How to Master the Seat Upgrade and Auction Game Next Time You Fly

Smart strategies for getting the most out of the airline bidding game.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterMarch 28, 2016
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterMarch 28, 2016, at 12:13 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

How to Master the Seat Upgrade and Auction Game Next Time You Fly

Businesswoman reading newspaper in airplane

These tricks can help travelers maximize chances of getting that well-deserved upgrade. (Getty Images)

It's hard to deny the appeal of vaulting from a cramped coach seat to business class on your next long-haul flight. And with many airlines now offering fliers the chance to bid for a higher class of service – without paying a steep price tag or cashing in frequent flier miles – it's never been easier to land a better seat on your next flight. Still, there are some caveats. For one thing, you may not be able to score a more desirable seat if a fellow flier outbids you, leaving you squeezed in a tightly packed cabin for a long-distance flight. And for another, if you're an elite flier who logs thousands of miles each year to attain generous benefits, it might be more advantageous to use complimentary upgrades instead of trying your hand at the bidding game to score a better seat. For this reason, we sought guidance from rewards power players to come up with smart tricks for navigating online auction systems and clever tactics for maximizing your chances of getting that well-deserved upgrade.

Understand How the Bidding System Works

Today, more than 30 airlines offer fliers the chance to bid for seat upgrades through online auctions platforms. While each airline offers its own policies, restrictions and software platform to offer seat auctions, generally, if the airline has leftover seats for a particular route, passengers will get an alert via email that they are eligible to place a bid. Alternatively, fliers can go directly to the carrier's site to check if upgrades are available and list their price (as well as their credit card information) to make a bid. Most bidding windows take place around 24 to 72 hours before departure, but the rules vary by airline.

Virgin America, for instance, uses the popular program Plusgrade, along with an app called SeatBoost that gives fliers the chance to make an offer as close as an hour before departure for domestic flights, with bids starting at $10, though bidding options vary according to the flight distance and the class of service. KLM, on the other hand, closes its bidding window 24 hours before departure and only offers bidding options for certain routes.

"As a general matter, you're only going to be able to upgrade one class of service at a time," says Gary Leff, co-founder of MilePoint and author of frequent flier site View from the Wing. This means you can't leap from a premium-economy seat to first class, though you may be able to bid for an upgrade or use miles plus cash for a second upgrade. But there are some exceptions. For example, LOT Polish Airlines allows fliers to bid for premium-economy and business-class tickets from coach-class seats up to 72 hours in advance of their flight.

Conduct Research and Devise Your Strategy Based on Your Travel Goal

"You're always going to be better off as an informed bidder," Leff says. Beyond knowing what a regular premium ticket would cost you, it's important to evaluate whether the bid you place is a good deal relative to the typical price. "Don't get caught up in the frenzy of it," Leff says, emphasizing that you should always be getting a good deal because available seats at the last minute are simply leftovers that airlines are looking to obtain incremental revenue for. "In fact, you need to get a really good deal for it to be worth it," Leff adds. For instance, if you're flying on a transatlantic flight, you don't want your ticket cost plus the price you bid to get you close to the airfare you could have secured from the get-go, he explains.

It's also important to ask yourself what you prioritize most: the highest value or maximum comfort. "The great thing about an auction is that it allows you to determine whether that upgrade is worthwhile for you," says Scott Mackenzie, creator of the travel advice blog Travel Codex. For example, if your core objective is leveraging a better seat at a low price, scope out the available first-class seat fares as a helpful benchmark before placing a lowball bid. To better your odds, also place your bid close to your flight date, Mackenzie says. "You don't gain any advantage by putting in your bid early," he explains.

Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of the points and miles advice site The Points Guy, echoes similar sentiments. Only place a low bid "if you're comfortable flying in economy and you're not going to be terribly disappointed if you don't get the upgrade," he says. The higher the bid, the better your chance, he adds, but the best bidding strategy hinges on the distance of the flight and number of seats available that the airline is trying to sell. "The airline can always choose to leave that seat empty," he adds. Keep in mind the airlines' primary objective is earning more revenue on a seat that otherwise would have been left unfilled, so you should ensure your bid for a higher class of service is less than the actual price of the upgraded seat.

Learn From Fellow Fliers

After conducting plenty of research to ensure your bid is still a deal compared to full-priced regular airfare, it's important to understand which bets have been successful in the past to optimize your chances of winning, Honig says. He advises checking out the myriad flier sources and forums available to get a sense of what's worked in the past. On forums like FlyerTalk, for example, fliers share their successes, Honig explains, emphasizing that putting in the legwork to get a consensus from previous bidders can help you save money and get the seat you want.

Know the Restrictions

"In almost all cases, you're going to find that the miles and the benefits are going to be associated with the ticket that you originally purchased," Mackenzie says. In other words, if you want to accumulate travel rewards perks and points quickly, you likely won't get the chance to collect elite-qualifying miles and points by bidding for a higher class of service. And when it comes to upgrading on partner flights, "that's always tricky," he adds.

In many instances travelers can't bid for a higher class of service for code-share flights (or flights operated by a partner airline)."You want to avoid code-shares in most cases when you can," Leff says.

Honig also cautions that "once your bid is confirmed, you're locked in," so it's important to ensure you'll be on the flight you choose to bid on. Leff also emphasizes that each airline's specific rules still apply when it comes to bidding, and the policies remain the same for switching or canceling flights. "As a general matter, it's not going to be refunded," he says.

If You Don't Want to Roll the Dice, Consider Other Upgrade Options

"Before you buy your ticket, do at least look at the price of the premium cabin ticket," Leff says, pointing out that the rate may not be so steep to upgrade during certain off-peak travel periods. And if you're interested in upgrading without the hassle of bidding against your fellow passengers, many frequent flier programs, such as the Delta SkyMiles program, allows Medallion elite members to take advantage of complimentary upgrades. Meanwhile, American Airline's AAdvantage program allows elite members to receive free upgrades for full-priced tickets, as well as complimentary 500-mile upgrades from economy to business or first class on American flights. The United MileagePlus program grants complimentary upgrades to elite members, while also offering six systemwide upgrades to it's Premier 1K elite members, Honig points out, noting the ease of using mileage upgrades for business-class tickets. "Is it worth it? That's up to you," he says.

Liz Weiss, Staff Writer

Liz Weiss is a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. With more than six years of ...  Read more


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