How to Get Free or Low-Cost Airline Seats in Premium Classes

By Jason Steele on 18 January 2018 0 comments

It would be one thing if flying were a miserable experience for everyone, but it's obviously not. Before we can squeeze into our ever-shrinking economy-class seats, we often get a glimpse of the spacious business or first class seats when boarding. Some of the passengers sitting in these luxury seats paid the high ticket prices when they purchased the ticket (or when their company or client paid for it). But many are able to sit in these seats when they use their rewards points or miles, or when they've been upgraded by their frequent flyer programs. (See also: Which Credit Cards Have the Best Travel Redemption Value?)

Please note that the following tips cover both award seats (also referred to as tickets), and award upgrades. Award upgrades are applied to seats you pay for with dollars.

Here are the three ways you can sit in business or first class, without paying cash.

1. Use miles to buy a premium ticket

Using your miles to book seats in business or first class can be a bargain. For example, many airlines only require twice as many miles for a business class award as for an economy seat — sometimes even less. That's a deal, considering that business class seats often cost three to four times as much as the economy seats if you pay in dollars. (See also: Best Airline Credit Cards)

2. Get complimentary upgrades with elite status

Many airlines offer the opportunity to receive free first class upgrades when you hold elite status in their frequent flyer program. These upgrades are handed out on a space-available basis, and those in the highest tier of the program will receive priority. Unfortunately, these upgrades are becoming less common as airlines shrink their first class sections and attempt to sell a higher percentage of these seats. (See also: Best Frequent Flyer Programs With Free First Class Seat Upgrades)

3. Upgrade with miles

While it's possible to upgrade your ticket with miles, it's rarely a good idea. Many airlines require you to buy a higher fare in order to be eligible for upgrading with miles. In addition, the number of miles charged for these upgrades is often high — sometimes nearly as many as you'd pay for a full award ticket. Finally, airlines sometimes require a cash copay when upgrading with miles.

Best airlines for low-cost seats

Here are the best airlines for free or low-cost seats in business or first class.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska recently acquired Virgin America as part of its plan to continue growing service far beyond our 49th state. It also operates one of the best frequent flyer programs when it comes to upgrades. Any member can cash in miles for upgrades to premium economy and first class sections. If you've got elite status, you're eligible for free upgrades, and top-tier elites can even receive complimentary upgrades for themselves and a companion.

Alaska also earns a place on this list because miles are easier to earn on Alaska Air flights than on many other airlines. Alaska still awards frequent flyer miles based on the miles flown, a practice dropped in recent years by other airlines who have adopted a stingier system that awards frequent flyer miles based on the price paid for your ticket.

What's more, Alaska has 20 airline partners with whom you can earn miles or redeem them for economy, business, or first class seats. And you can use the Alaska Air website to book award upgrades on most of their partner airlines, including American Airlines, Air France, British Airways, KLM, and Qantas.


United is one of the better airlines when it comes to availability of full business class seat awards.You can also upgrade your economy class flights with miles, although you'll have to pay a cash copay for upgrades from most discounted fares. The amount of the copay in miles and dollars will vary based on the route, the fare class purchased, and your elite status. (See also: Which United MileagePlus Credit Card Should You Get?)

As an added bonus, 25 Star Alliance partners participate in United's upgrade awards service.

American Airlines

American Airlines is notoriously tight in making award seats available in any class, including business and first class. However, as a member of American's AAdvantage program, you can use miles to pay for available upgrades on American, British Airways, and Iberia flights. Nonelite members will have to make a cash copay to upgrade from discounted economy class, but not from full-fare economy or premium economy tickets.

Lucky enough to have elite status? You're eligible for free upgrades. Depending on which elite status you have, you may have to use a 500-mile upgrade for flights longer than 500 miles. You earn four of these 500-mile upgrades for every 12,500 elite qualifying miles you fly in a membership year. Or, elites can buy 500-mile upgrades for $40 each. (See also: Which American Airlines Credit Card Should You Get?)

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