Flying First Class: Can it be Affordable?

Rick Seaney dishes on how to get an affordable first class flight.

ByColumn By Rick Seaney <br/> <a Href="" Target="external"></a> Ceo
February 08, 2011, 5:22 PM

Feb. 9, 2011 &#151; -- That vast and oh-so-squishy leather seat. The musical pop of a reluctant cork. The shock to the system as a flight attendant deigns to smile. Where are you? First class, of course, or maybe in business.

Actually, you're probably not there (which is why you're reading this in the first place). More and more companies have banned luxury travel, once de rigueur for road warriors but now available only to the biggest of cheeses.

But getting an upgrade remains the holy grail of air travel. Is there anything you can do to make it happen? Forget sweet talking gate agents; the overworked men and women of today's streamlined airlines are immune to your flirtations, and they've heard every possible story. But maybe if you limp a little…oh, we'll get to that.

First, my new strategies to get you back into first (or something like it) for less.

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at

Let me start out with a couple of do's and don'ts:

Don't: Do not pay for first class that does not exist! Yes, it can happen. More than half of all flights today are on regional jets and some of them -- typically, the 50-seaters -- do not have premium seating in the cabin. When making your reservation, be sure to click on the seat map and check; don't pay for something that doesn't exist.

Do: If you are not a member of the miles programs for any and every airline you fly, sign up today. And start being loyal to one carrier in particular. It will pay off.

1. Become an Elite Flyer: This is the year to reach elite status. Why? Because the airlines are hungrier than ever to get you to come directly to their websites to buy airfare (so they can sell you more perks like extra legroom and such, which is at the heart of American's ongoing dispute with Orbitz and Expedia).

The latest lures to get you to airline sites include new bonus programs that may give you extra miles to more quickly achieve elite status, or at minimum will provide more options to redeem your way into the front of the cabin.

Short of miles to meet the 25,000 minimum needed to make it to the elites? Buy miles at your airline's kiosk. It can be worth it, especially in today's Fee Era.

Sure, maybe you don't check a bag for business, but I'll bet you do when you take the family on vacation. If the four of you each lug a suitcase, you've just saved $200 in baggage fees.

Something else you can do: investigate one of those "super secret" miles programs American had one for years (and maybe still does), but you'll never read about it on It's so secret that you have to call an airline rep, but basically it's a "challenge" that provides a shortcut to big miles gains.

Finally, while it's tough making elite status initially, once you do, you'll discover your airline starts throwing miles at you practically every time you turn around. Maintaining your elite standing is a heck of a lot easier than earning it in the first place.

2. Join the New "Upper Class": You can fly in the cheap seats and still get a superior experience if you spend a couple bucks more for "premium economy." Call it the new first class for domestic flights.

It makes sense to have something like this in place, because the recession killed a lot of overseas business flights. This "new and improved" coach class typically provides roomier seats and perhaps a few extra amenities. Look for Continental to adopt United's premium economy option as their merger gets finalized.

Plus, sometimes you will be offered these mini-upgrades at the kiosk, or even onboard as is the case with Virgin America. Grab it - it can be worth it.

3. Check Last Minute Prices. If you must travel tomorrow or in the next few days, flying first class can sometimes be very close in price to coach fare. Not always, but it happens.

For instance, earlier this week I saw a coach fare on American for a next day flight from Los Angeles to Seattle for $300. The price for first class was only $400.

I'll go that one better: a couple of weeks ago I saw a next-day economy fare on United from Chicago to Dallas for $1,950. What really caught my eye was the first class fare for the same day: $1,874.

Your only problem will be trying to explain this to the company bean counters.

4. The Poor Man's First Class. Southwest and "first class" go together about as well as Lady Gaga and your elderly aunt's sewing circle. But I have to tell you, their EarlyBird boarding program can give you a taste of luxury -- if you consider it a luxury to be among the first to board so you get first crack at today's woefully limited bin space, and first choice of seats on an airline where none are reserved. Best of all, this elite airline treat comes with a Southwest price tag: 10 measly bucks.

Earlier, I mentioned a limp, and a few years back, an injury might have helped you upgrade.

Los Angeles-based TV producer Eric Allen remembers the time he was scheduled to fly economy on Lufthansa with a friend who'd hurt his leg. The friend requested an upgrade for comfort.

"He tried being charming," said Allen, and when that didn't work, "he threw a fit and we ended up drinking champagne all the way from Frankfurt to Los Angeles. I don't think that would happen today."

I know it wouldn't. In fact, anger or rudeness will get you nowhere fast. As for real or feigned injuries, well... if they require first class seating, you'd better be prepared to pay and pay big for it.

Or start getting a little creative and find a first class type of experience, for less.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

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

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