Flying economy isn't known for being the most comfortable experience, between the jostling crowds, cramped seating, and being herded toward the back of the plane. And while priority boarding, cushy seats, and ample legroom offered in first-class rows can make for a more enjoyable journey (not to mention, the free cocktails), taking to the sky in style certainly comes at a price. That said, there are ways to fly first class for cheap if you know some insider strategies. Yes, with some preparation — and a little luck — you, too, can have a luxe experience as you head toward a new adventure.
Ahead, a handful of travel experts share their best secrets for scoring high-end tickets on your next trip, all without breaking the bank. Whether you're planning a once-in-a-lifetime vacation or you're a frequent flier who'd like to nab a last-minute upgrade, these pros know from first-hand experience that stress-free flying doesn't have to cost a fortune. From maximizing rewards on travel credit cards to simply getting your timing just right, follow this advice for your best chance at snagging premium seats on an upcoming flight.
Get A Travel Rewards Credit Card & Plan Your Points Accordingly
You know that bucket-list vacation you've been dreaming about? Frequent travelers say that one surefire way to scoop up first-class seats is to plan ahead. "The best way to fly first class is to pick a destination you would like to visit for a vacation and then work backwards," advises Lou Haverty, CFA and founder of Financial Analyst Insider, a resource for aspiring finance and accounting professionals. Next, decide on the timeframe and the airline, then research some credit cards that offer applicable rewards (note that some airline rewards are also transferrable). "Figure out how many points you need, and figure out how you might be able to earn that amount of points for the trip," he recommends. "In most cases, the easiest way to earn those points is by applying for a new credit card [that offers a signup bonus]. Combining your regular spending with the signup bonus is an easy to way to earn the required amount of points for the first-class flight."
R.J. Weiss, CFP® and founder of the personal finance site The Ways to Wealth, agrees and adds that timing helps, too. "My favorite tip for using credit card rewards to book first-class flights is to utilize an airline's off-peak or saver award," he says. "Reward redemptions at off-peak times are typically half of what peak-travel time costs and make for a great value when using points.
"One of my favorite reward redemptions was two first-class tickets from Chicago to Buenos Aires," he recalls from personal experience. "At the time, British Airways had a massive bonus of 100,000 points on their credit card, which was enough to purchase two one-way first-class tickets on American Airlines."
Not sure which travel card is best for you? Scope out some lists that compare and contrast different options, like this article by NerdWallet, or this one by The Points Guy. Lindsey Silberman's article on how to use credit card points is also helpful for rewards newbies.
Buy Tickets Through Discount Sites
"There are a number of flight booking sites that sell first-class tickets for as much as 70 percent lower than available fares," shares Steve Long, co-founder of The Travel Brief, an online journal of traveling adventures. "These sites operate on a similar principle as anonymous hotel booking sites like Hotwire, where the name of the vendor is hidden until the transaction is either completed or almost completed."
He continues, "The biggest and most credible ones in this space are First Class Flyer, Your Business Flights, and Business Class Guru. You can't search and compare fares on these sites in real time like with Expedia; instead, you send your request and a travel agent on the other side will search for you and send you a quote. Now, obviously these flights are not free and will never be cheaper than economy, but the price will be a small fraction of what you would have to pay otherwise."
Be A Frequent Flier
Jessica Parker, frequent traveller and founder of Kusshi makeup bags, says that loyalty is also more likely to be rewarded. "Being a frequent flyer definitely helps to get a complimentary upgrade, and I’m a big advocate in sticking to one airline when booking flights," she says. Plus, committing to one carrier helps you rack up miles faster when you're a rewards member. "This gives you a huge advantage when trying to get an upgrade for free."
One other pro tip? "It never hurts to ask nicely at the gate if there are any empty seats," she adds.
Vie For Vouchers
"Give up your seat on an oversold flight," Sara Rathner, travel expert at NerdWallet, suggests. "If your travel plans are flexible, you may score a voucher for a future flight worth a few hundred dollars. While you likely won’t be rebooked to first class on a later flight, your voucher could provide the discount you need to afford a nicer seat assignment the next time you travel."
Check In Early
Jody Vandergriff, CEO and Founder Seeker, an online community of expert travelers, says that in some cases, timing is everything. "I fly from San Francisco to New York frequently and I began to notice a pattern," she says. "If I check in as soon as the window opens up, I’m often offered a very low cost upgrade to first class (ranging from $39 to $150). I typically pay $150-$300 for an economy one-way ticket to New York. Had I bought the same ticket in first class, it would cost thousands, making the upgrade fee a bargain."
And if you play your cards right, the perks offered with a cheap upgrade can actually save you money. "Most airlines offer a free checked bag in first class and charge anywhere from $30-$50 per checked bag in economy class," she points out. "On a recent flight to Hawaii, I was offered a first-class upgrade for $50 (which includes two free checked bags). Given they charge $30 per bag in economy class, the upgrade was a no-brainer!"
Opt For Upgrades Instead Of Buying First Class Tickets Outright
"The best way to get a cheap upgrade is to first book an economy ticket," Parker says. "Then if there are a lot of free seats, you will be given an offer to buy an upgrade for much less than buying the higher-class ticket outright." She adds that sometimes, you can even trade accumulated miles for an upgrade that costs you nothing out of pocket. "Another strategy is to try to get an op-up, or operational upgrade," she continues. "This happens when economy is totally full but there are seats in business or first; they will bump up the highest-status and highest-paying economy customers."
Wait Until The Last Minute
Alex McCormick, travel writer for Healing Holidays, is also an advocate for upgrading last minute. "When checking in, ask if there are any upgrades available and chances are, they will have a spare seat or two to sell you at a discounted rate," she advises. "The airline would rather take the extra cash from you than just a standard economy rate, but you get to enjoy premium seating at a discounted price, so it’s a win-win scenario."
She adds that you still may have an opportunity to fly more comfortably even after you've boarded. "Listen out for the cabin doors closing, as that means everyone has boarded and any empty seats are going to stay empty – including first-class seats. This is your chance to potentially nab a free upgrade; ask the flight attendants if you can sit in the empty first class seats, or slyly move over to the empty seat, as by this point, your ticket probably won’t be getting checked again."