a seat with a tablet and a table in the middle of the seat

For the last time, getting into business class is not how you dress, or a few magic words – unless those words are “credit card, please”. And why bother upgrading, when there’s more opportunity to book business class for the price of economy, or less, than ever?!

If you’re looking to save on business class, to enjoy the extra space, social distancing, champagne, and maybe even a bed – there’s an old piece of advice which is quickly making a real comeback, as airlines shift pricing their strategies – and it’s more than hyperbole. You can see it on a chart!

In two words, it’s “book early”. Sadly, it’s not entirely that simple, and there’s can be hidden costs to the big savings, if plans change. Here’s everything you need to know.

Business Class Savings?

Airline pricing has always been really hard to understand. Sometimes round trips are half as expensive as one ways, sometimes tickets are cheap last minute, other times not at all, and there’s never been a “magic” piece of advice to save, like booking on a Tuesday.

The best advice has generally been don’t book too early, and don’t book too late. The best results are usually a result of setting free price trackers and knowing a good price when you see it.

Late booking hits into airline favorite ‘minimum advanced purchase’ restrictions, and booking too early rarely brought super savings that made chancing it that far out make sense.

For international flights, the 180-50 day window seemed to be a sweet spot, and for domestic it was the 100-21 day before flight window, which often had the lowest prices.

That’s changing, as airlines seek new strategies to fill business class cabins. Airlines are now ready to trade low prices for early bookings, like an “early bird” special once again.

a seat and a monitor in the middle of a plane

The Trend: Clear Savings For Advanced Purchase

For the last few decades, business travelers filled the business class seats. Businesses often “pre-purchased” large quantities of tickets with an airline, agreeing on special terms of flexibility and other helpful perks for business travelers whose travel plans change, often.

Now, there’s hardly any business travel, and the smartest airline executives have sobered to the unfortunate fact that it will likely never recover to pre-pandemic levels, and that to get new customers, new tactics must be deployed.

So how does an airline draw in new customers to fill those big cabins up front, while enticing businesses to keep buying expensive tickets? For now, big advanced purchase bargains seem to be the way forward. It sounds great, but there’s usually a catch – and that’s true here.

Qatar Airways is a great example. The airline has been one of the most adventurous with business class pricing, and testing new lows to lure passengers in. I’ve benefited from $800 round trip flights from Europe to Japan in business class, beds and all.

For one of Qatar Airways most recent sales campaigns, the pricing is clearer than I’ve ever seen an airline lay it out, in terms of saying the “earlier you book, the more you save”. It’s that simple. In sales from other airlines, savings have been even greater for early booking.

There’s price breaks for 120 day purchases, a smaller discount for 90 day advance purchases, and just all around good offers for shorter advance purchase bookings of 21 days or more. Booking at least 120 days before travel saves $240, compared to 21 days, and $140 compared to 90 days.

a table with numbers and a purple border

In fact, many airlines are pursuing this strategy, which trades (lack of) flexibility, for the early savings. People who want a bargain are going to see more and more opportunity to land one, further and further from the dates of travel.

There’s always been deals for booking early, but “early” is getting “earlier”.

On the other end of the spectrum, airlines like TAP Portugal is exploring last minute savings, figuring that it’s better to fill some premium seats, than simply set prices no one will pay. It’s going to be a year of early or late, but if you want the best deals with the lowest risk, early is the safest bet.

The number of seats sold at these “early bird” prices will be limited for each flight, but will allow the airline to then squeeze higher fares out of other customers as the dates approach. These early booking offers will also offer the worst flexibility, which keeps businesses from booking them.

If plans are uncertain, you’ll pay more the longer you wait.

In other words, if you can’t travel on the dates you book, you’ll almost assuredly be forced to eat the ticket, rather than pay change fees, or be faced with much higher fees than other tickets, for tickets offered at the lowest prices.

If, however, you’re able to travel as planned, you’ll be able to smile while boarding, knowing you undoubtedly paid less than others.

Airlines have also tinkered with unbundling certain “once standard” business class perks, like tickets without lounge access, or checked baggage allowances, to help make things even more affordable to leisure travelers.

Basically, early birds help get cash flow moving for flights – and airlines will be all the more willing to trade early savings for locked in cash, as they look for leisure travelers. During these early bird campaigns, prices really can be equal, similar, or lower than economy or even premium economy.

Exceptions? Of Course!

With another year of changing travel restrictions and last minute moves, there will be plenty of random deals without major booking window restrictions. Plus, as many new airlines take to the sky, or to new markets – like JetBlue flying to London – fare wars are going to be a “thing”.

This means prices could change at the drop of a hat, even for flights leaving in a matter of days, as airlines match or best competitors on price.

If you’re a bargain hunter, the old “book early” advice is back, and there’s going to be many situations where it makes the most sense. Keep using price trackers to get a feel for an actually good deal, follow blogs to help highlight amazing deal opportunities, but don’t be afraid to book early, if you’re sure you’ll go!

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I have always found it odd that there’s no ‘senior’ fare. My company generally paid for business/first and I’m kind of used to that. They can attach whatever restrictive rules they like to it, I don’t care. I have no deadlines to meet anymore. Just give me a decent seat at a reasonable price. £5,000 or more roundtrip to the States isn’t it.

    1. What would senior fares accomplish? Building loyalty among people who won’t be using them as long as other customers? Also, many of these senior customers are their richest customers. Discounting for the richest group (though I understand it obviously includes many non-rich people, but are those folks really aching for business class seats?) takes away a big chunk of your biggest income stream.

      Just seems like one of those ideas where its like, “i really don’t understand why people don’t specifically go out of their way to do more for me!”.

      1. Senior fares would encourage me to pay for a seat rather than use my store of miles with OneWorld and Star Alliance, which is quite considerable. This would allow me to achieve some element of status and other fripperies. Which I kind of miss.

  2. QR has had deeply discounted advance purchase business class for many years. Puzzlingly, during the pandemic, QR has made these far less desirable by removing advance seat assignments and lounge access. Presumably, they will also remove the hotel rooms for long layovers between connecting flights once entry into Qatar is permitted again. They introduced a new, more expensive ( by a couple thousand dollars) business class fare that includes these items. I used to buy their cheap business class fares for personal travel before the pandemic. With 10+ hour layovers and the risk of getting stuck in a quad seat next to a family with kids on multiple long haul flights, I will have to think twice about ever booking one of their cheap business class fares in the future.

  3. I am a freshly retired senior at 67 years old, and yes, I would like to find reduced fares. It’s wrong to think we’re all rich. where did that thought come from. When I retired my income took a big dip. But I still love travel and will soon have more time to travel (once the covid restrictions ease up). so senior fares are a good idea. Business class seats aren’t only for business travel. I have now earned a very bad lower back and coach airline seats are a killer, especially for long-haul flights. My last flight was 15 hours from Hong Kong to Newark in Business Class. I could never do that in coach. I think people who are younger and still working should pay more for their flights since you can write so much of it off on your taxes, as i did for years. So let’s get senior fares happening. there are a lot of us and we love to fly.

  4. When checking the prices on DL from ATL to LIS recently, I ran into an appalling, imho, difference between Basic Economy (~$500/pp), Economy (~$750/pp) and Business class fares. The latter was priced at a whopping $14,000/pp.

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