Flying first class for cheap: As airlines continue to nibble away at the amenities, the room, and the all-round ambiance of the coach cabin, It's become the dream of many a traveler. Read on for some tips at scoring seats in the front of the plane—be it first class or business class—without breaking your wallet.

key takeaways

  • Try to avoid buying business or first-class tickets outright, always—or at least, purchase seats on weekends, when fewer corporate travelers fly (fares might be lower).
  • Joining airline loyalty programs and using co-branded credit cards can often earn you enough miles or points to buy premium seats.
  • One tactic is to buy a coach seat, then use your frequent flyer points to upgrade in class.
  • It might be possible to upgrade a seat for less, or even for free, close to departure: when you are checking in, or at the gate.

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. At some airlines, there is no difference. At others, first class is a definite step above business class, especially on international flights. First-class customers have no—or at most one—seat next to them; they enjoy better service (i.e., flight attendants assigned exclusively to their cabin); higher-quality food and drinks, and access to the most luxe 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, for example. Of course, that does get you your very own 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.

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. Besides, in most cases, you can get them more cheaply using other means than buying them outright. 

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., and one of the first Business Traveler magazine's Business Traveler of the Year recommends making 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,” he says. In other words, don't buy expensive; buy cheap, and then upgrade.

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 Card offer big bonuses if you sign up and spend a certain amount within a short period.

“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," Rosemarie Clancy, former vice-president of content and marketing at RewardExpert.com, says.

She continues, “Once you meet your minimum spend, which is usually around $4,000, 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 Sapphire cards offer bonus points [after spending a certain amount in the first three months] which are often enough, when combined with a mile bonus on an airline card, for one first-class round-trip ticket to London or Paris.” 

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.

5. Buy the Points. There are plenty of websites that allow you to buy and sell points, but steer clear since major airlines frown on 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 keep an eye out for promotional pricing deals. 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. Although free upgrades at the gate are becoming scarce, things might be more easygoing on-board. Of course, it always helps if you take the time to strike up a conversation with the attendant when you first board the plane.

8. Upgrade at Check-In. If you really want an upgraded seat and don’t have the miles to get it free, purchase an upgrade when you check-in, even if you're doing it online. If there are seats available, airlines will often offer them at a discounted rate—since there are only 24 hours before takeoff at this point.

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

“In the old days status fliers would get upgraded at the gate," Abramson says. "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 fewer 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 for something. But especially for longer flights, it might be well worth the extra cost.