Buying Discounted United First Class Upgrades

Mar 28, 2016

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If you like to sit at the front of the plane on your travels you have probably noticed that over the past few years there has been a strong movement with many US airlines towards selling the upgrades at a “discounted” price rather than simply “given them away for free” to elite travelers. This is good or bad news depending on your point of view, but it is an undeniable truth in many situations.

As an elite traveler I view it as both a good and bad thing, but overall a mostly good thing as it gives the option of paying a little more to get the seat you want rather than relying on elite status or paying $1,000+ for the right to sit up front for a few hours. My perspective is further influenced since my elite status will only get a couple of my family members up front even under the best of circumstances, so I am going to have to pony up miles or money if I want us to all sit up front.

Loved paying a little extra at check-in to upgrade my parents!
Loved paying a little extra at check-in to upgrade my parents last year!

One airline that was notorious in recent years for selling upgrades for “tens of dollars” (TOD) is United Airlines. United elite travelers pretty much hated this development as it sold upgrades to non-elite travelers for $30, $40, etc. that otherwise might have gone for free to an elite traveler who spends tons of time flying throughout the year. The days of “tens of dollars” upgrades seem to be pretty much over as the upgrades often cost a bit more than that, but they are still available at a discounted rate within 24 hours of travel on many flights when first class has some seats that would likely otherwise go unsold.

If you are just looking for the cheapest way to get from Point A to Point B (and I don’t blame you) none of this matters at all, but if you sometimes want a roomier seat and potentially upgraded service then look for that discounted upgrade price when you check-in online.

For example, on a recent flight home from Cancun first class was pretty wide open and my complimentary upgrade cleared several days in advance. Looking at how open first class was leading up to departure I was pretty certain I would be able to add my daughter as my upgrade companion at the airport and she would easily clear (she had been split from my reservation on the outbound as often happens with United reservations and upgrades). Since my other daughter was already in first class with me as a lap infant this meant that 3/4 of us would be in first class without spending any additional money.

We could have just left well enough alone and flown that way as we have several times before with Daddy actually getting the more relaxing seat by himself (without any kiddos) in Economy Plus. However, since we don’t fly as much as we used to, we decided it might be nice to have us all together in first class if the price for my husband’s upgrade was right.

Before check-in it was around $300 to upgrade his economy ticket to first class, which was way too much for this flight. However, at check-in the discounted rate dropped to $99. By itself that may still be overpaying since this is a relatively short flight, but factoring in that the rest of us had received complimentary upgrades, $99 would get us all together in first so we decided to go for it.

Discounted First Class Upgrade.jpg

United made $99 more than they would have otherwise by discounting the first class seat to us, and the four of us got to end our Mexican vacation all sitting together up-front for a relatively low overall cost. I call that a win/win in this scenario.

This upgrade gave us access to more space (great with a lap baby), attentive service, lunch, unlimited drinks, etc. Perhaps most of all, it is still just a little more fun for us to sit upfront since we are most often found in the back.

Do you ever see a discounted first class upgrade available at check-in on United or your airline of choice? Do you sometimes take advantage of the upgrade opportunity?

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