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A surprising way to save on business class flights

When it comes to flying, coach class can have a negative reputation. Seats may be cramped and it’s a far cry from the luxurious world of first and business-class travel. There’s a reason why coach is also known as economy class. It’s affordable, whereas first-class accommodations can be well out of reach for the average budget. Unless you bid your way into the big time.

Some airlines put their finest seats up for auction, letting flyers on tighter budgets experience the champagne level of service that comes with first- and business-class cabins. Generally, airlines will give you a crack at the next level up, but even a move from economy into premium economy can make a world of difference on a long flight.

There are some steps you can take to improve your chances at winning an upgrade. Play your cards right and you could get a very classy seat for a lot less than the usual price.

How seat bidding works

Airlines use auctions as a way to fill unsold seats in higher classes on the airplane. Generally, airlines that offer auctions will let you know about the opportunity after you book your ticket. It may come in the ticket confirmation email, or as a separate offer email later. Some airlines will only let you bid to upgrade into premium economy from economy, while some will let you make the jump all the way to first class.

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The bidding process may sound a bit like eBay, but it actually leaves you flying blind. The rules for bidding can vary from airline to airline, but they do restrict the minimum amount you can bid for an upgrade. That means you won’t be able to hop to first class for a mere $20, but you will still have a shot at getting a fancy seat for way less than the regular retail price.

The airline’s bidding site will give you a chance to make your best offer. A sliding bar will even give you feedback about the strength of your bid. Of course, the more money you’re willing to part with, the more likely it is you could win the upgrade.

So is it worth it? For a long international flight, it might be well worth it to spend an extra $400 or $500 to enjoy the leg room, food, baggage allowance, and lounge access of a business-class seat. Just be sure your bid amount is in your budget. If your bid wins, your credit card will be charged. You should be notified within a few days of your flight.

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Win the bidding war

If you’re determined to snag an upgrade through an auction, you’ll need to try some smart bidding strategies. Success can depend on a lot of factors, such as how big the airplane is and how full it is. Your competition is other travelers. Ultimately, the highest bids win, but you can take some steps to increase your chances at a good upgrade deal.

Know your flight: If you have flexibility in choosing your flight, then look for a larger airplane with a big business or first class section that is more likely to have some open seats. Try traveling at a quieter time of the week when the plane is less likely to be full.

Research pricing: Check on the cost of a regular premium, business, or first-class ticket for your flight before you commit to a bid. This way, you’ll know if you’ll be getting a good deal by bidding, or if you should just spring for the higher class in the first place. This can also help you from over-bidding on a seat.

Bid over the minimum: While the bidding may start at a certain price, you may not win the seat at the absolute minimum bid available. Do some calculations to figure out what you’re comfortable with when it comes to your travel budget and bid accordingly. Even if you’re a little above the minimum, your bid will have a shot at beating out passengers who only bid the smallest amount allowed.

Seat auctions can be a nice perk for long-distance travel, but don’t count on winning. Be prepared to travel in the class you originally booked, and enjoy the upgrade if it works out.

Not every airline offers seat auctions, but quite a few major airlines use a platform called Plusgrade.  Plusgrade counts Lufthansa, Air Canada, Air China, Virgin Atlantic, and Qantas among its clients.

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