ON ANY GIVEN DAY, a handful of eager-looking passengers lines up at the Air India counter
at New York’s Kennedy Airport well before the ticket agents have even arrived. Their goal: to buy one of the coveted upgrades to business- and first-class that the airline sells at check-in on a space-available basis. On its New York-to-Delhi route, for instance, passengers can currently purchase an upgrade from coach to business class for $900 one-way, enjoying more than $1,600 off the cost of a full-fare, one-way business class ticket—along with French wines, fine cheeses and a lie-flat bed for the 14-hour flight.
A growing number of airlines are making it possible for fliers who lack fat mileage accounts to move to a cushier seat on the plane. Virgin Atlantic, Etihad and Air Canada are among the other carriers that are offering passengers a chance to purchase last-minute upgrades, either at check-in or at the gate. Alitalia takes the trend to its most extreme, letting passengers buy their way out of economy right on the plane: The fee to upgrade from coach to business class on long-haul flights is 1,200 euros (just under $1,300 at current exchange rates). With round-trip fares between New York and Rome on Alitalia currently running at about $1,400, purchasing upgrades each way brings the total to about $4,000. Not chump change, but still steep savings off Alitalia’s published round-trip business class fares on that route, which recently ranged between $8,000 to $11,000.
Andrew Dhuey, a lawyer in Berkeley, Calif., said that whenever he flies coast to coast he tries to take advantage of Virgin America’s first-class upgrades, which the airline offers for sale to non-elite travelers six hours ahead of flight time. He said he recently purchased one for $399 one-way between San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Adding to the casino-like atmosphere, Etihad, LOT, KLM and Virgin Atlantic are just a few of the many carriers that now let passengers bid for upgrades to business class.
‘‘What is bad news for frequent fliers is good news for everyone else.’’
Why are airlines coming up with these novel approaches to unloading their most expensive seats? For the same reason they’re getting stingier with upgrades for their most highflying customers: “The airlines are asking ‘Why should we give it away when we can sell it?’ ” said Joe Brancatelli, an airline expert who runs the business-travel website Joesentme.com. “But what is bad news for frequent fliers is good news for everyone else.”
Even the least expensive upgrades still aren’t cheap, but they’re almost always a great value, especially as the chasm between coach and premium class widens. Nearly all major airlines have flat beds in business, while back in coach, carriers continue to pack in more seats. “For a lot of people it now comes down to this: Give me anything but coach,” said Blake Fleetwood, of Cook Travel, a New York City travel agency that sells discounted business- and first-class tickets.
Agencies that specialize in discounted premium-class fares, like Cook Travel (cooktravel.net), offer another route to the front of the plane. Most claim to offer savings of 30% to 70% off the price of business- and first-class tickets. Of course, not all of them are legit: Beware especially of companies that sell tickets issued on frequent flier miles that they’ve purchased from other travelers. Though this is not illegal, it is a violation of airline rules and, if the airline finds out, it won’t honor the ticket. To protect yourself, always pay with a credit card and only deal with discounters who have been in business for at least 10 years.
Established discount travel agencies like Cook Travel and International Travel Systems (etravelbid.com) save clients money by passing along volume discounts and finding novel routing options. For instance, Mr. Fleetwood said he recently saved a customer flying to China $3,000 off the going business-class fare by routing him through Toronto and Vancouver rather than Chicago. The passenger had to make an extra stop but saved nearly 50% on the price of a business-class ticket.
George Hobica, president of the discount-travel website, airfarewatchdog.com, said that one of the old-fashioned ways to save on premium fares—booking two to three months in advance—is still a winner. “The savings can be pretty dramatic,” he said, noting that summer, when business travel slows, is among the best times to nab one of these deals.
MOVING ON UP // Four Ways to Snag a Spot in the Front of the Plane
1. Last-Minute Paid Upgrade
What it is: Airlines unload unsold premium-class seats at a discount as departure nears.
How it works: Offers are usually sent out via email or pop up during online check-in.
What you’ll save: It can depend on how many seats are empty, but savings average about 30% off the regular fare and don’t include lounge access.
Sample deal: The cost of purchasing a coach-class ticket and an upgrade to business class each way on a round-trip flight from New York to Delhi on Air India cost $3,400, about $1,000 less than the price of a round-trip business class ticket on the same route.
2. Online Auction
What it is: More than two dozen airlines (including Austrian, Etihad, KLM and three Virgin-branded lines: America, Atlantic and Australia) allow ticket holders to bid for upgrades on their websites up to 72 hours before departure. Some airlines (including Air India, SAS and Aeroméxico) conduct their auctions on Option Town (optiontown.com).
How it works: Name your price, enter your credit card information and wait to find out if your bid was accepted (you’ll usually find out a couple of days before departure).
What you’ll save: Hard to say. Airlines don’t want to undermine the demand for full-fare tickets, so they don’t disclose details. Bloggers who have placed successful bids report significant savings.
Sample deal:Air New Zealand’s OneUp program allows passengers on international flights to upgrade one class; bids as low as $750 have reportedly been accepted for a one-way upgrade from premium economy to business on the Los Angeles-to-Auckland route.
3. Discount Travel Agencies
What it is: Large-volume travel agencies that offer deep discounts off regular ticket prices.
How it works: They pass along volume discounts with preferred airlines, use net fares (effectively wholesale rates) and find unconventional or less direct routings with lower premium fares.
What you’ll save: Their ads promise savings of 30% to 70% off published prices.
Sample deal: Cook Travel, a well-known discounter in New York, recently offered business-class fares to Europe averaging around $3,000 round-trip, or about 50% off regular fares.
Caveat emptor: Discount travel agencies often run with bare-bones staffs, so customer service can be less than stellar.
4. Super-Advance-Purchase Deal
What it is: Airlines generally offer deep discounts on premium fares some 60 to 90 days before departure, with restrictions like Saturday stays to keep them out of the hands of road warriors.
How it works: Simple—book early, save money.
What you’ll save: 25% or more.
Sample deal:Cathay Pacific Airways is offering a 90-day advance-purchase fare in business class from New York to China starting at $4,900 round-trip. Tickets must be purchased by March 31.