Nowadays, it’s a lot harder to fly at the front of the plane without paying serious money.

Want to fly in first or business class seats without breaking your wallet? Read on for some tips.

Business vs. First Class

If you’re wondering about the difference between first and business class, the answer is that it depends on the airline, the specific aircraft and the route. For some airlines, there is no difference. For others, first class is a step above business class. Especially on international flights, first class customers often don’t have a person sitting next to them, they have better service, higher quality food and drinks, and access to the most exclusive airport lounges.

But first class seats can be pricey. In some parts of the world, a ticket could cost you thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. A first class ticket from New York to Singapore on Singapore Airlines could cost as much as $12,000. This gets you an exclusive suite on the plane.

Unless you're truly in the financial stratosphere, it’s difficult to justify the cost of a first class seat if business class is available. The perks are similar, especially on domestic flights. (See also, Top 5 Differences Between Business and First Class)

8 Cost-Effective Ways to Get the Seats

On domestic flights, you’re more likely to see business class seats than first class. In either case, how do you get them without paying a fortune to upgrade?

1. Don’t Book Them. Business class can cost as much as five times more than a coach ticket. Although business class is a better experience, it’s not five times better. In most cases, you can get them more cheaply using other means.

2. Remain Loyal. Airline loyalty programs aren’t what they used to be. Even if you’re a frequent traveler, the perks you receive aren’t nearly what they once were. All the same, those miles will add up and eventually you can use them for a free upgrade. But watch the expiration dates and make sure to read all e-mails that come from the airline. Don’t let points expire.

3. Easy Up. Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano, Inc. – he was named a Business Traveler of the Year for 2014 by Business Traveler magazine – says to make use of easy-up fares. “The way you do this is you purchase an upgradeable coach or premium economy fare and then apply your points to get into first class/business class.”

4. Use Elite or Airline Credit Cards. Some of the mid-tier cards offer travel rewards, but the elite travel cards are where to find the real perks. Cards such as American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and some of the co-branded cards like the Delta SkyMiles American Express card or the United MileagePlus Explorer Card offer big bonuses if you sign up and spend a certain amount within a short period of time.

Rosemarie Clancy, editor in chief of RewardExpert.com, says, “Once you pick an airline, the best advice is to get that airline's co-branded card. Many offer 50,000 mile sign-up bonuses, which is more than half the miles needed to get to Europe in first class for instance. That is United's current offer.”

She continues, “Once you meet your minimum spend, which is usually around $3,000, think about getting a second card for your business, spouse or even yourself, especially one with transferable points like American Express Membership Rewards or Chase Ultimate Rewards. The Chase card offers 40,000 miles on sign-up so that would be enough when combined with a 50,000 mile bonus on an airline card for one first-class round-trip ticket to London or Paris.”

For more information, see Top Airline Miles Credit Cards.

If you travel a little more frequently than the average vacationer, the annual fee associated with cards like the American Express Platinum pays for itself quickly in perks and rewards (see Chase Sapphire Preferred Vs. AmEx Platinum and Credit Cards That Will Get You First Class Flights).

5. Buy the Points. There are plenty of websites that allow you to buy and sell points, but steer clear since major airlines don’t allow it, and it may result in you losing your miles or not being able to use the miles you purchased.

Instead, purchase them directly from the airline. They usually cost 2.5 cents per mile, but watch for promotional pricing. Whether it results in paying less for your first class seat depends on many variables, so crunch the numbers before you purchase.

6. Fly When Business Travelers Aren’t. Business travelers fly all week. The last thing they want to do is fly on the weekends. That’s why you won’t see as many people flying in business suites on Saturdays and Sunday mornings. That might leave more business class seats up for grabs.

7. Watch for the Open Seat. If your coach seat is towards the front of the plane, listen for the cabin door to shut. If there’s an open first class seat, ask the flight attendant if you can move. Of course, it always helps if you took the time to say hi and strike up a conversation with the attendant when you first boarded the plane.

8. Upgrade at Check-In. If you really want an upgraded seat, don’t have the miles to get it free and, don’t want to gamble on a free upgrade at the gate, purchase an upgrade at check-in. If there are seats available, airlines will often offer them at a discounted rate during online check-in.

If you don’t mind the gamble, ask the gate attendant what they’re charging for the upgrade. It might be even cheaper than the reduced online rate.

The Bottom Line

Abramson says, “In the old days status fliers would get upgraded at the gate. That's possible on long hauls when there's plenty of first and business class inventory on the plane, but these days we have smaller planes and less seats to fill up.”

It’s not going to be easy to get the upgrade for cheap. In most cases, you will have to pay something, but especially for longer flights, it might be well worth the cost.

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