What Does "Bidding" Mean? Explaining the Insider Airline Upgrade Hack

How you can fly in first class for a fraction of the cost.

You see those people sitting up in first class? Only a few of them have actually paid full-price to be there. While some have redeemed award miles for those seats, others have gotten upgrades thanks to status. But as airlines aim to squeeze every single penny out of fliers, many have actually begun allowing passengers to bid on upgrades.

This isn’t your average eBay auction, though. While some airlines publish their bidding rules, others are much more cryptic. When you place your bid, you can’t see what amounts other fliers are offering, so there’s no way to tell whether your bid will be successful. Plus, you can usually only bid within set time and dollar parameters.

If it seems complicated, it is. Luckily, there are a few simple strategies that can help ensure you get to sit at the front of the plane for a mere fraction of the face value of a first-class ticket. Here’s what you need to know.

How it works

After you make a flight reservation, and usually about a week or so before your flight, you’ll either get an email offering you the chance to upgrade, or you can log into your reservation on the airline’s website and see if you are eligible to bid on an upgrade for your specific ticket.

Click on the link in the email or for more information on the airline site and you should be redirected to the specific bidding web page.

Once you land there, you will see the details for your flight, a sliding bar with the predetermined dollar amounts within which bids are being accepted, and an “offer strength” widget that ranges from poor to very strong based on how much you bid.

Slide the money bar to the price you’re willing to pay, confirm your bid by entering your credit card information, and wait to see if your bid is accepted. Airlines tend to finalize these types of upgrades 24 to 72 hours in advance of flights.

If you are successfully upgraded, your card will be charged at that time for the amount you’ve specified. If your bid is not accepted, your reservation remains as is.

Author Eric Rosen luxuriating on Singapore

Most bids are powered by the same platform.

Around 50 major airlines now have upgrade bidding protocols in place. And among those, 48 process their bids through a partner platform called Plusgrade. As of now, the site handles the function for 48 airlines including Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Hawaiian Airlines, Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, SWISS, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, and many, many more. That’s why the procedure follows the same set of steps in almost every case.

Ground rules

Now for the fine print. There tends to be a set of rules outlined on the bidding pages that it’s worth noting in order to avoid any pitfalls.

First, you can only place bids on confirmed (i.e. ticketed) reservations. So no placing a reservation on hold and trying to bid on it without actually having a paid ticket.

Second, not all tickets are eligible for upgrades. Airlines determine your eligibility based on a number of factors including the fare code of your ticket (meaning some deeply discounted economy airfares might not be eligible, nor are award tickets in most cases). Eligibility can also depend on whether you purchased your ticket directly from the airline or through a third party like Orbitz or Expedia. Review your airline’s upgrade policy before booking your ticket to make sure that it will be eligible for the bidding process.

Bids are typically calculated per person and per flight segment, not on a total itinerary. For instance, if you were flying from London to Abu Dhabi to Johannesburg on Etihad, you’d need to place a bid for the flight from London and then another one for the continuing one from Doha. Confirm which flights you’re bidding on and for how many people since you don’t want to get stuck with a bid that’s two or three times what you think it’s going to end up being.

Read the instructions on timing. Bids are usually only accepted up until about 72 hours before the flight takes places. So don’t take too long to think about whether or not to place a bid, or you might miss out on the chance altogether.

Airlines predetermine the price range for bids, so you can’t just bid a few dollars on a lark. If you do place a bid, be prepared to pay because if it’s accepted, you’ll automatically be charged at that time. Not only that, but accepted bids are non-refundable except in the case that your flight is canceled.

If you do get upgraded, you can expect all the perks and privileges of your new class of service, such as lounge access and the ability to check extra bags.

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Successful strategies

Now that you know how the process works, there are a couple key strategies to improve your chances at actually scoring that upgrade.

Business or pleasure:Your chances of being upgraded depend to a certain extent on which routes you end up flying. Flights to business destinations tend to have more premium travelers aboard, including those likely to get upgraded because of elite status. On the other hand, flights to leisure destinations tend have fewer business- and first-class travelers, and thus more empty seats to fill up front.

Rosen on Emirates, demonstrating how the other half lives

Aircraft arrangements: The type of airplane you’re flying also matters since some planes have more business- or first-class seats than others. For instance, Etihad’s Airbus A380 has 70 business-class seats while its Boeing 787-9 has just 28. Which one do you think will be more likely to have empty seats to fill?

Booking for dummies: Make dummy bookings of potential itineraries and look at the seat maps to see how many business- or first-class seats are still open on your flights. If they already look full, chances are you won’t be able to bid on them. Likewise, look at the values tickets are pricing out at on your flights and make sure that the price range of bids the airline is accepting is well below that, or it might not be worth it.

Minimum bidding: Though the evidence is mostly anecdotal, it tends to suggest overwhelmingly that placing a bid that’s even slightly above the minimum tends to raise your chances of having it accepted dramatically. That’s because a lot of fliers place bids for the minimum possible amount to see what happens. But by coming in a little higher, you put yourself ahead of the pack.

Stay the course: Airlines employ an old sales trick in that, a couple days before the flight, they’ll email you again saying that more bids have been placed and asking if you want to “review your offer” and “improve your chances” at an upgrade by raising your bid amount. Don’t fall for it. These emails are generated automatically but have little to do with the bids that have actually been placed by passengers or any changes in seat availability. They’re just a ploy to make you panic and raise your bid. Stick to your gut and hold onto your original bid. But maybe check the seat map for your flight again and see if it’s filling up, just in case.

The widespread implementation of upgrade auctions might make it harder for people to bank on elite status or airline miles for seats in first class. But it also means the rest of us have a better chance of sitting at the pointy end of the plane for a pittance compared to what full-fare tickets normally cost. Good luck with your own bids. We’ll save you a glass of pre-flight champagne!

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