Who wants to be crowded into economy class on a long-haul flight? If you’re traveling long-distance, business class offers significant more personal space and luxury, and if you play your cards right, you won’t have to spend a fortune to upgrade.

Let’s take a look at the cheapest way to move closer to the front of the plane.

Can I Upgrade My Economy Ticket At The Airport?

The truth is, not always. It depends on the airline, type of ticket, and availability. Before you buy an economy or premium economy class ticket with the intention of upgrading, be sure you understand the rules. 

Some carriers allow upgrade options with any airline ticket class, and others allow only higher-fare tickets to be upgraded. If you buy a cheap ticket, you may be unable to upgrade. 

Most airlines allow only one class upgrade, so you could go from economy to premium economy or premium economy to business class, but not from economy to first class.

Common Reasons Your Ticket Might NOT Qualify For An Upgrade

  • You’re part of a group – many airlines will only consider solo bookings for upgrade.
  • You have a small child without a seat (on your lap)
  • You have a pet on board (even in cargo)
  • You have an oversized luggage allowance for athletic or musical equipment
  • Your flight has different legs (stopovers) and some connecting flights are a different fare class. Some airlines will treat the entire round-trip ticket the same as the lowest fare category.
  • Your ticket belongs to the wrong class – even within classes, there are classes. Your ticket may be full fare, special promo, refundable or non-refundable. These distinctions, called fare base codes, are usually identified by a combination of letters. The first letter is the fare class. Typically, A and F are first class, C, D, J are business class, and any other letter designates economy class. Some airlines only allow certain types of tickets to be upgraded.

Find Out if an Upgrade is Possible

If business class for the flight you’re on is full, you won’t be able to upgrade. It’s fairly simple to find out. The most straightforward way is to call and ask. While they won’t give you specifics, most airlines will tell you if there are business class seats available, and whether economy is full.

Another way to find out is by logging into the airline website with your booking number. Try to change your seat assignment, and you’ll be able to see any available seats on the plane. 

If economy seats are full and business class seats are not, you have a much better chance at scoring a cheap, last-minute upgrade. 

To evaluate your chances of an upgrade, check your flight 24 hours before departure to find out how full it is. If your flight is overbooked and you’re can be flexible, it’s the perfect time to negotiate for an upgrade on a later flight.

Last-minute Upgrade to Business Class at the Airport


Even if your research shows that the flight is full, ask at the gate. Things happen. People miss their flights for a lot of reasons. They may change bookings at the last minute, get held up by traffic, weather, or security, or an emergency might arise. Business class travelers may upgrade to the first class cabin, leaving a spot in business class.

Airline attendants may need to rearrange passengers to accommodate special needs passengers, seat children with their parents, or alleviate overcrowding in the cheap seats. If the airline has a problem that needs to be solved, consider it an opportunity. Most people don’t even know to ask. 

Tips For A Last Minute Upgrade

  • Arrive early and let gate attendants know you’re interested in an upgrade.
  • Listen carefully for announcements
  • OR arrive late, after the plane has started boarding (but not at the VERY last minute). That’s when seating problems are most apparent. 
  • You’ll have a much better shot if you’re a club member with accumulated frequent flier miles, but membership is not a requirement to get a seat upgrade.
  • Book your flight at off-peak times, when business class is less likely to be full.
  • Be willing to take the next flight in exchange for an upgrade.

Upgrading Your Flight in Advance

If you’re a frequent flyer signed up for the airline’s member program, they may send you offers in advance of your flight. You may be invited to bid on upgrades or offered special deals to upgrade using cash or miles. 

Some airlines build upgrade bids into their process. They clearly outline the rules and you don’t have to wait for an offer, you can bid on any flight up to 72 hours before departure. Bidding is most commonly found on international flights.

Here are a few airlines with defined bidding procedures:

Almost all airlines have an established bid minimum (usually $100 – $150). A good rule of thumb for bidding is to figure out the difference between the cost of your ticket and the cost of an upgraded ticket and bid 20% to 40% of the difference. There’s no guarantee you’ll win your bid, but if you get lucky it’s an upgrade at significant savings.

It’s worth noting that the major U.S. airlines, including American Airlines, Delta and United, don’t accept upgrade bids. Only one American carrier, Hawaiian Airlines, lets you bid for first class seat upgrades.

So Which is Cheaper: Advance or Last-Minute?


The bottom line: if a business class upgrade is available at check-in, it’s usually because the airline has a problem it is desperate to solve. They are overbooked and may have to bump unwilling passengers (which can lead to really bad PR), a weather delay has made a mess of their flight schedule, or they are having trouble seating a family group together.

And there you are, friendly, polite, nicely dressed, with your credit card in hand, willing to pay a nominal price to score a business class seat at a basement-bargain price. 

Realistically, it’s a gamble and getting upgraded to business class at the airport is pretty rare. If luxury and extra legroom is really important to you, book it in advance. However, if you’re perfectly willing to fly economy class, and willing to roll the dice, a last-minute upgrade can be the cheapest option. You may even get lucky and score a free upgrade.

Finding the Best Deal

Are you a get-it-done and end the worry kind of person? Your best bet to secure your seat early is to put a Businessclassexperts.com expert on the case. Because we work with the airlines, we have access to airfare deals the public never gets to see. Getting the best deal can be the easiest thing you do to prepare for your trip. Just give us a call!