Fly First Class at Coach Prices

You trudge past those smiling faces in the first few rows and then, smack — your roller bag bangs into some wretched traveler's seat in coach. You apologize and keep going; you have a long journey to the back of the plane. Your destination? That comfy middle seat between the two sumo wrestlers.

And as another flight begins, you remember those smiling faces and say to yourself: "Why can't I ever fly first class?"

You've tried to upgrade: After all, you travel 100,000-plus miles a year and you're in all those "elite" programs, but it never works out. Well, no surprise. There are at least 50 other elite travelers hoping for upgrades and just a handful of first-class seats available. Face it, you and plenty of others are losers in the upgrade lottery.

So, is it hopeless? Will you never take your place among those smiling faces? Well, you could always pay for first class.

Or you could let me tell you about a little-known and little-understood airfare called the "Y-Up."

The Secret Y-Up Fares

Y-Up is airline insider-speak for "discounted first-class airline tickets" and they are the airlines' best-kept secret.

A little background: The first-class cabin isn't always sold out. In fact, the first-class cabin often has empty seats (even the wealthy among us balk at paying the steep freight for first class). An airline could turn over all the unsold first-class seats to upgraders, but that wouldn't make them any money. A Y-Up fare doesn't bring in as much revenue as full-fare first class, but it's better than nothing.

So how have Y-Ups remained secret so long? Because very few of us request first-class cabin when we shop online for our airline tickets, so we never see the Y-Up fares — a price that competes with coach and sometimes is even less than coach (which is especially true if you make your purchase at the last minute).

This is good news for those notorious last-minute shoppers — the business travelers. And here's another bonus for business travelers: Y-Ups literally look like coach seats because the fare code is coach but is booked in the first-class cabin (Y-Ups and coach fares often begin with the letter Y). That means if you work for a company that bans first-class travel, no problem: a Y-Up looks like coach, and is priced like coach, but it's first class all the way. So everybody's a winner.

There are more than 100,000 Y-Up airfares filed for travel in the domestic U.S. and Canada (unfortunately, these are not available for international travel) and Y-Ups range in price from $250 to $1,400 roundtrip — depending on the route — and are usually 30 to 75 percent below the full first-class price.

Let me give you some recent Y-Up examples from this week:

Northwest Airlines offered Detroit to St. Louis roundtrip for $275 plus tax.

Continental offered Baltimore to Cleveland roundtrip for $312 plus tax.

Delta Airlines offered Baltimore to Oakland roundtrip for $648 plus tax.

It's rare that a Y-Up airfare will be cheaper than a coach ticket purchased four months in advance, but there are cases where a Y-Up is cheaper than coach depending on the market and purchase date.

And here's some more information you should know about Y-Ups:

Y-Ups are normally one-way airfares (and many times coach one-way fares are more expensive).

Y-Ups are often refundable and are always exchangeable.

Y-Ups are often available at peak times and days, even when coach is sold out.

Y-Ups accumulate bonus frequent flier miles; sometimes twice as many as coach airfare.

Most Y-Ups don't have advance purchase requirements.

How do I Find These Fares?

Because most online airfare shoppers don't normally look for first-class travel, most airline ticket Web sites are going to make you dig to find a Y-Up.

If you use a travel agent, ask the agent to specifically search for "Y-Up" or "discounted first-class" airfares. When shopping online yourself, seek out a first-class search option, which is often buried under terms such as advanced search or other options.

Most Web sites don't show first-class quotes side-by-side with coach tickets. But there are new a few airline sites that are providing such searches. For instance, my site has a tool that tracks more than 100,000 of these airfares from your favorite departure city.

Tell your travel agent to look for a seat booked in the "F," "A" or "P" cabin — these are the three domestic airline inventory codes where Y-Ups are booked. All domestic airlines book Y-Ups in one of these three codes.

Final Thoughts About Y-Ups

Y-Ups are not for everyone, but for many they can make a huge difference in your air travel experience. Take care to follow these Y-Up rules of the road.

Y-Ups are not upgrades to an already purchased coach ticket.

If you miss a flight, ask the ticket agent at the airport to see if a Y-Up is available; it is many times cheaper than the walk-up coach price they will charge you to rebook your ticket.

Last minute and emergency travelers should always check for Y-Ups.

Although Y-Ups are mostly business traveler oriented, leisure travelers should check them for special occasions such as honeymoons or anniversary trips.

Caution: An airline may sell you a Y-Up even if a flight doesn't have a first-class cabin; check before you buy your ticket that the plane has a first-class cabin.

So, now you know what used to be the airlines' best-kept secret. What are you waiting for? Go join those smiling faces in the front cabin.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new generation, software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.