You’ve been there. It’s time to board the flight. Second to the last boarding group, only succeeded by the real cheap tickets where everyone is holding a pillow stuffed with all their belongings to avoid the bag fee.
As you board the plane, you’re forced to slowly walk past the early boarded first-class passengers sipping their champagne reclining in seats as massive as Barcaloungers.
When you find your seat (across from the bathroom), you find that your oversized middle seatmate has already commandeered the entire armrest.
As you realize this isn’t even hour one of the grueling seven hours ahead, you wonder, “How can I sip champagne?”
The truth is that the majority of people traveling in first-class seats aren’t rich, but travel smart (like me!)
Smart enough to win at the game of travel hacking where the ultimate prize is traveling the world like the rich and famous, but not paying rich and famous prices.
Here are some solid ways on how to fly first-class to get you sipping champagne at the front of the plane.
HOW TO FLY FIRST-CLASS: REMAIN LOYAL
We expect our friends, spouse and dogs to be loyal, so why not airlines? Being a frequent flier to one airline is one of the best ways to score (almost free) seats up front. The more you fly with one airline, the higher the elite status you will achieve, the higher the elite status you achieve, the better the benefits.
One of the best benefits offered is free or discounted upgrades. For domestic flights, if there’s a seat available, your status may get you a complimentary upgrade, even without asking!
For example, American Airlines and United will notice your status at the time of booking and automatically add you to the upgrade waitlist. Upgrades are prioritized in order of elite status. If empty seats are available, you’ll be notified of your new comfortable seat up front. All you have to do is decide if you want a warm towel before dinner service.
Remaining loyal means every time you fly on a paid ticket, you’ll earn airline miles. Economy class tickets of course earn less miles than a business class ticket, but these miles can be cashed in for a free upgrade. So for the price of an economy ticket, you can be sitting in first class seats!
This is especially useful for international flight upgrades since they are a little different. Unfortunately, airlines really don’t give complimentary upgrades for international travel unless you achieved a certain class of elite airline status.
This class of elites are top-tier status earners. If you earn the highest level of status such as Executive Platinum on American Air, Premier 1K on United, or Diamond on Delta, you receive a set amount of one-way tickets for one cabin class upgrade certificates you can use on any route, including international long haul flights.
Check out my tips for what you need for long-haul flights.
But, if you haven’t achieved top-tier status on any major airlines, have no worry, you can still upgrade from a purchased economy ticket. If there’s space available, most airlines have a set number of miles you can use to “pay” for a one cabin class upgrade. However, basic economy tickets usually aren’t eligible for any type of upgrade.
You can use miles to upgrade to the best seats on domestic flights as well. First-class upgrades are even given at the last minute. But remember that the closer to the flight taking off, airlines start to hand out complimentary upgrades to elites.
Make sure you request your miles upgrade early if you want to sit up front.
HOW TO FLY FIRST-CLASS: CREDIT CARDS
Racking up credit card points on travel credit cards is one of the best ways to sip champagne at the front of the plane. The best travel credit cards will have you traveling bougie from the time you arrive at the airport to the time you exit the airport at your destination.
These travel credit cards can include designated check in counters at the airport, priority boarding, statement credit for signing up for TSA precheck and CLEAR to help you breeze through security, and for Global Entry to help you breeze through immigration when coming home from your international vacation.
Another great perk is obtaining airline lounge access. A “members’ only club” where you can escape the crazy hustle and bustle of the airport by accessing a lounge that offers free Wi-Fi, food and drinks, and comfortable seating. Some uber luxe lounges offer additional amenities like showers, nap pods, playrooms for kids and massages.
In my opinion, the best way and the fastest way to earn enough points for a premium cabin ticket is by signing up for travel credit cards that offer maximum sign-up bonuses. There is a strategy to playing the credit card game though.
A card company will offer loads of points for a new credit card in exchange for a minimum spending requirement in a certain period of time. Look for a good deal for signing up. A good deal runs anywhere from 75,000-150,000 points depending on the credit card. Credit card companies often run limited bonuses on top of sign-up bonuses so if the current sign-up offer seems low, you can always wait for a limited bonus offer.
For example, the Platinum American Express has offered 100,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 5 months of card membership. American Express partners with several airlines which means its American Express Membership Rewards points can be transferred to one of these airlines to “buy” a seat at the front of the plane.
I used this method to fly from New York to Maldives on Qatar Airways in arguably the best business class seat in the sky. I transferred 70,000 Membership Rewards points to British Airways (a partner of Qatar Airways) and paid about $100 in co-pay, and there I was…on a 14-hour flight sipping champagne at the front of the plane!
If you need some inspiration, here are here are some bucket list destinations.
HOW TO FLY FIRST-CLASS: COMPANION TICKET
If you’re going to enjoy first class service, why not do it with a friend?
There are a handful of credit cards that offer an awesome travel perk. That’s the ability to earn a free companion ticket for one or more round-trip flights. This perk alone could be worth thousands of dollars.
You pay for your ticket and only pay taxes and fees for your friend, so it’s like getting two tickets for the price of one!
The British Airways Visa Signature card comes with a $95 annual fee and after spending at least $30,000 on the card in one year, you will have earned a voucher for a round trip Travel Together Ticket. The rules of the Travel Together Ticket are that the original ticket must be booked with Avios (miles), travel must originate and terminate in the United States and your companion must be booked in the same cabin class and itinerary as you.
If you would rather travel solo, this year British Airways added the perk that allows you to use the Travel Together Ticket to pay 50% of the Avios fare for a return trip. Either way, all you’ll have to pay is the taxes, fees, and carrier charges for the award seat or seats.
The Delta SkyMiles Reserve or Reserve Business American Express Card comes with a $550 annual fee (yikes! I know, but there are so many other travel benefits that basically pays for the fee) and you’ll receive a domestic First Class, Delta Comfort+® or Main Cabin Companion Certificate each year after renewal.
The Delta Companion Certificate is only valid for a certain period of time. You must actually take the trip, not just book, before the certificate expires. So be sure to take note of the expiration date!
Keep in mind companion tickets are not redeemable on every flight. For both airlines, I would suggest to first click on your companion certificate and use that booking menu to look for available flights where you can use your companion certificates.
HOW TO FLY FIRST-CLASS: BID FOR IT
Arguably the most expensive way to sit up front is to bid for a seat in the business class cabin or the first class cabin. Fortunately, many airlines use the bidding system to fill upper-class seats. This is the best value for both you and the airline since you can obtain a better seat at a discounted price, and the airline can sell premium seats rather than give them away.
There are some requirements to meet for you to be eligible to bid for a seat upgrade, or even just increase your chances. Book directly with the airline and don’t book a basic economy, economy lite or award ticket.
Air Canada’s AC Bid program allows eligible passengers to put in a bid up to 48 hours before departure. Qantas permits passengers to place bids starting seven days before the flight and closes bidding about 24 hours before the flight and also permits passengers to use a combination of cash and miles in the bid.
Likewise, Singapore Airlines also permits passengers use a mix of cash and miles for bids and the opportunity to change bids up to 50 hours before departure.
A few other airlines that allow one-class upgrade on international flights are Etihad Airways, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa and Cathay Pacific. Virgin Australia’s UpgradeMe program allows bids for upgrades on domestic flights as well.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Look for a later flight when business travelers usually aren’t flying because there will be fewer seats in the premium cabin. Fewer leisure travelers book premium class seats. Don’t just automatically bid the minimum suggested amount. You’ll have better luck if you pretend to book a new seat in the premium cabin to merely look to see how many seats are occupied and the fare. The more seats that are occupied and the higher the fare climbed, the higher you should bid.
HOW TO FLY FIRST-CLASS: SCOTT’S CHEAP FLIGHTS
Scott’s Cheap Flights has been around for 6 years and in those years, have helped so many travelers save loads of money on flights by scouring the internet and finding the best deals. Even better than Google flights in my opinion. SCF is a subscription services where SCF will email you deals based on your preference and subscription plan.
SCF has three subscription plans. The “freemium” or Limited plan is the base tier and free. You’ll receive domestic and international economy deals from up to 5 origin airports of your choice about a day after finding the deals. You’ll also receive the best way to book such as directly through the airline’s website or through a travel agent.
The Premium plan is $49/year and you’ll be alerted to domestic and international economy deals, weekend getaway recommendations, and mistake fares from your choice of 10 origin airports straight away. Recommendations include a great deal to destinations such as San Francisco, Hong Kong, South America, the middle east, and includes travel dates. Perfect if you are planning a trip for any special occasions.
But be warned that most of these economy deals are a great way to see the world at the best prices, you may be stuck in a coach seat as the opportunity to upgrade may not be available on these tickets.
If you’re looking for cheap first-class flights (the whole purpose of why you’re reading this right?!), the Elite plan is $199/year and may be the plan for you. You’ll be alerted to domestic and international deals in all cabin classes from any airport straight away. There were a number of good deals for cheap first class tickets that priced out to even better than business class fares when I received an email for mistake fares and unadvertised flight sales.
To me, the extra cost for the Elite subscription is worth it. For not much money, I’ve found amazing first-class fares that paid for the subscription already. If you’re not convinced, SCF offers a 14-day free trial.
TRAVELER’S TIP: There’s loads of advice on how to get an upgrade, from being nice to the gate agent to giving the flight attendant chocolates to dressing like you belong in first class. Notice I did not recommend any of that, because, even my fellow travel experts would agree, that is a giant waste of time. I’m sure flight attendants appreciate the chocolates you bring them, but sorry, it won’t guarantee that upgrade.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON HOW TO FLY FIRST-CLASS
Traveling can be expensive and at the same time uncomfortable. But it doesn’t have to be!
Plan your strategy ahead and for maximum bang for your (minor) buck, use a combination of these methods for your next flight.
Whether you want first-class tickets to the Maldives or treat your best friend to a concert a few states away, you now have the tools to travel like the rich and famous next time. Happy travels and cheers to sitting up front!
Check out some of these other posts to inspire to put these tips into action: