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Can flying first class be frugal?

While checking in to a flight recently, sheer curiosity led me to see how much it would cost to upgrade. I was surprised to find out that moving up to first class would only be fifty bucks. Granted, it was a two-hour flight, but first class for only $50 more than coach? That’s a decent deal, especially when you factor in the free drinks, lots of extra leg room and priority boarding and disembarking that typically come with a first class ticket.

Obviously, it’s cheaper not to upgrade at all. But if you’re looking for a little splurge or just want to try first class out, here are some ways to score cheap first class flights.

Last minute deals

Does it ever pay to procrastinate on an upgrade?

“Absolutely,” says Rick Ingersoll, founder of the blog Frugaltravelguy.com [3]. “At the gate, there are a lot of instances now where, if the airlines have unclaimed first class seats, they will allow you to upgrade for reasonable prices.”

Hence my $50 deal.  Even if you’ve checked in to your flight at home, it can’t hurt to check in again at the airport, provided you’re not running late, to see if there are any cheap upgrades. Airlines don’t want empty seats, so if there are unfilled first class seats the day of the flight, they’re usually discounted, Ingersoll explains.

Rewards can yield cheap first class flights

Ingersoll and his wife have been to 70 different countries, often flying first class for free by using rewards tickets. But even if you don’t fly frequently, Ingersoll says a travel credit card can still help you get free first-class upgrades.

“If you have good credit and a credit score of over 700, look to apply for travel rewards cards that offer big sign-up bonuses,” says Ingersoll. “And, of course, pay off the balance in full every month.”

Search for ‘Y-Up fares’

But if you’re credit card shy, don’t fret. Sometimes there are just darn good deals on first class fares in general.  USA Today, for example, recently published several first class fares from Delta, many of which were under $400. Finding these deals isn’t terribly difficult; Lifehacker [4] reports that airlines sometimes offer cheaper, unadvertised first class fares, dubbed “Y-Up fares.” According to the article, these fares can be found with the help of Google’s Matrix [5] software.  (Note: You can compare fares with Matrix, but you can’t purchase tickets through the software.)

I used Matrix to see if there were any reasonable first class prices between Los Angeles and Houston. Generally, I’ve noticed these fares are upwards of $1,000, round-trip. Browsing the Matrix “calendar of lowest fares,” I selected “business class or higher.”

Sure enough, I found a first class deal for $688, round-trip, in November. And during that same month, I could also fly first class from Los Angeles to San Francisco for $316.

Of course, there are catches when you find fares this low. For example, travel is usually on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, or maybe the planes are older. You may also have to call the airline directly to book the flight.

And, of course, whenever first class is “cheap,” you can bet that coach is going to be even cheaper.

Even though it was only $50 more than coach, I declined the luxury of an upgrade. I’m on a tight budget these days. But flying first class is an item on my bucket list, so it’s nice to know there are ways to make it more affordable.

What do you think? Do you ever try to get cheap upgrades? Have any secrets to share about how to do it better?

(Photo: Richard Moross)