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Savor the Luxurious Experience: Insider Tips for Upgrading to First Class

Discover effective strategies for upgrading to First Class without breaking the bank

by Lark Gould

May 16, 2023

Japan Airlines First Class Cabin / Photo: Courtesy of Japan Airlines

Are you looking for a First Class upgrade without paying for the freight? The good news is there are plenty of ways to upgrade to First Class. The bad news is First Class seats are becoming as rare as tulips in July, at least on U.S. carriers.

American Airlines is ending its First Class cabin offerings as of 2024, and other U.S. carriers that do offer First Class, such as Delta’s Delta One, will offer them only on international routes.

These days U.S. airlines have taken to branding their premium cabins as First Class concepts in a Business Class design, with notable names like Polaris (United), Delta One, Flagship Business (American), and Mint (JetBlue).

Photo: Courtesy of JetBlue Airways

Delta turned heads in 2016 when it brought out its Delta One Suite, becoming the first airline with an all-suite business class. That said, anyone who has flown a prominent Middle East or Asian airline lately understands that U.S. carriers often conflate First Class and Business Class.

In Delta’s case, while it touts a First Class product on domestic flights as well as to nearby destinations abroad, the seats do not lie flat, the meal service may or may not happen depending on the distance flown, and lounge access is not to be had through the ticket—unless the flight includes a further leg in Delta One.

Delta One / Photo: Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

Thus, if you want to upgrade to First Class and make it worthwhile, try to upgrade to an actual First Class product rather than leaping into Business or Comfort Class for your efforts.

Scoring an upgrade into First Class is not unlike winning the lottery. Often these seats are not seats, but suites, with wide spaces for working, sleeping, and moving around during a flight. Some uber-First Class options are more like apartments with private bathrooms, double beds, and a chair for takeoff and landing.

Photo: First Class Suite. Courtesy of Emirates.

Emirates has a First Class suite with a virtual window triptych in the middle row for those who want to feel like they have an aisle suite. Outside cameras ensure no action is missed.

So what are the tricks and tips for nabbing a First Class seat or suite?

Pay for it

These opportunities often go on sale for deep discounts in dollars and points, and those in the know can keep up with these chances through several apps and memberships. These include Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), Dollar Flight Club, Secret Flying, Thrifty Traveler Premium+, and First Class Flyer as a sampling.

Use an airline consolidator

These might be called “bucket shops,” where airlines know they can dispose of extra inventory and win flyers.

Consolidators primarily deal with resellers or travel agents to whom they sell deeply discounted tickets bought in bulk from various airlines. They might not be tickets on airlines known to the flyer, and the service on those airlines may or may not be wanting, but they will undoubtedly be premium seats at rates not available anywhere else. The seats will be guaranteed, although it may not be an easy fix if something goes wrong.

However, agencies, whether they sell to travel agents, the public, or both, have a stake in getting it right and keeping the business coming. Such consolidator companies available to travelers in the U.S. include Centrav, Picasso Travel, Downtown Travel, Mondee, GTT, and Sky Bird.

Remember that you will accrue the points from these purchases but might not get the added benefits, such as lounge access, so you must ask questions.

Use your points

This is where saving all those points make sense. An elite status membership may not give automatic access to the First Class seat the airline offers, especially if that is a domestic airline on a transcontinental flight. However, a one-way seat in First Class from New York to Frankfurt might cost 86,000 Singapore KrisFlyer points on Singapore Airlines. And those points can be managed through American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards, and Capital One miles transfers.

Singapore Airlines / Photo: Courtesy of Singapore Airlines

And if you still do not have the number needed, you can shop around for a credit card that will pour 60,000 to 150,000 miles into your account just for signing up and spending a designated minimum amount within a certain period.

Got a card but still don’t have the miles? Make a mega purchase—buy gold or a Hasten’s bed, depending on your credit card limit. First Class is only one luxury item away.

Upgrade from your purchased seat

It is often most cost-efficient to upgrade from an economy seat to Business Class. But upgrading to First Class is another story.

Most airlines will allow you to jump one class only, and if you already have a Business Class seat, it may not be worth the points to take it to the next level.

Elite members of loyalty channels often receive some systemwide upgrade certificates annually as a thank-you for their frequent flights. Still, it may require two vouchers if jumping to First Class from an economy or premium economy seat.

The Airbus A321XLR will have 20 Flagship Suite seats when it is delivered in 2024 / Photo: Courtesy of American Airlines.

You may also be eligible for a First Class seat as an Elite Status member when you purchase a full-fare ticket in a lower-class cabin. For example, American Airlines offers plenty of opportunity to upgrade to Business Class—which includes its new premium flagship product on long-hauls—for as little as 25,000 points one way. However, these are single leaps from the next lower class of service.

Last Chances

When you do not have the points, the status, or the dollars, you can always take your chance on the day of your flight. While long gone are the days when a smile, a well-pressed suit, or a chummy relationship with the gate manager would send you sailing to the front of the plane. But there may still be some wiggle room for the wily.

Photo: Courtesy of United Airlines

Once the plane is ready to depart, the desk is no longer in charge, and attendants may have some say in switching your seat. That’s when your smile and snappy suit may come into play. Ask upon check-in if any empty First Class seats can be purchased at that time for a discount. A $500 charge may make all the difference between a comfortable or squished flight.

You may also be offered a chance to “bid” on a First Class upgrade a day or two before your flight as you re-check your reservation online. Bid away! You have nothing to lose if your bid is not accepted.

Extra tips

Fly on the weekend. Business travelers who usually fill the upper cabins will not be flying, and any chance of getting upgraded will bring better odds. Nab your seat purchased for miles way in advance—up to a year early.

There are few seats in First Class, and they go quickly, even when purchased. Pick an awards channel and stick with it. Many airlines will only release these seats to that airline’s elite members.

Don’t buy a seat—especially a full-fare seat—hoping to be upgraded. You will likely be stuck with a full-fare back cabin seat.

Best Airlines for Upgrading to First Class

Not all First Class Cabins are equal, and neither are First Class seats. Nevertheless, these are the best airlines for flying First Class, where the efforts, time, and cost are eminently worth it.

  • Emirates
  • Etihad Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Cathay Pacific Airways
  • Lufthansa
  • Air France
  • All Nippon Airways
  • Cathay Pacific