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Business Class Seat Auctions: The Best Way to Upgrade a Trip

While holding elite status within an airline loyalty program has long been the go-to method for getting an upgrade on a flight, a much more democratic method allows access to premium seats—and requires no airline status at all

by Lark Gould

January 25, 2023

American Airlines Business Class / Photo: Courtesy of American Airlines

Welcome to the wild, wild world of airline seat auctions. These programs are run by a phalanx of U.S. and international carriers and allow passengers who want to upgrade to bid for a seat in the premium cabins and let fortune do the rest.

These often appear as emails or pop-up notices in passenger itineraries but do require that a seat has been reserved and ticketed. It’s often a surprise as not every airline or every route is eligible, and while the bidding can set you back a few hundred dollars, the price of comfort will be far less than the price one would pay at the time of booking.

Delta Air Lines Business Class Suite on Boeing 777 / Photo: Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

Here is how it works. Say you booked a flight from Vancouver to Mexico City for the low price of $319 on Air Canada. However, that same flight in Business Class may cost $1847. While you do not want to shell out nearly $2,000 for this flight, you might want to add another $250 to your ticket to enjoy a lie-flat seat.

The rule of thumb is subtracting your ticket price ($319) from the $1,847 Business Class rate: $1,528. Then put in a bid for 20 percent to 40 percent of that number ($305) to $611. The winning bid will be charged to the credit card on the reservation. The winner would then enjoy sitting in a $1,847 seat for, say, $624 ($319 + $305).

Then, a similar process would be involved for the return flight. Points and cash cannot be used to purchase the upgrade; only winning bids will be charged.

Photo: Courtesy of United Airlines

Most airlines will offer a clear opportunity to passengers to bid on the upgrade 72 to 24 hours before their flight. If an email is not sent or a pop-up is not presented, passengers can always check their reservation to see if a window within their reservation offers that prospect.

Bidding passengers will see a minimum bid amount, but if they want to stack their chances, they can check with Expert Flyer to see how full the flight is. Naturally, the emptier the plane, the better the chances for a winning bid.

Similarly, some routes are more easily won than others. For example, inbound flights from Asia populated with points-packing business travelers may not offer the weighted prospects of a flight from Boston to Phoenix. Likewise, leisure travel routes are more easily ventured for this purpose than popular business routes, such as JFK-LAX.

United Airlines business-class sleeping pod / Photo: United Airlines

Auctions can often bypass Business Class and head to the front of the plane in First, although most airlines maintain either an Economy to Business Class or one-class jump.

Certain rules are standard: a winning bid will be charged and non-refundable—unless the flight is canceled (payment information is entered at the bidding time). Also, bids are per segment, although they may apply to the whole trip if the passenger stops at a mid-point but does not switch planes.

Seat auctions are becoming increasingly popular, especially as full flights and regular waves of delays and cancellations are spurring travelers to vie for extra space and comfort. Also, passengers look for access to the helpful amenities involved with a Business Class seat, such as free luggage check-in and use of the airline lounge.

For loyalty club members, however, who rely on empty Business Class seats for the complimentary upgrades that go with frequent flying and high-dollar spending, the growing popularity of airline auctions has become a pebble in the shoe.

Photo: Airbus A321neo, Business Class cabin. Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

For airlines, however, upgrade auctions have become a way to monetize a seat that would otherwise be given away for free. That may be why many airlines have boarded the seat upgrade auction bandwagon. While each airline has its rules and formats—varying auction time frames, route availabilities, communication methods, minimum requirements, and maximum upgrade options—many airlines indulge in this practice.

Possibly to the benefit of status loyalty members, American carriers currently do not offer this opportunity. However, these international airlines do:

  • Aer Lingus
  • AeroMexico
  • Air Canada
  • Air New Zealand
  • Avianca
  • Cathay
  • Copa
  • Czech Airlines
  • Ethiopian
  • Etihad
  • Fiji Airways
  • Icelandair
  • Kenya Airways
  • Lufthansa
  • Qantas
  • Royal Jordanian
  • Scandinavian Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • SriLankan
  • Virgin Atlantic