Skip to content

How to upgrade to first class without using a ton of cash

June 17, 2022
13 min read
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

For many travelers, flying in a first-class seat may seem like an unachievable dream, reserved for the ultra-wealthy or business travelers living a good life on an expense account. Yes, those are effective ways to get up front, but they are far from the only ways.

Believe it or not, you can sit at the front of the plane without paying the full cash or award retail price for that privilege (and no, just dressing up is not one of the ways).

Admittedly, in these days of high travel demand, it's hard to guarantee a first-class seat without directly paying for it, but with some luck, tips and strategizing, there are sometimes multiple ways to find yourself upgraded to first class without paying the full price.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

New to The Points Guy? Sign up for our daily newsletter and check out our beginner’s guide.

How to upgrade to first class without elite status

If you don't want to pay full price, then first class is certainly harder for those of us without elite status with an airline.

The good news? It is still possible to find different ways to score an upgrade, even if you don't have elite status. Here's how to get your next trip upgraded to first class at a discount.

Use miles to upgrade your economy ticket

One of the easiest ways for travelers without elite status to upgrade their seats to first or business class without paying the full cash price is by paying for the upgrade with miles.

You don’t need elite status to earn and use airline miles for upgrades, but you will have to have a frequent flyer account with the airline. Casual flyers will be surprised at the number of miles they can earn throughout their lifetime, as many airlines no longer let miles expire. You can rack up miles doing everything from buying groceries to paying for car insurance.

An important note is that you need to ensure the economy ticket you purchased is eligible for upgrades.

As you can see from this United Airlines example, which is for a flight from San Antonio to Hawaii, there are two economy fare options available: economy and basic economy.

(Screenshot from Google Flights)

While the basic economy fare is $59 cheaper, it also features a lot more restrictions, including being ineligible for upgrades. So if you think you may want to try and use miles to upgrade your ticket, make sure to book a fare that's eligible.

Since a first-class seat on this ticket will cost you a pretty penny if you purchase it outright with cash, odds are you'll want to use accrued miles to cover the cost.

Related: The best ways to get to Hawaii using points and miles

(Screenshot from Google Flights)

After all, not many of us have $1,520 to spend on a one-way ticket to Hawaii. With an economy ticket, you can apply any United miles you have in your loyalty account toward that first-class seat.

(Screenshot from United Airlines)

All you'll need is 25,000 United miles and $125 to get on the upgrade waitlist.

To increase your chances of success with this tip, you will want to avoid busy travel seasons like summer and business-focused routes frequently filled by corporate employees. There's no guarantee your upgrade will clear in this case, but if it does, you will end up spending far less — 25,000 miles plus $565, to be exact — to sit up front. Should you not make it off the waitlist, United will automatically refund your miles and copay.

If you don't have 25,000 United miles at the ready, United is currently offering 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months of account opening with the United Explorer Card. The United Explorer Card also comes with perks like up to $100 to cover a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee, two one-time lounge passes and checked bags for an annual fee of $95, which is waived your first year.

Related: Premium perks without a premium fee: United Explorer Card review

Get help from a friend or family member with elite status

You can still receive some airline elite perks without personally having elite status. Some airline programs like Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan will allow their members to spread the wealth of their elite status to family and friends.

Those with Alaska MVP Gold status receive four one-way guest upgrades for every year they gain or maintain their status. These upgrades can be spent on their travel companions or when their guest is traveling without them.

There are some rules around space availability and other factors to consider, but if your friend has status with an airline such as Alaska or United, they may be able to help you get upgraded without spending any money.

First-class cabin on an Alaska Airlines 737. (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)

Bid for an upgrade

Even if you don't have any miles saved up or a frequent flyer in your life, you may still be able to fly in first class without breaking the bank.

Some airlines will send out an invitation to bid for an upgrade if they expect there will be some empty premium seats on a flight. These invitation texts or emails offer you a chance to bid for a seat in the next available cabin. If you have some miles stashed, some airlines like Qantas Airways will also allow you to submit a bid composed of miles and cash.

In the TPG Facebook Lounge, there are reports of bidding success across a number of carriers, including Hawaiian Airlines, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Avianca, TAP Air Portugal, Aer Lingus and Iberia.

One TPG lounge member shared that they had a successful bid to first class when flying to Hawaii on Hawaiian Airlines. They bid around $350, which was about half of the suggested amount. While this person's success story was during the pandemic, meaning the amount may not be representative of what is required to win future bids, there are many reports of winning bids in the $400 to $800 range for long-haul international routes.

Hawaiian Airlines first class. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Not all routes are eligible for upgrades, and other restrictions may apply. Rules will vary by airline, but most will have a suggested bid and a minimum amount you'll need to offer. Keep in mind that many airlines restrict you to bidding for one class of an upgrade, so you may need to be booked in premium economy (if it's available on your flight) in order to score a business-class seat via a winning bid.

Related: Guide to bidding for flight upgrades for premium seats

Buy a discounted upgrade

The cash price to upgrade to first class can go down if the airline doesn't expect to sell all seats at the full fare. That's because many airlines would rather get some revenue for the seat than none at all.

So if you notice that demand for your desired seat is soft as the travel date approaches, see if you can scoop up an upgrade at a discounted cash rate.

(Screenshot from united.com)

While the price will vary, it never hurts to check. Pull up your upcoming flight reservations every now and then to see what the airline is listing as the cost to upgrade your seat with cash.

Ask about first-class upgrades at the check-in counter

Sometimes, the price just doesn't drop in advance. However, that doesn't mean there are no last-minute discounted upgrades available.

Airlines make more money from filling their flights' first-class seats, so next time you're feeling a little spendy, you can ask at the ticket or boarding counter if there is any availability at the front of the plane.

TPG's SEO associate Hannah Streck recently had luck with this approach during a flight from New York City's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport (MSP) in Minnesota. Knowing that she'd have to check two bags for her trip, Hannah searched for an upgrade on the airline's app but struck out in snagging one. So, she asked about an upgrade at the ticket counter and found out she could move to first class for only $90, with checked bags included. Checking both of her bags on an economy ticket would have cost $70 alone, so she willingly paid just $20 more to sit in first class.

Related: Can you negotiate a cheaper upgrade?

How to upgrade to first class with elite airline status

Unsurprisingly, getting upgraded to first class with elite status is much easier, but the process differs with each airline.

Here are some tips for snagging a first-class upgrade with Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines.

Purchase instant 'First Class Upgrade' tickets with Alaska Airlines

Elite members are often loyal to their airline — and for good reason.

Alaska gives its elite members an array of perks and benefits, including unlimited, complimentary first-class upgrades when space is available.

TPG Managing Editor Clint Henderson is an MVP Gold 100K member based out of New York City and has been upgraded on about 90% of his flights. Additionally, elite members like Clint can enjoy elite status perks, including upgrades, while flying American Airlines thanks to Alaska's relationship with American.

Elite level and qualifying fares for upgrades. (Screenshot from alaskaair.com)

Complimentary first-class upgrades are based on permitted space. If space is unavailable when you look, you will be placed on a waitlist in the order of tier and fare class.

For elite members who do not purchase a qualifying fare that is eligible for an immediate upgrade, there is still a chance to get a first-class seat. Discounted fares are placed in a queue for upgrades and travelers are cleared for those upgrades in the order of fare class booked.

One handy perk also available to elite Alaska members is the option to buy upgraded seats at a potentially steep discount. By checking your elite status in the fare type column to the left, you will see four options in fare type instead of the typical two "Main" and "First Class" fares.

Fare types for Alaska elite members. (Screenshot from alaskaair.com)

Alaska's Premium Class Upgrade and First Class Upgrade fares are exactly what they sound like.

But remember, these upgrades are also limited to upgrade availability. For example, the first flight shown above has upgrade availability for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) but not from SFO to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). Alaska helps flyers navigate availability by highlighting the "F" to the left of fares to indicate availability.

Related: Everything you need to know about American Airlines 500-mile upgrades

Use your upgrade certificates with Delta Air Lines

Delta SkyMiles, Delta's frequent flyer program, features four published Delta Medallion elite tiers: Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond. All come with perks, including the chance of receiving complimentary first-class seats.

Access to unlimited, free upgrades to first class comes standard with Delta Medallion elite status, but there is still a lot of complexity surrounding Delta's upgrade process.

You can increase your chances of being upgraded on Delta by being a higher-tier Platinum or Diamond Medallion member. These two elite status levels receive upgrade certificates known as Global Upgrade Certificates and Regional Upgrade Certificates, which can clear as soon as you book your ticket if there is upgrade space available.

Keep in mind, though, that like many airlines, Delta has fares that are not eligible for complimentary upgrades through Medallion status. These include basic economy and Delta Premium Select fares. Certain Delta One seats are also excluded from complimentary upgrades.

Related: How I used a Delta Global Upgrade Certificate

Use PlusPoints for priority upgrades with United Airlines

United has a complicated revenue, award and upgrade class system that can be confusing for even experienced flyers.

Luckily, TPG has made it easier to understand United's system with this comprehensive guide to United fare classes.

All United MileagePlus Premier members are eligible for complimentary Premier upgrades on eligible fares and routes, but only Premier Platinum and Premier 1K members receive PlusPoints, United's way to permit confirmable upgrades. Platinum members receive 40 PlusPoints when reaching status, and 1K members receive 280 PlusPoints when they earn or retain their status.

Kyle Olsen, one of TPG's resident United enthusiasts, is a Premier 1K member. His favorite way to use PlusPoints is to purchase an economy ticket in the W fare class and use 40 PlusPoints to get upgraded to a lie-flat United Polaris seat. United Polaris is technically a business-class option, but since United has retired its international first-class product, United Polaris is the most premium option offered by the airline.

United Boeing 787-9 Polaris. (Photo by Kyle Olsen/The Points Guy)

Generally, PlusPoints should be reserved for long-haul Polaris flights in order to get the best value for your points, but sitting up front is always better than in the back, regardless of the route. This is especially true if you have points that are set to expire soon, as it's best to use them for any first-class option rather than let them go to waste.

Bottom line

Whether you want to treat yourself once or increase the number of times you sit up front, getting upgraded to first class is not only possible but feasible.

From cashing in miles for an upgrade to winning the upgrade lottery with a cash bid, there are several ways to snag an upgraded seat without spending a large sum of money. Even those without elite status can score a prime seat in the front of the plane with a bit of careful planning.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
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.

TPG featured card

Best starter travel card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 3X points
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Intro offer

Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points60,000 points
For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

Annual Fee

$95

Recommended Credit

670-850
Excellent, Good
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.

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases
Best starter travel card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

    Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points
    60,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $95
  • 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
    Excellent, Good

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases