Every now and then you need first-class airline 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 the reason for flying first class, you know you’ll pay—and pay big—for the superior service, free food, and roomy seats in first class.

Quick example: A round trip on American Airlines from New York City to Los Angeles in May (Thursday to Thursday) costs about $480 for an economy seat, but the same flight in first class is $2,130. If that sounds wild, a first-class seat on one of the most luxurious commercial airlines, Emirates, from New York to Dubai is 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Book at least seven days in advance.
  • Flying midweek or on Saturdays generally yields lower fare prices. Sundays, Fridays, and Mondays can be expensive flying days.
  • At the airport, visit the airline kiosk or gate agent to see what’s available.
  • Consider learning about advanced search techniques or using a travel agent that has access to so-called "UP" discounted first-class fares.
  • First-class tickets don’t normally give you a break on change fees and can charge about $200 to change or cancel a flight.

Know When to Book

Book at least seven days in advance. Some experts say for even cheaper flights, book at least three weeks before the departure date. 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 at least a week’s head-start in the booking process, you can reap significant savings.

Know When to Fly

Midweek and Saturdays on some airlines are the best times to fly. Both American and Delta had slightly lower first-class domestic fares for Wednesday and Saturday travel, and American also showed cheaper first-class fares 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.

Bottom line: Compare airfare prices even when shopping for the most expensive tickets.

Check Coach Fares

This sounds counterintuitive but some airlines actually offer first-class seats 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 seats 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 that miles are getting harder to earn. In recent years, a number of airlines have tinkered with their loyalty 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.

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 first class).

These fares can be cheaper than regular first-class tickets found online, though not as cheap as in years past. The deals have dimmed thanks to massive merger consolidation in the airline industry of the last decade and the ensuing loss of competition. Still, the fares can be a little cheaper.

While these fares may not always be readily visible to the average flyer, a motivated shopper with time on their hands—or a travel professional—can find them when they are available by directing online queries to business/first class.

For those with corporate booking departments: Many large companies have pre-negotiated rates with airlines to save 10-20% off the open market.

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.

What First Class Won’t Get You

Unfortunately, flying first class won't necessarily 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.