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Can You Negotiate for a Cheaper Upgrade?

Aug. 13, 2019
4 min read
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Reader Questions are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.

If you need a larger seat or bigger hotel room in order to travel comfortable, it's always advisable to book what you want instead of hoping to score an upgrade. However, it's always nice to get the opportunity to bump yourself to a better seat or hotel room. But how flexible are these offers? TPG reader Keagan wants to know if she can negotiate for a better upgrade price ...

[pullquote source="TPG READER KEAGAN"]I'm flying from Boston to Orlando on Delta this month, and Delta is offering to let me up buy up to first class for $154. While I'll probably end up doing this, I'm wondering if there are any tricks I can use to negotiate a lower rate?[/pullquote]

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It used to be that the $20-bill trick (slipped discretely to the check-in agent) was the best way to score a hotel upgrade in places like Las Vegas or New York, but this generally isn't true anymore. Travel companies are wising up and using advanced revenue management techniques to maximize the dollars they get out of their premium rooms and seats. If you have an upcoming economy trip booked with one of the legacy US carriers, you may see an option to pay to upgrade when you check your reservation details online.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind with these offers:

  1. They can disappear at any time.
  2. They can change at any time.
  3. They're generally based on a complicated algorithm that takes into account demand, capacity and numerous other factors to determine the optimal price that would tip the scales for a traveler to purchase the upgrade rather than settle for economy.

While Boston (BOS) to Orlando (MCO) is a relatively short flight, $154 for a one-way upgrade is a pretty reasonable price. If Keagan wants this seat, I would recommend upgrading ASAP, because the price might change if other passengers book first class tickets or decide to upgrade themselves. If she waits until too close to departure, that first class seat might be given away as a complimentary upgrade to a Delta Medallion member.

So is there anything Keagan can do to score a cheaper upgrade? She should certainly start by reading our guide to getting upgraded on Delta, but unfortunately, strong negotiating skills won't do much good here — or with any airline. If she were to call a customer service agent or speak to one at the airport, they wouldn't be able to offer her a different price than the one generated by Delta's revenue management team. Even if she offered to pay $153, none of the employees to whom she'd speak to would have the power to accept that offer. This works just like a paid ticket, where you wouldn't be able to call up and negotiate the price. If she's hoping to ride up front and wants to pay a lower price for the privilege, her only choice is to wait and see if the cost drops — though that's risky, as it could disappear entirely.

Note that a handful of airlines do offer the option of bidding to upgrade as a flight approaches, and even American Express added this feature earlier this year. However, even these aren't "negotiated" prices. You typically indicate the highest you're willing to pay and are given a "yes" or "no" answer based on how well your offer stacks up to other travelers on the same flight.

Finally, though there are occasional reports of sweet-talking an agent into an upgrade at check-in or the gate, these are rare and generally don't allow you to set the price.

Bottom Line

There are many things you can negotiate when it comes to travel, including bump vouchers, delay compensation and more. However, upgrade rates are typically not one of them. These prices are carefully selected by an airine's financial department to balance supply and demand but also to maximize revenue, and front-line employees generally don't have the power to override them.

Thanks for the question, Keagan, and if you’re a TPG reader who’d like us to answer a question of your own, tweet us at @thepointsguy, message us on Facebook or email us at info@thepointsguy.com.

Featured image by Delta A220 first class, photo courtesy of Darren Murph