Best time for First purchase?

Old Mar 21, 17, 7:34 am
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Best time for First purchase?

So I am planning a trip from SEA-IAH on the first week of April 2017 for around 7 days.

Seats are great in economy for around $138/way but I am wondering when is it the best time, or what tricks are there, to get a good/cheap First class ticket? Upgrade online or at the counter when checking in for the flight (but no guarantee of a first ticket).

Any tricks to use to get a good rate on First?
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Old Mar 21, 17, 8:08 am
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There is no way to predict this. UA spends $ Millions on predictive software to price its tickets and it still screws up and sometimes winds up with empty seats or oversold at the gate. You don't have the benefit of that software.

There are generalizations which are great if you are a corporate travel manager because they will save you money over time. But, on one single ticket on one particular date, no way.

Look at the F price today and determine whether that is manageable. If it is, buy it and do not look back. Sometimes, people worry themselves sick because the price might drop $10 and they wait. Then the price goes up $100.

Maybe UA will offer you a cheap upgrade and maybe it will not. Maybe it will offer you the best deal if you select Y and immediately accept an upgrade. Maybe, a better deal at online check in and maybe a better deal if you wait until the airport.

But, maybe the seats will be gone and there won't be any F seats at all so there is nothing to upgrade at all. SEA-IAH is not simply an O&D route, but also a major onward connection point for UA to Latin America and that will include many people who book international F/J (which includes domestic F).

As you can see, no way to predict this. April is around the corner. So, look at the pricing and grab it if you can afford it.
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Old Mar 21, 17, 9:50 am
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thanks!

I know once before I managed to get cheap upgrades online and I think once at the check in kiosk. Now I reside in the US, I want to see how I can play with the system since I have somewhat an extensive knowledge of the UK internationally bound flights
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Old Mar 21, 17, 9:59 am
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Originally Posted by firehawk View Post
thanks!

I know once before I managed to get cheap upgrades online and I think once at the check in kiosk. Now I reside in the US, I want to see how I can play with the system since I have somewhat an extensive knowledge of the UK internationally bound flights
In general, domestic fares are cheapest about 3 months out. But that is in general and has no correlation to any specific fare/date.

Since you are ~ within 3 weeks of travel, the fare you are currently seeing in any cabin is almost certainly the cheapest and it will only go up, potentially very soon.
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Old Mar 22, 17, 12:12 am
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Originally Posted by firehawk View Post
Seats are great in economy for around $138/way but I am wondering when is it the best time, or what tricks are there, to get a good/cheap First class ticket? Upgrade online or at the counter when checking in for the flight (but no guarantee of a first ticket).

Any tricks to use to get a good rate on First?
You may find this thread helpful to understand how United sells and prices domestic First Class, although it may be somewhat advanced.

In short, the route fare differential for SEA-IAH is $199 each way. You will be extremely hard pressed to find any way to fly in F for less than that amount. Generally speaking you have four options to sit up front:

(1) Buy a ticket in First. This will cost $199 extra (nonstop) or ~$221 extra (with one stop) for each direction of travel. This is almost always the best option as it affords full PQM/PQD and maximum flexibility** if you change your plans. It will also guarantee travel in First. If you see a substantially higher price, there is probably not P inventory on your selected flights and you need to choose different ones, or wait for P to open.

(2) Buy a ticket in Economy and accept the upsell (TOD) offer at purchase. This offer will usually be $199 (or close to it) for each direction of travel. This offer is likely to be available even if the flight does not have P space, and therefore can be a more flexible option. However, the offer is non-refundable in the case of voluntary changes or cancels, and does not earn PQD or RDM. This offer is not perfectly reliable but you can cancel your ticket immediately if you don't like the offer you get.

(3) Buy a ticket in Economy and hope for a similar upsell (TOD) offer at check-in. There is really no reason to do this instead of (2) as the offer generation mechanism is the same, as are the benefits and drawbacks, except you can't cancel your ticket if you don't like your offer.

(4) Waitlist (or confirm) a miles+cash upgrade. As a general member, this will cost 20,000 miles plus $75 and is only confirmable if R space is available. This is a particularly unreliable way to be upgraded, and a horrible deal compared to the other options. Don't do this unless you can afford to spend UA miles like water.


**of the options presented. Ticket is still subject to the usual change and cancel rules for a restricted fare.
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Old Mar 22, 17, 3:52 pm
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I'm guessing you're not averse to economy but would like to bump up to biz if it's cheap.

If the upgrade at time of booking is too much for you, one option is to wait until check-in. findark probably knows more than me, but I recently travelled IAD->ORD and back, ticketed economy. I checked in via the app as early as possible and the "change seat" allowed me to upgrade to biz for $129 (IAD->ORD) and $89 (IAD->ORD). I'm pretty sure those are lower than what you'd have to pay prior to check in. Few of the biz seats at that time were booked.

So, I'd book a cheap economy seat on a flight that looks to have a lot of empty seats in biz. Set an alarm for yourself to check in as soon as you can (24 hrs before), check in on the app, then try to change seats and see what the buy-up price is. If there are a lot of biz seats free, you may get an affordable upgrade.

Another point of information: I actually bumped a co-worker out of getting a business seat via CPU. I was able to buy up for $89 24 hrs before and he was the highest on the list not to get a CPU. In other words: it appears you can buy up, even at a low price, before CPUs get doled out. I would have assumed that he (1K status, I believe) would have gotten a seat before I was able to buy up, but that didn't seem to be the case.

If you remember, update the thread with whatever route you go to let us know how it worked out.

Originally Posted by findark View Post
In short, the route fare differential for SEA-IAH is $199 each way. You will be extremely hard pressed to find any way to fly in F for less than that amount.
I think that's true when we're comparing Y to J/F on the same route. It's not true comparing one Y route (a direct, let's say) against a different J/F route (1 stop). I've been looking at flights IAD->DEN in June and I've found routes in J/F (1 stop) that are essentially equivalent to Y on the nonstops (~$1,050). This is a potentially good way to get the company to pay for J/F if you're traveling on business. If they'll pay $1,000 for the nonstop Y, why wouldn't they pay for the 1-stop J/F for $1,000? If comfort is more important to you than a short flight, you take J/F. If you want a short flight, you take the Y.

Last edited by WineCountryUA; Mar 22, 17 at 4:35 pm Reason: merging consecutive posts by same member
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Old Mar 22, 17, 4:51 pm
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Originally Posted by saltydog75 View Post
Another point of information: I actually bumped a co-worker out of getting a business seat via CPU. I was able to buy up for $89 24 hrs before and he was the highest on the list not to get a CPU. In other words: it appears you can buy up, even at a low price, before CPUs get doled out. I would have assumed that he (1K status, I believe) would have gotten a seat before I was able to buy up, but that didn't seem to be the case.
This is the big complaint about TODs, they trump CPUs. Even when the person trying for a CPU pays more than the person taking the TOD pays in total.
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Old Mar 22, 17, 5:21 pm
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I should preface this by saying that most of my statements here are general theoretical principles, and apply "most of the time" and most frequently when inventory is wide open across multiple flight options.

Originally Posted by saltydog75 View Post
If the upgrade at time of booking is too much for you, one option is to wait until check-in. findark probably knows more than me, but I recently travelled IAD->ORD and back, ticketed economy. I checked in via the app as early as possible and the "change seat" allowed me to upgrade to biz for $129 (IAD->ORD) and $89 (IAD->ORD). I'm pretty sure those are lower than what you'd have to pay prior to check in. Few of the biz seats at that time were booked.

So, I'd book a cheap economy seat on a flight that looks to have a lot of empty seats in biz. Set an alarm for yourself to check in as soon as you can (24 hrs before), check in on the app, then try to change seats and see what the buy-up price is. If there are a lot of biz seats free, you may get an affordable upgrade.
This is a pervasive feeling on FT, but I very strongly believe it not to be true. Unfortunately we don't really have the scientific wealth of data to comment because the reports in the various threads suffer heavily from sampling bias and often contain incomplete information. Personally, I buy F too much to see it firsthand all that often.

For starters, the route fare differential for IAD-ORD, as a flight of 500-999 miles in length, is $129. This means that you can pay $129 extra to buy your ticket outright in F. Now, you might run out and try to say that I'm wrong, because you might pull up the following screen:

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As is fleshed out in the FCM thread, getting the fare differential requires available premium inventory. On the flights up there with P space (which is the matching code for W, the pricing Economy fare), you can see that the price for F is indeed $129 more than Y. The $335 flights have only Z space (a V-up) and the $406 flight has only A space (a U-up).

Now, what about buy-up offers? At two points in time, you will be offered a "fee upsell" which I've been trying to collect under the "TOD" acronym. This is an upgrade fee offered by United which is collected on the receipt as a miscellaneous fee and NOT added to the coupon for the flight. Therefore, it will never earn PQD nor RDM, is not part of the ticket value if changed or canceled, and leads to unpredictable behavior with respect to booking code and PQM.

These two chances are (1) during the purchase process on united.com, and (2) at any point during or after check-in online, on the app, or at a kiosk in the airport. All reasonable data that I can see indicate that the price generation mechanism for these two offers is the same. Generally speaking, you are offered a price which is very close to the route fare differential. Occasionally, people report getting substantially higher offers, and my leading hypothesis for this is that it occurs when discount inventory buckets are zero. I have seen no evidence to support any particular theory on what causes minor variance around the fare differential, e.g. why you saw $89 one way on IAD/ORD and $129 the other.

Lastly, while a clever reader can see ways to exploit the TOD offer system to get up front for substantially less than an F ticket, I think it is very important to notice that the majority of the time, someone accepting a TOD offer is paying roughly the same as if they had purchased a First Class ticket to begin with. United is essentially "re-offering" them something they passed on the first time, or perhaps didn't get a chance to see because they didn't think about it or don't know how to search for cheap F fares. I suspect that UA's market research shows that a lot of infrequent fliers don't consider First Class as something that they are capable of affording and don't even bother to look at its price when purchasing, whereas they are much more likely to be ensnared by the "for only xxx more" offer when actually facing the reality of how terrible the Y product is.

The optics of underselling elites are terrible, but I really think it's important to keep in mind that the prices aren't "free upgrade" level, and that if you wanted F so badly you could have bought it for about the same.

Originally Posted by saltydog75 View Post
I think that's true when we're comparing Y to J/F on the same route. It's not true comparing one Y route (a direct, let's say) against a different J/F route (1 stop). I've been looking at flights IAD->DEN in June and I've found routes in J/F (1 stop) that are essentially equivalent to Y on the nonstops (~$1,050). This is a potentially good way to get the company to pay for J/F if you're traveling on business. If they'll pay $1,000 for the nonstop Y, why wouldn't they pay for the 1-stop J/F for $1,000? If comfort is more important to you than a short flight, you take J/F. If you want a short flight, you take the Y.
The differential model applies regardless of the number of stops, but only if comparing the same itinerary in different cabins. Your observation would be due to the fact that UA is asking a higher price (using higher inventory) for the nonstop, and this is something that applies regardless of cabin. The one-stop itinerary may indeed be "the same price in J/F" but it would be less if you took the one-stop in Y.

Whether a company is susceptible to that kind of logic depends a lot on your employer. Large travel departments tend to be inflexible to the point of idiocy. (Once at a previous job I paid 4x as much to fly DL nonstop instead of UA one-stop, almost entirely out of spite. I have a better relationship with my current employer.)
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Old Mar 22, 17, 9:41 pm
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Good info. I am relatively new to FT but I've seen a lot of posts from you so I know you're clueful.

At the risk of oversimplification, I think the safest general principle is: know what kind of flyer you are and learn how to optimize for that.

OP here falls into the "champagne taste, beer budget" category. The best approach for OP (which might not work for others) is to try and snipe cheap upgrades late in the game. If he can't get an upgrade, so be it. You get beer.

I fall into the "Dom Perignon taste, Korbel budget". I don't want to wait to upgrade, but I'd like to minimize cost. For me, that means adding stops and time to lower the cost of a J ticket.

Then there are the Dom taste/Dom budget folks. You want J and directs. You know you're always going to pay that relatively fixed premium to go to J.

The point being: you don't need to know how all of the cogs and gears work. You just need to know what works for what you're trying to do. There's no one strategy that will be optimal for everyone.

I may just be saying what you already said. I just think it's easy to get lost in the vast amount of info. Much easier to narrow it to what's relevant to you.
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Old Mar 22, 17, 11:53 pm
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Originally Posted by firehawk View Post
So I am planning a trip from SEA-IAH on the first week of April 2017 for around 7 days.

Seats are great in economy for around $138/way but I am wondering when is it the best time, or what tricks are there, to get a good/cheap First class ticket? Upgrade online or at the counter when checking in for the flight (but no guarantee of a first ticket).

Any tricks to use to get a good rate on First?
This particular route is often quite expensive in First. P fares ($199 above economy) are frequently not available. If you find anything acceptable I suggest buying it immediately.

Note that Alaska flies the route non-stop twice daily and their F (and Y) fares are sometimes quite a bit cheaper than UA.

Good luck.
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