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Upgrade Bidding Tips: How to Game Airline Seat Auctions So You'll Win | Frommer's Abscent/ Shutterstock

Upgrade Bidding Tips: How to Game Airline Seat Auctions So You'll Win

Some airlines auction off upgrades to business class and premium seat assignments. Here's how to figure out what to bid so you'll be more likely to succeed.

If you’re not familiar with upgrade bidding for airline tickets, it’s time to learn.

By entering a virtual auction, passengers who have purchased economy tickets offer to pay a bit more in order to score coveted spots in the front of the plane. 

If successful, you could end up in a business class seat for a lot less than busines class prices.  

Why was upgrade bidding invented?

The simple answer: so that airlines can make more money (off you). An upgrade auction lets airlines get something for otherwise unsold premium seats. Once upon a time, carriers would have given these cushy seats away for free as upgrades to loyalty customers and elite status flyers. But nowadays many airlines would rather secure some income for empty business class spots rather than none. 

What are the benefits of bidding?

Upgrade bidding, which is carried out before you even go to the airport, is theoretically supposed to give you more control over your situation so you won’t be stuck on a long standby list at the gate. The hitch is that it’s easy to overbid in your eagerness to score a better seat.

How do I put in a bid for an upgrade?

Here’s how it works: At some point in advance of your flight—usually around 72 hours before takeoff—you can either visit the airline website to place a bid or you’ll be contacted by the airline directly via an email containing a link to the relevant website to place a bid.

On that page, the airline will usually set minimum and maximum bid amounts. You cannot use cash or your accumulated miles to pay for an upgrade; a credit card will be required.

Note that terms and conditions for auction upgrades vary by airline—for example, some might only let you jump up one seat class or will restrict certain business class perks to those who paid full price. 

If you win the auction, you’ll be informed and your seat will be upgraded, usually with all the other benefits of your new ticket class.

Which airlines run upgrade auctions?

A company called Plusgrade takes care of auctions for most carriers that offer the service. You can see a full list of Plusgrade's airline partners at

Among the dozens of international carriers on the list, you'll find heavy hitters including Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, Cathay Pacific, Etihad Airways, Lufthansa, Qantas, and Virgin Atlantic. 

Notably, the three largest U.S. airlines—United, Delta, and American—do not allow upgrade bidding, probably because their premium seats are fully sold on most flights. 

How do I make an educated guess on how much to bid?

Virtual bids are blind, meaning you won’t know what other passengers are offering. But there are ways to take some of the guesswork out of the process.

Michael Trager, a journalist who covers airlines, says carriers "prefer to stay rather elusive on purpose" when it comes to helping you make an informed bid because those companies "want you to bid higher and they want you to assume that bidding higher will give you a better chance—which is not always the case.” 

To gather useful bits of information on flights and the value of certain seats, try these websites:

• ExpertFlyer lets you see how full a flight is. The information isn’t foolproof, but it comes in handy when you're trying to guesstimate whether a bid should skew high or low. If the flight is full, consider placing a higher bid. If it’s a pretty empty flight, you can feel safer placing a lower bid or even the minimum.

• SeatGuru provides details on the best seats for the plane model, taking in engine noise, legroom, and other comfort factors. If you discover you’re flying on an older aircraft model, the premium seat classes usually won’t be as luxe as on newer planes, so it may not even be worth paying more for the upgrade. If this is the case, you may want to save your money and stick with economy class.

• FlyerTalk is like Reddit for air travel. According to Trager, “There are a lot of threads about upgrades and I find it very helpful. People share data points in a geeky, open-source manner.” This may involve a deeper dive into the information than you want to take, though. 

How can I calculate how much to bid?

The biggest danger is bidding more than you would have paid to simply buy that business class seat to begin with.

Travel blogger Bethaney Davies of Flashpacker Family offered these general guidelines to International Business Times: "Calculate the regular cost of a business class seat, then subtract what you paid for the economy fare and aim for around 20% to 40% of that price.” 

She offers an example. “A one-way fare from Brisbane to Singapore is $2,600, and their one-way economy ticket costs $500. So with a difference of $2,100, a good bid price would be between $420 and $840."  

An additional strategy Davies recommends is to bid slightly above the minimum. “If, for example, the minimum bid is $500, your bid should be $550," she explains, "as most people will offer the baseline amount required."

Should the flight’s destination affect my bid? 

In my own experience, I’ve noticed that for outbound flights away from North America, such as to Europe or Asia, I can almost always offer the lowest minimum bid and win (contra Davies's advice above). However, for returning flights to North America, I’ve never won any bids within a reasonable budget; many more people are jockeying for those coveted spots and are willing to bid more. 

Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules to follow, but your destination and the number of daily flights there should help inform your bid. If your airline flies to a given destination once a day, consider increasing your bid amount, because the competition will be fiercer. But if there are five daily flights to your desired destination, there are more available seats, so you'll want to place a bid closer to the minimum. 

On flights to cities that are major business centers, like London or New York, business class seats are coveted and usually snatched up by paying customers and loyalty members who get upgrades. So for flights that carry lots of business passengers, your bid has to be greater to begin with (e.g., if the minimum bid required is $700, people are already offering up to $1,000 or more). Be prepared to shell out more for that seat.  

(Credit: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines)

Where do I place my bid?

In most cases, you'll need to find the bidding page on the airline’s website about 3 days before departure. Remember that not every airline will send you an email notification. 

For carriers that partner with Plusgrade for auctions, you can locate your airline's bidding page on the Plusgrade website.  

What happens after I bid?

Play the waiting game. You’ll receive an email from the airline before the flight informing you if you won your bid.

I didn’t get my bid. Not to worry—your credit card will not be charged. You tried.

I won my bid. Congrats! Look forward to a better meal, better service, and hopefully sounder sleep. You’ll have to wait until you check in to select the actual seat, but if you want to find out which seats would be the most ideal, return to SeatGuru. 

What else comes with my upgrade?

Priority check-in at the airport, priority luggage (which comes out first at baggage claim), and priority access to security checkpoints. Depending on the airline and the ticket, you still might not get access to the lounge, so it’s best to ask at the check-in counter.

With all of this in mind, you're now better prepared to game the airline bid upgrade system. 

A little good luck doesn't hurt, either.