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Bidding Successfully on an Upgrade to the Etihad First Apartment

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TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen recently submitted a successful bid to upgrade from business class to the First Apartment on Etihad’s A380. Here was his strategy.

When I was in Asia recently and looking for a way to get back to the US, I jumped on the opportunity to purchase a round-trip business-class fare on Etihad from Colombo (Sri Lanka) to New York for just $1,795.

I had a great experience in business class on my outbound flight to New York. However, when I was getting ready for the return, I started thinking about whether it might be worth it to upgrade and try out the first-class Apartment aboard the airline’s A380.

Ways to Book The Apartment

There are a couple ways to fly Etihad’s first class. The airline is a partner of American Airlines, so you can use AAdvantage miles to book awards on Etihad. Unfortunately, since American’s recent award chart devaluation, a first-class redemption from New York to Abu Dhabi will now cost you 115,000 miles each way. No thanks!

For its part, Etihad’s Guest mileage program became a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards in April. It has also been a transfer partner of Citi ThankYou Rewards since July 2014, and of Starwood Preferred Guest since 2012.

Etihad would charge you 117,556 miles plus about $180 in taxes each way. Just as bad as American, but at least there are more transfer partners.

A one-way award from JFK-AUH in first class would have been nearly 120,000 Etihad miles.
A one-way award from JFK-AUH in first class would have been nearly 120,000 Etihad miles.

My ticket, however, was a paid one, so I looked into using Etihad’s own Guest miles to upgrade. You can use the airline’s mileage calculator to figure out how many miles you’d need. Business “Breaking Deals” fare classes in the T, E and Z fare codes are not upgradable using miles. Luckily my ticket was in the W class, so it was eligible.

The amount of miles I’d need to do so, however, was 62,439, which didn’t seem like much of a bargain. Business class it would be for me.

Upgrading using miles didn't seem like such a great deal.
Upgrading using miles didn’t seem like such a great deal.

My Bid

Or so I thought, until about a week before my flight, I got an email from Etihad with the subject line: “Act Now to Upgrade Your EY flight!!!”

The email threw me, but I was intrigued.
The email threw me, but I was intrigued.

The triple exclamation threw me off and I thought it might be spam, but I still clicked on the upgrade button to see what happened, and sure enough, it brought me to the airline’s website. The upgrade bidding page lists your flight details, the upgrade type (i.e., the cabin to which you will be upgraded) and the bid offer amount, as well as a meter letting you know your “offer strength.” I had to bid in Sri Lankan rupees because I’d bought the ticket from Colombo and my original fare was in LKR.

Etihad bid strong

The lowest possible offer was 149,745 LKR (about $1,030) and was listed as very poor.

Etihad bid poor

Just to see, I bumped the meter up to very strong to see how much the airline considered a good bid, and that was closer to 234,385 LKR ($1,610).

Etihad bid very strong

As an experiment, I decided to place a bid that was pretty much right in the middle of the “offer strength” meter. That ended up being about 170,905 Sri Lankan rupees, or $1,170.

When I submitted my bid, the airline sent me an email confirmation telling me that I’d be notified by email whether my bid was successful, and my card would be charged at that point. Otherwise, I’d remain in the class I’d originally booked.

I listed my Citi ThankYou Premier as my method of payment so I’d earn 3x points per dollar on the travel purchase. When the purchase went through, it was described as an air travel purchase on my online statement, and thus eligible for the card’s travel bonus.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect, or whether I even wanted the upgrade to go through. I tried to think about the calculus of it a few different ways. As it stood, my return ticket was worth about $897.50. And I’d just submitted a bid that would raise that price to $2,067.50. That’s a lot of money for a one-way ticket!

I tried to justify it by thinking about the overall ticket as costing $2,965, which isn’t too bad for business and first class in either direction from South Asia to the US.

To look at it another way, I priced out round-trip first-class fares from Colombo to New York, and found them to be running about 835,595 LKR ($5,740), so I was still getting my ticket at a relative bargain.

A round-trip ticket in first class would have cost
A round-trip ticket in first class would have cost $5,740.

Looking at one-way prices from New York to Colombo via Abu Dhabi, ticket prices shot up to a mystifyingly expensive $13,798.90. Even more of a bargain for me!

A one-way ticket from New York to Colombo would have cost nearly $14,000!
A one-way ticket from New York to Colombo would have cost nearly $14,000!

The Outcome

Etihad says that you’ll be notified 72-24 hours before your flight whether your upgrade bid has been accepted. I was notified just about 50 hours in advance of my flight (as I was on another flight, actually). My card was charged, and when I checked my reservation, I was now listed as being in first class.

Etihad bid successful
I was notified about 50 hours before my flight.

However, I could no longer manage my reservation on Etihad’s website. I kept getting an error message when I tried to access the “Change Seats” section. Instead, I called the airline and hit the choices like I was booking a new ticket (otherwise the system tells you to do everything on the website and hangs up on you!) and the agent helped me put my seat selection on the reservation.

My Thoughts

Though I had a great experience flying Etihad’s A380 business class, when the opportunity came to bid on an upgrade to the First Apartment, I took stock of how much I was willing to pay and decided it was worth it to try at least. Here’s my review of the actual experience.

In the end I thought bidding was worth it - but stay tuned for my review!
In the end I thought bidding was worth it.

What I also found interesting was that the first-class cabin on my flight ended up being half empty. That got me wondering about whether I could have bid even lower, but I suspect there’s a formula in place that’s more complicated than whether there’s an empty seat and a bid. Rather, I think the airline has a threshold below which it won’t accept an upgrade bid, and would rather fly the seat empty than incur the cost of servicing an additional passenger, but that’s just my guess.

Other Airlines

We actually have a guide to bidding on upgrades on other airlines, but to give you the quick summary: Most airlines use a system from a company called Plusgrade (that’s why you’ll see that offer strength meter on so many of them).

Most airlines' upgrade bidding systems are powered by Plusgrade.
Most airlines’ upgrade bidding systems are powered by Plusgrade.

The chance to bid on upgrades varies from airline to airline and can be based on things like routes, capacity, fare booking classes, elite status and more, so if you think you might want the opportunity to bid on an upgrade, it pays to check your airline’s page devoted to the matter.

Also note that many airlines require you to book a ticket directly through them in order to be asked if you want an upgrade at all, so no booking through an OTA like Orbitz.

Among the notable airlines that allow you to bid on upgrades (again, under certain circumstances) are:

  • Aer Lingus
  • Aeromexico
  • Air Astana
  • Air Berlin
  • Air China
  • Air Mauritius
  • Air New Zealand
  • Air Serbia
  • American Airlines
  • Austrian Airlines
  • Avianca
  • Brussels Airlines
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Copa
  • Czech Airlines
  • El Al
  • Estonian Air
  • Ethiopian
  • Etihad
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Gulf Air
  • Icelandair
  • Kenya Airways
  • KLM
  • LAN
  • LOT
  • Lufthansa
  • Malaysian Airlines
  • Qantas (this is relatively new, and requires using Qantas points and a cash component)
  • Royal Jordanian
  • SAS
  • South African Airways
  • SriLankan Airlines (I’ve actually just bid on a flight with them as well!)
  • SWISS
  • TAP
  • Tigerair
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Virgin Australia (just a single class of service)

Before you go booking and bidding, though, remember to strategize by checking ExpertFlyer for seat loads, look into business- and first-class prices to figure out appropriate amounts, and consider at the sliding scale of bid strength to determine where that sweet spot might be.

Have you bid successfully on an upgrade on Etihad or one of these other airlines? Share your experience and advice below!

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