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Guide to Bidding on Flight Upgrades for Premium Seats

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I’m 6’7″, so I have long been a fan of flying business and first class, especially on longer international flights. Even if you don’t have the cash or miles on hand to pay for premium classes outright, you do have other options to get a seat near the front of the boat. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr explains the process of bidding for upgrades, and offers some tips to hep your bid go through.

First and business class seats are highly coveted, both by elite flyers hungry for upgrades, and by award travelers hunting for saver level availability. Nick Ewen recently wrote about how to upgrade with miles on international carriers. However, many airlines now offer another way to compete for unsold premium cabin space: by bidding for it. Today, I’ll discuss the bidding process and which airlines offer the service, and offer some tips to help you sit in premium economy, business, or first class at rock bottom prices.

The Bidding Process

The upgrade bidding process is essentially the same from one airline to another. After completing your booking and receiving your e-ticket, one of two scenarios can initiate your bid:

1. An email will arrive offering you the chance to bid on an upgrade
2. You can go to the airline’s website and see if your booking is eligible to bid on an upgrade.

Terms and conditions for bidding on upgrades vary somewhat between carriers, but some standard rules seem to apply:

1. You may only place a bid after you have a ticketed reservation.
2. There is a minimum and maximum allowed bid per flight segment. You can’t just bid $1 in the hope no one else bids!
3. Not all routes are eligible. Some airlines specifically state which routes qualify, while others make you enter your booking confirmation code to see if your flight is eligible.
4. Upgrade bids are per segment and per passenger on your itinerary. For example, if you’re flying Atlanta-Chicago-Paris, you must make a bid for your ATL-ORD flight and then your ORD-CDG flight. Your bid will be understood as per person if multiple people are on your ticket. If there are two people on your itinerary and you bid $100 for the segment upgrade, your bid is understood as $200.
5. Depending upon the airline, there are certain time windows in which you can place your bid. Most require all online bids to be placed at least 72 hours prior to departure.
6. You must enter payment information at the time of booking, but you will not be charged unless your bid is accepted. All accepted bids are nonrefundable unless your flight is canceled.
7. If successfully upgraded, most programs give you all the perks and benefits of your new travel class, including lounge access and extra baggage allowance. I have listed exceptions below.

A successful bid for an upgrade could give you incredible value. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Airlines That Offer Bidding for Upgrades

Most airline bidding programs seem to be run by the same company, Plusgrade. However, each individual airline has placed a few of its own limits on the program. Here is a list of participating airlines, and some basic info on the bidding processes for each.

Aer Lingus makes some flights between Ireland and North America or Canada eligible for upgrades, with not all these flights being automatically eligible. You can only bid for upgrades on flights booked directly with Aer Lingus. Eligible customers will receive an email asking for a bid.

Airberlin’s exquisite program allows eligible passengers to bid on an upgrade to business class or a Neighbor Free experience in economy. Bookings in A, X, and R classes are excluded from the program. You can bid until 72 hours before your flight, and are notified by email 12 hours before departure whether your bid was successful or not.

Air China lets you submit a bid to upgrade from economy class to Capital Pavilion (Air China’s business class) on its 777-300ER service from the USA to Beijing (no word on Air China’s new 747-8i). Eligible passengers will receive an email asking for a bid.  If your bid was successful, you’ll be notified by email 24 hours from departure time.

Out of all the participating airlines, Air China spells out best which factors determine the winning bids: “The success of an offer depends on a combination of factors such as the amount offered for the upgrade, competing offers, the original fare at which the ticket has been purchased, your status within PhoenixMiles program and the number of seats available for an upgrade. To improve your chances, enroll into the PhoenixMiles program and put forward your best offer.”

Air Mauritius allows bidding on upgrades to premium economy or business class on select aircraft along its Paris route. You’ll receive an email 14 days prior to departure and will be notified no later than 3 days before departure if your bid was successful. You can also place a bid on the airline’s website.

Air New Zeland's Premium Economy Spaceseat makes a 14 hour flight bearable.
Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy Spaceseat makes a 14 hour flight much more enjoyable.

Air New Zealand’s OneUp program allows passengers on international flights to upgrade one class. You can move from economy to premium economy, or from premium economy to Business Premier. If there are only two classes on the flight, you can upgrade from economy to business. You can submit a bid via an email you may receive 14 days before departure, in your Air New Zealand account, or through the airline’s call center. Successful bidders are notified 7 days before departure. You can pay with cash or your Airpoints Dollars.

There seems to be a chance for great value here, with reports of minimum bids of $750 being accepted to upgrade from Premium Economy to Business on the Los Angeles to Auckland route. A search in March showed a premium economy ticket on this route selling for $1,303, compared to $5,600 for a Business Premier ticket.

American Airlines began offering an upgrade bidding service in March of 2013, but it seems to have quietly dwindled away, although the webpage still exists. The program may have died due to push back from AAdvantage Elite members, despite American’s clear statement that this would not affect complimentary upgrades.

Avianca offers sparse details on its upgrade program, and doesn’t specify which routes or fare classes are eligible to receive an email asking for a bid. There are a few data points of $190 bids being accepted on the New York to Bogota route for upgrades to business class. Successful bidders are notified by email 24 hours before departure.

Austrian Airlines’ Smart Upgrade allows you to submit a bid for an upgrade on all bookings made directly with Austrian at the completion of the online booking process. You’ll be notified 72 hours before departure whether your bid was accepted. If so, you’ll earn miles based on fare class P.

Brussels Airlines allows upgrades on flights it operates from Check&Go and Light&Relax tickets to Flex&Fast and Bizz&Class. All Flex&Fast tickets on Brussels Airlines operated flights are eligible for an upgrade to Bizz&Class. All economy class flights on intercontinental routes are eligible to bid for an upgrade.

The following destinations are not eligible for upgrade bidding: Agadir, Bari, Bastia, Cagliari, Figari, Malta, Marrakech, Montpellier, Palermo, and Tel Aviv.  Reports are that Brussels to New York minimum bids are 600 Euros each way. Round-trip business class currently goes for $1800, so there’s little value to be had there.

Cathay Pacific has a trial period listed on its website for 9 routes out of Hong Kong. The trial website says the period ended November 14, 2014, and it has not been updated.

Copa Airlines allows upgrade bids on any flight that has business class, going out of the way several times to state that this service does not interfere with complimentary upgrades for Mileageplus Premier members. Bids can be made online by entering your passenger name record (PNR) and last name. Copa notifies winning bidders 23 hours before departure. Minimum bids to upgrade to business class for New York – Panama City start at just $200.

Czech Airlines allows you to bid on upgrades with some labyrinthine guidelines. “If the flight you’ve booked principally allows for an upgrade to business class and you bought your ticket through our website, you are eligible for the Upgrade service.”  The airline doesn’t explain which flights principally allow for an upgrade to business class, so I’m not sure what that means. Any takers?

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Austrian allows you to bid on upgrades for any flight booked directly with the airline.

El Al is not specific about which routes are eligible to bid for an upgrade. At the end of the reservations process, a window pops up asking for a bid if your flight is eligible. Anecdotal evidence is scarce, but I did see that upgrading from Tel Aviv to Johannesburg bidding starts at $450. If your bid is accepted you’ll be notified 30 hours before departure.

Estonian Air allows Service Class Upgrade bids on all economy tickets except Eco Flex and Eco Light. However, bids are only available on flights and dates selected by Estonian Air at its sole discretion. You must buy your ticket from Estonian’s website to be eligible to bid. You will be notified 48 hours before departure if your bid wins.

Etihad Select Upgrades are not restricted by destination, but tickets booked using promotional fares, Guest seat rewards, redemption tickets, free tickets, tickets already upgraded using miles, multiflyer tickets, and bookings with infants are not eligible to bid for an upgrade.

You may upgrade one class from economy to business or business to first. You will not receive chauffeur service if your bid is accepted to upgrade from economy to business. You will earn Etihad Guest miles at the base rate + a 10% class of service bonus if your bid is succesful.

The value here is a mixed bag, with short-haul flight minimum bids reportedly starting at $190. However, long-haul flights such as Chicago-Abu Dhabi have had minimum bids of $1,190 accepted to upgrade from economy to business. With the recent Etihad mistake fares being honored, some people who got in on the super cheap fares have reported having their bids accepted and flying business for 14.5 hours for $1400 all-in. A minimum bid of 685 Euros was accepted for a business to first upgrade for the Sao Paulo to Abu Dhabi route; that’s a considerable value, since a first class ticket is currently $4,000 more expensive than a business class ticket.

Garuda Indonesia doesn’t specify any routes as eligible or ineligible. You will be offered an immediate chance to submit a bid upon finishing the booking process on the Garuda website. Group tickets, special passenger tickets, and tickets booked with a promotion or special fare are not eligible.

Visit Iceland in Business Class with an IcelandAir Class Up. Courtesy Shutterstock.
Visit Iceland in Business Class with an Icelandair Class Up upgrade. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Icelandair makes certain flights eligible for the Class Up program, but those flights are not specified on the website. If you’re eligible, you’ll receive an email 10 days before your departure date, or you can enter your PNR on the Class Up webpage. Passengers who used Saga Points for a booking are still eligible to bid for an upgrade, but you won’t earn Saga Points on an upgraded ticket.

KLM I have had good experiences upgrading at the check-in desk and lounge with KLM using cash or Flying Blue miles. They also offer a bid for upgrade service, though details are sparse. You will receive an e-mail if upgrading is possible for your flight or the My Trip screen will show an option to bid. Place a bid up to 30 hours prior to departure and you will receive an email if successful.

LOT seems to offer upgrades from economy to either Premium class or Business class, although the language used on the website is a bit confusing. Bidding for upgrades is available on 21 international routes from Warsaw (including the 787 Dreamliner service to JFK). You’ll be notified 48-72 hours before departure if your bid was successful. You may place a bid at the end of your online booking process, or by going into My Reservation on the LOT website.

Lufthansa only allows upgrades from economy to premium economy on long-haul flights equipped with premium economy. You must log in to myOffer on Lufthansa’s website and submit your bid. You will be notified 24-36 hours before departure if your bid was accepted.

Malaysian Airlines will email you within 48 hours of booking if your flight is eligible to bid for an upgrade. You may only upgrade to the next higher class of service from the ticket you bought. You’ll be notified 48 hours before departure if your bid is successful, and you will earn miles based on your new booking class. There are several price points for accepted bids: short-haul flights range from as low as $9 for the 35 minute Singapore to Kuala Lumpur flight (which serves you lunch!) to $210 for the 8 hour Kuala Lumpur to Sydney flight. There appears to be a lot of potential for value here.

Kuala Lumpur featured
You can upgrade for as little as $9 on Malaysia Airlines flights between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Qantas Announced just last week, Bid Now Upgrades, allows passengers to place a bid including Qantas Points and, to sweeten your bid, a cash component. Upgrade bidding starts at 3,000 Qantas Points for domestic upgrades and 5,000 for international flights. Classic Point Upgrade rewards will still take precedence over Bid Now Upgrades. Not all routes and all passengers will be given the chance to bid. Travelers booked in the more expensive economy fares such as Flex and Semi Flex will be given the first  opportunity to bid. Successful bidders will be notified via email between 12-24 hours before departure.

Sri Lankan Airlines lets you bid between 2-10 days prior to departure on any international Sri Lankan Airlines flight. You’ll receive a confirmation email between 24-48 hours of departure if your bid is successful, in which case you’ll be rebooked into fare class I, and you’ll earn miles on the new fare class. Even if booked on partner ticket stock, reports indicate you can find your Sri Lankan PNR and successfully submit a bid on the Sri Lankan website. Minimum bids for short and medium haul flights of $55 and $100 have been successful.

TAP Portugal only allows upgrade bids for tickets purchased via flytap.com. TAP Classic and TAP Plus tickets can be upgraded to TAP Executive with a successful bid. Eligible routes are listed here. Bids may be placed up to 96 hours prior to departure.

Virgin Atlantic lets you upgrade into the next higher class of service from the ticket you booked. Tickets must be booked directly with Virgin Atlantic, and if your flight is eligible you will receive an email invitation to make a bid. Available price points put minimum bids for upgrades to premium economy on transatlantic flights starting at 180 GBP, with a maximum bid of 600 GBP. One-way premium economy tickets are currently $1800 more expensive than economy tickets, so there’s some value to be found.

Virgin Australia only allows you to upgrade a single class of service (from economy to premium economy, or premium economy to business). On flights with only two classes you can upgrade from economy to business. Not all flights are eligible; you must enter your PNR and last name on the Virgin Australia website to check if you can submit a bid. If successfully upgraded, you will not receive increased complimentary baggage allowance or limousine services.

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When you’re offered a chance to bid for an upgrade, use these strategies to maximize your chances of success.

Tips

There’s no definitive strategy to ensure you are the winning bidder at the best price. However, these tips should improve your chances:

  • Use ExpertFlyer or a similar tool to see how many premium class seats are still available on your flight.
  • Follow this equation for a bid price: Calculate the regular cost of a business-class seat. Subtract what you paid for the economy fare, and aim for around 20 percent to 40 percent of the remaining price (hat tip: IBT).
  • Bid slightly above the minimum to beat the crowd, since most people will choose the minimum.

Many elites are angered by airlines adding these bid for upgrade programs, as they feel their complimentary upgrade space is being auctioned off. That’s compounded by airlines offering flat-fee upgrades at the check-in counter and boarding gate, providing even more obstacles to top-tier elite who are high on the upgrade list, but never clear. It’s a tough act, as airlines have to balance maximizing revenue streams with keeping their most loyal flyers satisfied.

In the end, bidding for upgrades has the potential for great value if your bid toward the minimum is accepted. By offering up a couple hundred dollars, you can find yourself in premium economy or business for much less than the amount paid by your new neighbors up front. The next time you fly one of these airlines and find yourself with a chance to bid, evaluate whether a bid that’s likely to succeed offers enough value to be worth your while, and hopefully the strategies above can help you fly in premium classes at less than premium prices.

Please share your experiences bidding for upgrades in the comments below!