Take Advantage of United/Continental’s Same-Day First Class Discounts

Jan 11, 2012

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While I spend the majority of my flights in economy/coach/the back of the bus, I will never pretend that I sit back there because that is my preference.  If given the chance, I would move up to First/Business eight days a week.  However, given that I clearly am not going to pay full fare for a ticket at the front of the plane, I don’t currently have airline elite status that would grant me complimentary First Class upgrades, and I don’t usually want to spend twice the number of miles to sit upfront, my opportunities to sit in first are usually pretty limited.  However, thanks to Continental/United Airline’s lovely same-day First Class discounts, my husband and I have recently been able to move up front for a fraction of the regular price.

These upgrades are “affectionately” known on Flyertalk here and here as “tens of dollars” upgrades.  This is because they often just cost tens of dollars.  :)  Elite flyers often frown upon these cheap upgrades as there have been some reports that First Class seats are sold at discounts before all eligible elite flyers are upgraded for the flight.  The system is not supposed to offer these discounted upgrades unless there are still First Class seats available after all eligible elite flyers have a seat in First Class saved for them, but the system may not be perfect.  I’m certainly not out to take an elite flyer’s upgrade out from under them, so my hope is that the system works as intended and everyone is a winner.

Back in November I flew to BlogWorld from Houston to Los Angeles late on a Thursday night.  I had just finished a very busy work week and was about to step into a very busy (and fun) weekend of conference sessions, events with other bloggers, etc… When I checked into my flight and saw that there was a First Class seat available at a discount, I immediately snatched it up.  My husband followed me out there the next day and was also able to upgrade for $119.  That is no small chunk of change in our budget, but it is a manageable number.

The promise of a greater likelihood of a flight experience that I might be able to relax a bit, and get a few hours of sleep was very much worth it for me.  Then just last week my husband had a business trip from Houston to Las Vegas.  As usual, he also had a very full week of work both in Texas and in Las Vegas and was very excited when he checked into his flight and saw that for $99 additional dollars he could go from his coach seat purchased for about $200 round trip, to seat 1A at the front of the plane.  He had a full meal, a few drinks, did some work on the computer, and had a very comfortable flight.

In my experience, the inexpensive fares or reward tickets that we usually fly on often get us same day “buy up” offers ranging from $59 – $199 domestically.  The longer flights are usually more expensive to upgrade on than the shorter flights.  Of course, on many flights there are no discounted “buy up” offers available as all available First Class seats have either been sold, or have gone to elite flyers who have been automatically upgraded.  If you are interested in getting a discounted offer to move to the front of the plane, here are a few tips that have worked for me.

  • Check in exactly 24 hours before your flight and see if you see a discounted offer to upgrade to First Class.  You can keep checking up until your flight time, but the best chances seem to come close to the 24 hour mark.
  • Don’t delay if you see that offer and you want to purchase it – once they are gone, they are gone.
  • Be aware that if you change your flight, your purchased upgrade probably won’t go with you.  These are non-refundable purchases, so don’t upgrade unless you are certain you will be taking the flight.
  • Book flights for “off-peak” times.  For example, when we fly on Saturday mornings we have a pretty high success rate of getting upgrade offers.  Many elite flyers are business men and women who fly during the week.  On the weekends elite flyers typically fly a bit less, so your chances of being on a flight with an open First Class seat are higher.  Of course, this is also when there are often more reward seats, so it works out perfectly for us.
  • Don’t get your hopes up too high.  Don’t book a flight with your heart set on getting a chance for a cheap upgrade.  Just consider it a happy surprise when it is available and affordable.  I say this because I think my husband has started to get pretty disappointed when the cheap upgrade isn’t available.  In his defense, he is a pretty tall guy and coach seats really are not made for someone like him.  In fact, he plans to write a little about this exact topic in the near future, so you can hear his thoughts directly.  ;)

We don’t always purchase the discounted upgrade even if it is available, but there are some situations for us when spending a little extra cash to make the flight a little more comfortable, special, etc… is very much worth it.  Of course, we are so used to economy that even domestic First Class is kind of exciting for us.    So, if you are flying Continental/United and are interested in getting a taste of the front of the plane for a discounted price, then keep an eye out for these discounted buy-up opportunities.  I know I have a flight coming up in the near future that I will be crossing my fingers for at the 24 hour mark.

Have you ever taken advantage of these discounted buy-up opportunities?  What do you think of the chance to move up front for a discounted rate?

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