This is not meant to be divisive, just illuminating. The holidays are famous for stretching travel budgets like an all you can eat buffet, and that’s precisely the point. As weird or improbable as it sounds, it can actually be cheaper to buy one of the desirable tickets up front, or finally put all those points to use for an upgrade. Even if it’s not cheaper, it may still make a lot of sense when you break down the factors…

Simple logic

Before the holiday pitchforks come out and this article ends up on your fireplace, consider the following. From about December 15th to January 3rd, the “out of office” emails auto respond into full swing. Business travelers are largely off the road, giving way to the masses of people who need to get home, or get away for the holidays. Natural order means that economy cabins fill up months in advance, which leaves only the forward areas of the plane where seats are wide open, and therefore on sale.

Don’t Forget Points

This (the holidays) also presents an excellent time to redeem points for premium cabins. You hardly stand any chance of using your points for economy during this peak travel time, but first class may be wide open for fewer points than you’d expect…

And Upgrade Offers Too

When you buy an economy seat and pay to upgrade, you allow an airline to sell your seat twice. By using airline apps, the mobile app of the airline you play to fly, you may receive limited time upgrade offers designed to extract exactly this kind of behavior. This time of year, the offers are juicier than ever, because they make more out of you, and get to sell your seat to someone else too. It’s splendid…

Sales Pitch

Business and first class don’t often require a sales pitch, but there are important factors travelers overlook. In short: it’s not just about the seat, or free wine. Traveling in business or first class on a major airline typically entitles passengers to…

  • Fast track security
  • 2 or more complimentary checked bags.
  • priority boarding.
  • airport lounge access (international).Β 
  • priority assistance in delays, cancellations.

With airports rammed to the rafters, and complimentary bags in the economy cabin progressively going missing, these sort of conveniences can add up to justify an “up sell” to business, if the price is marginal. But quite often, it can actually be less than economy. You just need to know when and where to look…

Black Friday

People say Black Friday is just marketing, and in some cases they’re flat out wrong. On November 23rd, there were premium cabin cabin deals for seats in premium, business or first class which were either equal to or in some cases hundreds lower than economy for December holiday travel. This advice, like most advice in the world doesn’t apply to every single route, but the logic is true for most. On the 23rd, it was possible to book things like: $773 premium economy from the US to Hong Kong round trip on Cathay Pacific, $1280 round trip business class from London to the USA on British Airways or Virgin Atlantic. In both cases, economy flights were going for the same or more.

Getting In

These figures are flashed in front of you with one intention: getting you in next time. One of the biggest questions in travel is “when” to book airline tickets and when it comes to the holidays, the best prices, or at least the best chances to fly in comfort for the same prices as economy typically come in Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Cyber Week sales. The key element is always the least attractive, which is flexibility. This year many sales were restricted to travel either a week early between the 16th to 18th, or late from the 24-31st of December. Those that were able to go “early” or “late” were able to lock in business for the same or less than economy. Everyone else…. not so much.

My Dilemma

I set out this holiday season confident that I’d bag business class for the same that most were paying for economy, and I did – but it wasn’t how I expected it to be. I set out for direct flights from London to Los Angeles from December 27th – January 3rd, and I ended up with something similar, but from Zurich. Yes, the tip of flying from a “nearby” city was the only way I could get what I wanted. The lowest price ever offered for my needs over the last 3 months was $1435 per person. That’s in economy. Knowing how fares work, and that these flights would be $355 each a month later, I held out.

business class google flightsAlerts To The Rescue

By setting Google Flights alerts not just from where I wanted to fly, but also where I was willing to fly from, I was alerted to a flash sale from Zurich over Cyber Week. There were direct options from Zurich to Los Angeles, and back via London for $1600 per person, but in business class. That works out to a difference of $82.5 dollars per person each way, for the upgrade. And this is the very definition of an “upgrade”. We traded economy for fully flat beds, airport fast track and lounge access for the 11.5 and 10 hour respective flights in both directions. Yes, business still cost more, but when you’re getting gouged, sometimes it’s best to up gauge.

Takeaways…

Set price alerts. Set many of them, for multiple dates and cities – but don’t forget to also set them for multiple cabins too. Don’t be afraid to window shop. Also – don’t panic. Don’t get to July and believe one of those stories that tells you to book on Tuesday 144 days from the big day. For economy, great deals may come well before the holidays, but if you want a chance to sample the best for less, at a time when most people will pay more for much less – this is your best bet.

Featured image courtesy of Air Canada.