Airlines love lemons. Even if they have a nearly full flight, they will always try to squeeze extra lemon in the form of upgrades and “preferred” seats. Who wouldn’t want to make more money for things that they have already sold? Enter seat auctions. Peoples desire to “score” upgrades has created the double dip for airlines and the opportunity for us to benefit… sometimes.

a close-up of a plane

I often wonder what an upgrade to business costs an airline. I vacate my current seat in coach, which they can sell, yet I move up and start raiding their pantry and wine cabinet. Many airlines including Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and Air New Zealand have introduced eBay style auctions from “Plusgrade” where you can bid for an upgrade (blindly) in hopes of snagging a steal of a deal on select routes. In general all auction invitations will be initiated by the airline either at booking or within a seven day window prior to your flight. After accepting your invitation you will enter a bid, and your credit card details. A flight of luxury for a few hundred… interesting. The auctions however are designed to make you overbid with no sense of fairness. You will not see a lowest accepted bid, only an indicator of how out of your league or certain to win you are. Here in lies this question, is it worth it? Everyone has different incomes, different body sizes, back problems and so forth. If I am a wealthy, tall individual with back problems, just about any number short of what I would have paid outright is worth it. If I fit more comfortably in an economy seat, have no back problems and money is tight, I am only going to dangle a number that justifies the experience out there. The auctions are blind in hopes of keeping you from entering a low number. Don’t be fooled, if you can only afford a small number, try it, stranger things have happened.  If you enter one of these auctions, take a deep breath and ask “is this worth it”? For an international flight over six hours, I would say that an upgrade from Economy to business class is worth no more than $750 each way. Even at that number you need to be taking advantage of the food, wine and of course flat bed seat to begin to justify that added cost. 

a room with a pool table and red couches

There is certainly an interesting horizon ahead with tech interfacing airlines. I know some gulf carriers even allow for upgrades once you’ve boarded! The current airline auction systems from Plusgrade and Optiontown are precursors to what should become a much more intuitive, mobile approach to upgrades. I think apps like LoungeBuddy, which assess demand and then offer mobile barcodes, are the ultimate direction for upgrades. Just don’t expect the airline to ever do you a favor. The airline’s most essential job is to protect the integrity of its premium cabins. If business travelers knew they could pay coach prices and then a small upgrade fee, they would never pay the premiums associated with flexible business class. 

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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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