Every now and then you need first class tickets. Maybe you’re off on a business trip and the boss is footing the bill – or you need extra comfort for an older relative’s flight. Or perhaps you're celebrating a special occasion and flying first class will make it even more special. Whatever, you know you’ll pay – and pay big – for the superior service, free food and roomy seats in first.
Quick example: A round-trip on American Airlines from New York to Los Angeles in May (Thursday to Thursday) costs about $480 for economy, but the same flight in first class is $2,130. If that sounds wild, check out Emirates’ price for New York-Dubai on first class: just a hair under $26,000.
Maybe you're going to go ahead and indulge, but why overpay? These ideas will help keep costs down. My research included pricing domestic fares on the three U.S. airlines with significant first class cabin presence (American, Delta and United) on week-long itineraries, though the length of a trip is not necessarily relevant to pricing.
Know When to Book
Book at least seven days in advance: Many business travelers with last-minute trips can’t do this, obviously, and airlines love this because itineraries booked inside the seven-days-before-departure window can add an up-to-40% premium to the fare. If you can give yourself a week’s head-start in the booking process, you can reap significant savings.
Know When to Fly
Midweek and Saturdays on some airlines: Both American and Delta had slightly lower first class domestic fares for Wednesday and Saturday travel, and American also showed cheaper first class on Tuesdays. United’s first class fare differential was non-specific as to travel days.
Days to avoid: The most expensive days to fly on both American and Delta are Sunday and Friday, and Monday is also an expensive day on Delta. Again, United’s first class pricing was non-specific to days. Fly more expensive days and you could pay up to 10% more on American and up to 20% more on Delta. (See also: Airline Ticket Prices: What a Difference a Day Makes.)
Bottom line: Compare airfare prices even when shopping for the most expensive tickets.
Check for First Class Discounts When Booking Coach Fares
This sounds counterintuitive but some airlines actually offer first class at a discount during the coach booking process, which can be many times cheaper than searching directly for first class cabin fares. Some also allow cheaper upgrades at airport kiosks; we have not seen this yet in phone applications, but likely that is coming soon.
Look for Upgrades
Go after upgrade opportunities: Many folks upgrade to first class via elite status (and may get lucky, based on rank and/or points or potluck). At the airport, visit the airline kiosk (or gate agent) to see what’s available, even if you have your boarding pass on your phone. You may be offered an upgrade for miles or for purchase at a cheaper rate.
One problem is, miles are getting harder to earn; in recent years, a number of airlines have tinkered with their miles program rules so that those who pay the most earn the most. Still, it’s worth a shot to see if you’re eligible for an upgrade. Look soon for cheaper upgrade opportunities on the airlines’ phone apps.
Sometimes a Pro Comes in Handy
Consider learning about advanced search techniques or using a travel agent: Professionals and certain booking tools have access to so-called "UP" discounted first class fares coded “Y-UP” or "K-UP" like coach fares (but seats for UP fares are physically located in in first class).
These fares can be cheaper than ‘regular’ first class found online though not as cheap as in years past; the deals have dimmed thanks to massive merger consolidation of the last decade and the ensuing loss of competition. Still, the fares can be a little cheaper plus the Y/K-coding comes in handy to fake-out corporate policies mandating economy class travel only.
While these fares may not always be readily visible to the average flyer, a motivated shopper with time on his/her hands – or a travel professional – can find them when they are available by directing online queries to business/first class. Caution: Be careful to check out the aircraft listed for a flight because some smaller aircraft (CRJ, Embraer, etc.) may not have first class cabins and you don’t want to pay for something you will not get.
For those with corporate booking departments: Many large companies have pre-negotiated rates with airlines to save 10 to 20% off the open market.
What First Class Won’t Get You
A break on change fees: The airlines I’ve been talking about charge $200 to change or cancel a flight, a fee you’ll pay even with first class tickets. There are exceptions. Some airlines like American offer a refundable first class fare, but it can cost a lot more than an extra $200. (See also: The Cheapest Way to Buy Two or More Airline Tickets.)
Rick Seaney is the CEO and cofounder of FareCompare.