)

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Last summer, I paid $75 to fly in an empty first-class cabin on Delta from New York JFK to Atlanta. The plane had come in from India, and was returning to home base, with virtually nobody onboard. Delta spokespeople did not get back to me with details on how the airline unloads empty first-class seats.

United spokesman Jeff Kovick said his airline first makes the offer at check-in, and customers should feel free to inquire if not asked. Incidentally, this goes for most airlines, all of which are increasingly looking for ways to increase revenue.

"Secret" fares
Lots has been made recently about what are known in industry jargon as "Q-UP" or "Y-UP" fares — discounted, but restriction-laden, "secret" first-class fares that frequent travelers pride themselves they can snag out from under the noses of less experienced fliers.

There are many sources of information on how these cheap first-class seats can be booked, but some airlines are just putting them right out there. American, for instance, is now showing discounted first-class fares when you click the new 'Price & Schedule' search on its home page. A recent check for a one-way seat from San Francisco to New York in mid-June found an "Instant Upgrade" fare of just $749 one-way, as opposed to the lowest unrestricted first-class fare of $2,309.

These are big savings, absolutely — but don't forget, if there are any seats left on the day of travel, you might snag one for even less. Taking chances sometimes does pay off.

© 2013 Imaginova Corp.


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