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What you need to know about bidding on flight upgrades for premium seats

Dec. 28, 2022
8 min read
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Editor’s note: This has been updated with new information.


First- and business-class seats are highly coveted, both by elite flyers hungry for upgrades and by award travelers hunting for award availability. However, many airlines now offer another way to compete for unsold premium cabin space: bidding for it.

Here's what you need to know about the bidding process and which airlines offer the service. We also offer tips to help you sit in premium economy, business or first class at much better prices on some of the most popular airlines.

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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 (you'll often see a pop-up offer or a tab to click on to begin a bidding process).

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 from Los Angeles to Paris to London, you must make a bid for your Los Angeles to Paris flight and then your Paris to London 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 $200 for the segment upgrade, your bid is understood as $400.
5. Depending on 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. We listed exceptions below.
Aer Lingus business class aboard the airline's Boeing 757 (Image via Aer Lingus)
Aer Lingus business class aboard the airline’s Boeing 757. AER LINGUS

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 some basic information on the bidding processes for each.

Aer Lingus makes some flights between Ireland and North America or Canada eligible for upgrades, though not all these flights are 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.

Air New Zealand’s OneUp program allows passengers on international flights to upgrade by 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 that you may receive up to three days before departure, in your Air New Zealand account, or through the airline’s call center. Successful bidders are notified seven days before departure. You can pay with cash or your Airpoints Dollars.

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Etihad Select Upgrades are not restricted by destination. However, tickets booked using promotional fares, guest seat rewards, redemption tickets, free tickets, those upgraded using miles, multi-flyer 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 earn Etihad Guest miles at the base rate plus a 10% class of service bonus if your bid is successful.

Lufthansa allows upgrades from economy to premium economy or business class on long-haul flights. Those flying premium economy can bid for business class and business class travelers can bid for first class. Economy passengers on short or medium-haul flights can bid for business class upgrades. You must log in to Lufthansa’s website and submit your bid. You will receive a notification 24 to 36 hours before departure if your bid was accepted.

ETIHAD

Related: How to ensure an upgrade on your next flight

Singapore Airlines’ mySQupgrade allows you to bid for an upgrade in cash (U.S. dollars) or KrisFlyer miles, within a pre-set range for flights booked through and operated by Singapore Airlines. You can make, change or cancel a bid up to 72 hours before the departure of your flight. You can only upgrade one class higher if you're paying with KrisFlyer miles. First class upgrades are available for select routes if you're paying with cash via mySQupgrade.

Virgin Atlantic lets you bid to upgrade to the next higher class of service from the ticket you booked; this means you could move from economy to premium or premium to Upper Class. You must book tickets directly with Virgin Atlantic, and if your flight is eligible, you will receive an email invitation to make a bid. Virgin Atlantic lets you make a bid up to two days before your scheduled departure date.

Airlines that don’t offer bidding for upgrades

These airlines do not offer the ability to set your own amount to bid for a chance at an upgrade, though they may allow fixed-price upgrades using cash and/or miles:

  • Air France/KLM.
  • American Airlines.
  • British Airways.
  • Delta Air Lines.
  • Emirates.
  • Qatar Airways.
  • United Airlines.
airplane seat
DANIEL ROSS/THE POINTS GUY

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% to 40% of the remaining price.
  • Bid slightly above the minimum to beat the crowd, since most people will choose the minimum.

Many elite-status members are angry about their preferred airline's decision to offer bidding; they feel their hard-earned operational upgrade chances are 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 elites 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.

TPG's Melanie Lieberman successfully bid on a flight upgrade for a SAS flight from the New York City area to Oslo. SAS lets passengers bid on upgrades until 25 hours before departure for domestic and Europe flights. Melanie upgraded from economy to business class at 450 euros (or $440 at the time). From her research, she found that many travelers can win upgrades by bidding the minimum price. ExpertFlyer told her that business class on her SAS flight had wide-open availability.

SAS

A few of our readers weighed in on the TPG Lounge Facebook group and one reader said they were able to get flight upgrades with PlusGrade quite frequently. PlusGrade, which many airlines use for their upgrade programs, also allows travelers to check for bidding opportunities. Another reader successfully bid for an upgrade on a 2021 Ethiopian Airlines round-trip flight from the East Coast to Africa.

Bottom line

In the end, bidding for upgrades has the potential for great value. By offering up a couple of hundred dollars or pounds, you can find yourself in premium economy or business for much less than the amount paid by your new neighbors upfront.

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 worthwhile. Hopefully, the strategies above can help you fly in premium classes at less than premium prices.

ExpertFlyer is owned by Red Ventures, TPG’s Parent Company.

Additional reporting by Ben Smithson.

Featured image by BOBAA22/SHUTTERSTOCK
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
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  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
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  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees