A guide on how to get into the pointy end of the plane

For the first 34 years of my life, I listlessly shuffled past business class, dreaming about the lie-flat seats, large TVs, and free-flowing champagne. I looked at those passengers with envy and wondered how they got there. Getting upgraded at the airport is like winning the lottery; it rarely happens unless you are an elite frequent flyer. Working in the travel industry for the last decade, I made it a point to learn how to weasel my way into the pointy end of the plane. 

This article has two parts:

  1. Buying your way into business class
  2. Using frequent flyer points

Book a business class deal

The simplest way to get yourself into the front of the plane is by buying a business class ticket. We sometimes miss great deals because we aren’t looking at business class. From Vancouver, a business class flight to Europe starts at $5000 CAD, but I have seen deals as low as $2000.

How to get yourself a business class sales fare:

  • Get yourself a good travel agent who will watch for sales
  • Sign up to watch prices with websites like google flights
  • Sign up to newsletters from gurus like YVRdeals.ca or The Points Guy

Bid for An E-Upgrade

Airlines have introduced the option to bid online to upgrade your flight to business class. Some of the airlines offering this; Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Australia/Atlantic, Lufthansa, Qantas, Hawaiian, Swiss, Air NZ, and Etihad. 

How this works:

  • Buy your ticket in economy or premium economy
  • Go to ‘manage my booking’ on the airline website or app
  • Look for the option: ‘Bid for eUpgrade’
  • The airline gives you a price range to bid within (no bids for $10)
  • You will be told if you get the upgrade within 24-72 hours of your flight
  • If successful your credit card will be billed immediately, you provide the card details at the time you bid. Next thing you know, you’re flying in style!

Some tips on succeeding with eUpgrade bids

  • Book an airline that offers the option to bid
  • Avoid popular routes for business travelers (LAX to JFK on a Monday morning)
  • Place your bid around 30% of the difference in price between economy and business. If your economy ticket is $500 and business class is $2000, the difference is $1500. $1500 x 30% = $450 bid. 
  • The bigger the plane, the more seats there are, the more likely you are to succeed. Seat guru is a great website for giving you info on your plane configurations.

Pay for an upgrade at the airport

Some airlines give you the option to upgrade your seat at the airport. This happens at random and there is no way to guarantee this. All you can do is have a number in mind that you’re prepared to pay if the opportunity presents itself!

Book premium economy or extra legroom

Finally, if you’re unable to get a good price in business class, there is always premium economy. Full-service airlines usually charge around double for premium economy. There are deals out there, especially with budget carriers, like Westjet. Westjet sells their premium seats between Vancouver and San Francisco for $40.

PART 2: Using frequent flyer points to fly business class

Choose your airline & frequent flyer program

I live in Canada, so learning about airline alliances, and which one would work best for me, was pretty simple. There’s really only one choice – Air Canada, who is part of the Star Alliance, with a frequent flyer program called Aeroplan. I earn points on any airline in the Star Alliance, as a member of Aeroplan

Your safe option is usually the national carrier. They have the strongest flight network, best alliances with other airlines, and most promotions for getting bonus points through credit cards.

If you’re in Australia go with Qantas Frequent Flyer, who are part of the One World alliance. Meaning you earn points flying with British Airways and Cathay Pacific, among others. For the UK, your best bet is British Airways, also OneWorld. The USA is the most complicated country to choose one airline or alliance, as they have many major carriers. The main options will likely be Delta (Skyteam alliance), United (Star Alliance), or American Airlines (One World).

Learn about your airline’s frequent flyer program

Once you’ve joined the FF program, find out how you earn points. Research how many points you need to fly business class to different destinations, and don’t waste your points booking economy flights. Save them for a business class trip! 

  1. Join the frequent flyer program for free online
  2. Download the app or login on their website
  3. Find out how many points you need to fly business class
  4. Track your points earning progress on the app or website
  5. Find out how to best earn points (see below – using credit cards, flying)

Get a credit card with frequent flyer offers

The fastest way to earn frequent flyer points is through credit cards, especially during a joining promotion. In Canada, there aren’t many options, with Aeroplan you are limited to TD Bank VISA infinite, and Aeroplan AMEX. I joined TD Visa when they were offering 25,000 bonus points. I joined AMEX Platinum Reserve when there was a 50,000 bonus. By getting the Amex I had enough points to fly business class from Rio to Vancouver. Qantas recently offered a 70,000 joining bonus in Australia, and the US has many great offers. One of the best is Capital One, with 50,000 bonus miles. A quick google search will reveal the best offers in your country.

Once you receive your credit card you earn miles for every dollar you spend. With my TD visa I earn one Aeroplan point for every $1 CAD I spend. This adds up fast if you’re using it to pay for everything. If you spend $5000 a month, you earn 5000 points monthly, or 60,000 a year. This is enough for a business class flight to Europe.

Earn points when you fly

When you travel with an airline that’s part of your frequent flyer program, you earn points. The amount depends on what type of fare you book. The higher class of fare and the longer the distance is, the more points you earn. You earn 0 points on a basic economy fare, whereas you earn 150% points on a flexible business class ticket.

It’s important to know your frequent flyer alliance, and which airlines you earn points on. For example, Air Canada is part of Star Alliance, so I earn points on any star alliance airline. Which is why I always try to book United Airlines in the US and Lufthansa in Europe.

Upgrade to business class using points

Upgrading your flight from economy to business class is hard to do. You generally have to have elite, or super elite status with the frequent flyer program to have a chance. You also need to book your economy ticket in a certain fare class to be eligible for an upgrade. I recommend using a travel agent, as this option can be complicated.

Earn or buy points through promotions

Aeroplan email me when they do points promotions. I earned 5000 points for adding a second, or auxiliary, card to my TD Infinite Visa. I don’t need a second card, but $50 for 5000 points is a great deal! Sometimes your frequent flyer program will offer deals to buy points. Aeroplan charges $0.03 per point. When they do this promotion, I always buy some.

In Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed these tips. I acquired this knowledge by working for the last decade in the travel industry, and by researching and flying a lot!

Business-class flights I have taken, and how I booked them:

Iceland Air: Reykjavik to Vancouver. Paid $350 for upgrade at the airport

Delta: Vancouver to SFO – Paid an extra $150 in advance for business class 

Qantas: SFO to Sydney – Booked through Qantas FF for 65,000 points, $400 in taxes. I acquired the points from flying over the last 5 years.

Qantas: Sydney to Santiago – Booked in business for 55,000 points and $450 in taxes with Qantas FF. Points acquired through a Qantas credit card.

Air Canada: Rio to Vancouver – Booked through Aeroplan for 55,000 points and $143 taxes. Points earned from Amex card, as a welcome bonus.

Air Canada: Vancouver to London – Successful with an e-upgrade bid $650.

Cathay Pacific: Vancouver to JFK – Premium Economy purchased in advance for $200 extra.

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