Guide to bidding for flight upgrades for premium seats

Feb 9, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Editor’s note: This has been updated with more up-to-date information. It was originally published on 17 February 2015.

First- and business-class seats are highly coveted, both by elite flyers hungry for upgrades and by award travellers hunting for award availability. However, many airlines now offer another way to compete for unsold premium cabin space: by bidding for it. Today, I’ll discuss the bidding process and which airlines offer the service, and offer some tips to help you sit in premium economy, business or first class at rock bottom prices on some of the most popular airlines to and from the U.K.

Follow The Points Guy on Facebook and Twitter, and to ensure you never miss anything, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

The bidding process

The upgrade bidding process is essentially the same from one airline to another. After completing your booking and receiving your e-ticket, one of two scenarios can initiate your bid:

1. An email will arrive offering you the chance to bid on an upgrade.
2. You can go to the airline’s website and see if your booking is eligible to bid on an upgrade.

Terms and conditions for bidding on upgrades vary somewhat between carriers, but some standard rules seem to apply:

1. You may only place a bid after you have a ticketed reservation.
2. There is a minimum and maximum allowed bid per flight segment. You can’t just bid £1 in the hope no one else bids.
3. Not all routes are eligible. Some airlines specifically state which routes qualify, while others make you enter your booking confirmation code to see if your flight is eligible.
4. Upgrade bids are per segment and per passenger on your itinerary. For example, if you’re flying London-Paris-Los Angeles, you must make a bid for your LHR-CDG flight and then your CDG-LAX flight. Your bid will be understood as per person if multiple people are on your ticket. If there are two people on your itinerary and you bid £200 for the segment upgrade, your bid is understood as £400.
5. Depending upon the airline, there are certain time windows in which you can place your bid. Most require all online bids to be placed at least 72 hours prior to departure.
6. You must enter payment information at the time of booking, but you will not be charged unless your bid is accepted. All accepted bids are non-refundable unless your flight is cancelled.
7. If successfully upgraded, most programmes give you all the perks and benefits of your new travel class, including lounge access and extra baggage allowance. I have listed exceptions below.

Related: A very expensive upgrade on Norwegian — reader mistake story

Aer Lingus business class aboard the airline
Aer Lingus business class aboard the airline’s Boeing 757. (Photo courtesy of Aer Lingus)

Airlines that offer bidding for upgrades

Most airline bidding programmes seem to be run by the same company, Plusgrade. However, each individual airline has placed a few of its own limits on the programme. Here is a list of some basic information on the bidding processes for each.

Aer Lingus makes some flights between Ireland and North America or Canada eligible for upgrades, with not all these flights being automatically eligible. You can only bid for upgrades on flights booked directly with Aer Lingus. Eligible customers will receive an email asking for a bid.

Air New Zealand’s OneUp program allows passengers on international flights to upgrade one class. You can move from economy to premium economy or from premium economy to business premier. If there are only two classes on the flight, you can upgrade from economy to business. You can submit a bid via an email you may receive 14 days before departure, in your Air New Zealand account, or through the airline’s call centre. Successful bidders are notified seven days before departure. You can pay with cash or your Airpoints Dollars.

Etihad Select Upgrades are not restricted by destination, but tickets booked using promotional fares, guest seat rewards, redemption tickets, free tickets, tickets already upgraded using miles, multi-flyer tickets and bookings with infants are not eligible to bid for an upgrade. You may upgrade one class from economy to business or business to first. You will not receive chauffeur service if your bid is accepted to upgrade from economy to business. You will earn Etihad Guest miles at the base rate plus 10% class of service bonus if your bid is successful.

Lufthansa only allows upgrades from economy to premium economy on long-haul flights equipped with premium economy. You must log in to myOffer on Lufthansa’s website and submit your bid. You will be notified 24 to 36 hours before departure if your bid was accepted.

Norwegian offers a Bid For Upgrade service for its 787 long-haul flights such as those between London (LGW) and the United States from economy class to premium economy. You can read a detailed guide on how this works and when and how much you should consider paying here.

Related: How to ensure an upgrade on your next flight

(Image courtesy of Norwegian)

Singapore Airlines’ mySQupgrade allows you to bid for an upgrade in cash (U.S. dollars) or KrisFlyer miles, within a pre-set range for flights booked through and operated by Singapore Airlines. You can make, change or cancel a bid up to 50 hours before the departure of your flight and if your bid is successful, you will be notified up to 40 hours before your flight. You can only upgrade one class, and you can’t upgrade from business to Singapore Suites, unfortunately.

Virgin Atlantic lets you bid to upgrade into the next higher class of service from the ticket you booked, so economy to premium and premium to Upper Class. Tickets must be booked directly with Virgin Atlantic, and if your flight is eligible you will receive an email invitation to make a bid. Available price points put minimum bids for upgrades to premium economy on transatlantic flights starting at £180, with a maximum bid of £600. One-way premium economy tickets can be much more than this to purchase separately, so there’s some value to be found.

Airlines that don’t offer bidding for upgrades

These airlines do not offer the ability to set your own amount to bid for a chance at an upgrade, though they may allow fixed price upgrades using cash and/or miles:

  • Air France/KLM
  • American Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Delta
  • Emirates
  • Qatar Airways
  • United
(Photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy)

Tips For Bidding On A Flight Upgrade

There’s no definitive strategy to ensure you are the winning bidder at the best price. However, these tips should improve your chances:

  • Use ExpertFlyer or a similar tool to see how many premium class seats are still available on your flight.
  • Follow this equation for a bid price: calculate the regular cost of a business class seat. Subtract what you paid for the economy fare, and aim for around 20% to 40% of the remaining price.
  • Bid slightly above the minimum to beat the crowd, since most people will choose the minimum.

Many elite status members of the airlines offering these bidding programmes are angered by airlines doing so, as they feel their hard-earned operational upgrade chances are being auctioned off. That’s compounded by airlines offering flat-fee upgrades at the check-in counter and boarding gate, providing even more obstacles to top-tier elites who are high on the upgrade list, but never clear. It’s a tough act, as airlines have to balance maximising revenue streams with keeping their most loyal flyers satisfied.

Bottom line

In the end, bidding for upgrades has the potential for great value if your bid toward the minimum is accepted. By offering up a couple of hundred dollars or pounds, you can find yourself in premium economy or business for much less than the amount paid by your new neighbours up front.

The next time you fly one of these airlines and find yourself with a chance to bid, evaluate whether a bid that’s likely to succeed offers enough value to be worth your while, and hopefully, the strategies above can help you fly in premium classes at less than premium prices.

Expert Flyer is owned by Red Ventures, TPG’s Parent Company

Additional Reporting by Ben Smithson

Featured image by BoBaa22/Shutterstock.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.