How to Fly First Class Without Breaking the Bank

PHOTO: Courtesy of Emirates

Here’s how to leverage points, rewards, and more to fly first class without breaking your bank--and leaving more room in your travel budget.

Buying first-class airline tickets is a luxury for most travelers. Though first class has many perks, it is difficult for the average flyer to justify paying tens of thousands of dollars to enjoy them. But there are ways to get first class tickets that don’t involve paying the premium ticket price.

Loyalty Programs

Knowing how to use loyalty programs with the right airlines will help snag some great deals on first-class upgrades. Miles do add up, so make sure you sign up for rewards programs with your preferred airlines, especially during bonus-mile promotions. Just make sure you read all the fine print about expiration dates and when you are eligible to use points for tickets or upgrades. The best tactic is to take this into account while planning trips, to avoid blackout dates and make sure you can save on your travel budget by using as many points as possible. Plus, loyal customers are usually the first to be considered for a seat change to first or business class if the flight is overbooked or they have a lot of vacancies.

Sign up for an Elite Travel Credit Card

You’ll inevitably get more points with a higher tier travel rewards card, especially if the card is co-branded with an airline or offers points that can transfer to airline miles. To start, these cards usually have great sign-up bonuses, where you can earn thousands of miles if you spend a certain amount within a short period of time after signing up with the card–these bonus rewards programs usually have a 3-6 month spending period where you can qualify for these extra points. Some of the best options of 2019 include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Gold Delta SkyMiles American Express Card, the United Explorer Visa card, and the Alaska Airlines Signature Visa card.

Strategize Your Booking

In addition to considering when to use points, cheap airfare or free upgrades depends on when you fly. First and business classes are usually in high demand during the week, when business travelers are paying top prices for premium seats, or travelers who can afford the premium prices. These usually fall over weekends or off-peak flights. Eliminate Monday mornings or Thursday and Friday evenings, as these are peak travel times for people flying for work.

Stay in the Loop With Individual Airlines

To have even better chances of finding cheap deals on first-class tickets, make sure you get email alerts from airlines and any loyalty programs you already signed up for. These newsletters can include great deals on cheap flights that may not show up on travel booking engines or other deal sites– sometimes it’s best to go straight to the source for these deals!

Purchase Upgrades

Upgrades to first and business class usually get cheaper in the couple of days leading up to a flight, and especially the day of if there are still seats available. It’s always worth it to inquire if an upgrade is possible when you get to the airport.

The Day Of

There are a few ways to get a cheap or free upgrade on the day of the flight. First, check prices when you first check in for the flight–you can sometimes get a great price on last-minute upgrades, especially if you are traveling by yourself. If you aren’t in a big hurry to reach your destination and the flight gets overbooked, see what the airline is offering for travelers willing to give up their seats. If you aren’t in a rush and can score a first-class seat on the next flight, why not? If they aren’t offering that as part of compensation, it doesn’t hurt to ask the gate agent looking for volunteers. The airline would rather make a deal with a happy customer than refuse and have to select a customer who probably won’t be happy about giving up their seat.

If you happen to have an economy seat that’s near the front of the plane, keep an eye on whether seats in first class actually fill up. If the flight crew closes the cabin door and a seat remains, simply asking to move may work in your favor. Most of the time you won’t get anywhere with this method–but the worst thing that can happen is they say no! In addition, if there are problems with your seat or other passengers need to sit together (such as a parent sitting away from their child or children), either request to move or offer to take another seat. Flight attendants will reward generous gestures to help other passengers, which might result in extra perks for you.