Although many airlines have made it harder to upgrade using miles and points, some have made it easier to upgrade with cash. While unsold premium cabin seats have often been made available by many airlines at the airport for a fixed fee, an increasing number of airlines (such as Qantas, LATAM, Alitalia, and Qatar) are making attractively-priced premium cabin upgrades available via a bidding process. However, the process is murky and inconsistent which is exactly what the airlines want it to be. Hopefully, this article will help shed some light on the process so you can nab an upgrade on your next flight for cheap!
How The Bidding Process Works
The opportunity to bid on an upgrade isn’t assured. It should be viewed as a nice option to have if it’s offered, but not something you can rely upon. Sometime after purchasing your ticket, but no later than 72 hours prior to the departure of your flight, you may receive an email from the airline offering you the opportunity to bid on an upgrade. Some airlines also offer the opportunity to bid for an upgrade when you manage your reservation on their Web site, so it’s always worth double-checking your reservation to see what offers may be available. Didn’t receive an offer? The airline decided not to target you or there are no seats available anyway.
The technology platform powering this offering is called Plusgrade, and it gives airlines (58 different airlines, in fact) a lot of levers to pull in determining whether to offer you a bidding opportunity. Obviously, the airline won’t offer to sell upgrades if there aren’t unsold seats in their premium cabin (and it isn’t unusual for a premium cabin to sell out on popular routes, so you should never rely on being able to bid on an upgrade).
If upgrades are available, your chance of being allowed to bid will be based upon a combination of factors which can include the fare you paid for your ticket, your membership and status in the airline’s loyalty program, and the number of unsold premium cabin seats available for upgrade. What specific factors are in play? Generally speaking, that’s a secret. Airlines don’t want this process to be transparent! While some bloggers recommend using tools like ExpertFlyer to check how many remaining premium cabin seats are for sale, this can only provide a general idea of whether an airline is likely to offer upgrades for bid—not whether they’ll offer the opportunity to you.
Reviewing the Offer
When the airline offers you the opportunity to bid for an upgrade, it will be per segment of the flight. They’ll specify the cabin for which you are bidding to be upgraded, the minimum bid, and sometimes a suggested range of bids. Pay careful attention to the details in the offer and make sure you understand what you’re buying before you place your bid! Airlines can offer any seat on the plane as an upgrade, and a seat with a premium-sounding name might be premium economy or even a slightly more favorable regular economy class seat. Additionally, it’s not unusual to have the chance to upgrade a connecting flight (such as from Rome to Belgrade), but not the longer transcontinental flight.
Cash or Points?
Some airlines allow you the option to bid with either cash or points. While it may be tempting to spend your points on an upgrade this way, pay attention to how the airline is valuing your points. Fairly often, when points are offered as a payment method, the relative value is low compared to redeeming your points for flights. This may be OK in some situations (such as orphaned points that would otherwise expire), but might also be poor value.
This isn’t eBay; it’s a completely blind, silent auction. You only get one shot, so make it count! You’re almost certainly participating in a competitive situation, and if your bid fails you won’t get a chance to raise your bid. You also will be charged the full amount if your bid is successful, even if the winning bid would have cleared the market at a lower price. It’s in your interest to place your best and highest bid, but not to place a bid that is higher than you’d truly be happy paying. Remember, you’re “winning” the opportunity to spend more money with the airline.
What’s the “right” amount to bid? It’s arbitrary, but I think a good starting point is to look at fuel surcharges typically charged for premium cabins on the route. This is often a pricing signal from the airline about their view of the relative operating costs. If the fuel surcharge fits within the range suggested by the airline, it probably as good a starting point as any.
A successful bid can be a nice way to score an upgrade on your next flight, and often (though not always) for much less than you’d pay to book in a premium cabin. However, don’t lose sight of the big picture: it’s also a way for the airlines to persuade you to pay more.
Have you ever bid for an upgrade on a flight? Tell us the details in the comments!
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