Everybody loves flying business class or first class, and so much the better if you can do it without having to take out a new mortgage. These are our top tips for turning left without breaking the bank.
1. Join an airline’s frequent flyer scheme
By joining your favourite airline’s frequent flyer scheme, you’ll be able to earn miles or points every time you fly. Those miles can then usually be used to upgrade a future cash booking from a lower cabin to a higher cabin, or you directly “redeem” your miles to book the class you want outright.
Every airline’s loyalty scheme works slightly differently, but the basic principle is the same - you’ll “earn” miles you when fly (and in various other ways, more on that later) which you can “burn” later to travel for free, or for less.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that most airlines are part of an alliance (oneworld, Star Alliance and Skyteam) - essentially a club of airline carriers that cooperate under a joint banner. That opens up additional benefits, since you can use your miles with all the members of the club.
For example, Guru collects Avios (the name for BA’s frequent flyer miles) which can be used to book flights on any oneworld carrier, depending on availability of course.
In the example below, I have the option to use my Avios to book a flight from London to Mumbai with British Airways, or with fellow oneworld member Qatar Airways.
Not all airlines are part of an alliance - Emirates and Etihad, for example, go it alone - but they will usually still have deals with other airlines, allowing you to book seats on their flights using miles from another frequent flyer programme.
2. Ask at the airport
It’s always worth enquiring when you check in at the airport, as there are often special offers to be had on the day.
For example, we recently asked about upgrading a Vistara flight from Mumbai to Hyderabad and were quoted INR 8,000 for an upgrade to business class (though we declined it as the price was more than the INR 5,600 offered online in advance of the flight).
British Airlines is another airline known for offering reduced price upgrades on the day, and it will often be possible to upgrade from premium economy to business class, or from business class to first class, for around £500 (INR 47,000/ USD 620).
Sometimes, if you are holding a deeply discounted economy ticket, airlines will flat-out refuse to upgrade you, even if you are willing to pay extra - though cash-strapped airlines may not be quite so picky post-covid!
Pro tip: Always go ahead and enquire about your potential upgrade at the business class check in desk. Most of the time, the business class agent will check you in even if you don’t take them up on the upgrade offer, saving you precious time queuing at the economy desk.
3. Check your email for special offers
You might have started with an economy ticket, but airlines will often encourage you to upgrade your booking further down the line, especially as your flight gets closer. These offers often represent substantial discounts on what you would have paid to book business or first in the first place.
They aren’t always available (when business class is full, for example) but when they are you’ll often find them when you use your airline’s “manage my booking” function. You will need to do this directly on the airline’s website, so bear that in mind if you booked via a travel agent.
You’ll also want to keep an eye on your inbox, because airlines will also email you special offers to upgrade. I was once able to upgrade my American Airlines business class flight from London to Miami to first class for just USD 400 - which I thought was a great deal for a ten-hour ride.
4. Just pay cash!
Business class isn’t always horrendously expensive, and you might be surprised at the good deals you can get if you know how to search.
Guru regularly uses ITA Matrix to find the cheapest fares - it’s great for showing prices for months at a time, as well as for multiple destinations if you are flexible about the airport you are willing to and from.
The reason we keep going back is to find fantastic fares like this deal from Athens, Greece all the way to Manila, Philippines and back in business class for just over £600 (USD 740, INR 56,400):
It looks a little complicated at first, and it does have some advanced functions, but the search facility is pretty basic once you get the hang of it.
Over at ITA Matrix, you’ll start your search by inputting your origin and destination airports (you’ll have to make a note of and use three-letter IATA airport codes - example BOM for Mumbai airport) as well as your dates of travel.
Note that you can enter multiple airports in the origin and destination fields (but only within the same country), which is great if you just want to get away and are happy to see prices for multiple destinations.
At the top of the page, you’ll notice options for round-trip, one-way (you’ll usually want to avoid these) and multi-city journeys. You can search for exact dates, or use a calendar to find the lowest fares in a given month.
Most of the other options (cabin, number of passengers, stop etc) are self-explanatory, but you will need to fill in the sales city field at the bottom - this ensures your results are priced in the currency you are expecting (example, entering Delhi returns fares priced in INR).
If everything works to plan, you will get your results, as well as a good overview of the cheapest fares across a selection of dates.
Now you’ve found that killer deal, what can you do with it? Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to book tickets on ITA Matrix - it’s just a tool to help you find the best option.
Once you’ve identified the perfect flight, head to your preferred online travel agent or airline website to book. This will work for simple itineraries, but more complex routings may require you to give those flight details to a physical travel agent, or directly to the airline.
5. Bid for an upgrade
Think you’re stuck down the back if you’ve purchased an economy ticket? Not necessarily!
A number of global airlines use an online system that allows you to bid for an upgrade by naming your price.
You’ll be advised how likely your bid is to be accepted, and there is often a minimum amount required. Guru usually uses Google to do some research before hand, and other passengers will often post online how much they bid and whether it was accepted or not.
Obviously there’s no guarantee of success with this method, but there are plenty of reports of people upgrading to business class for just a few hundreds dollars.
Look out for an email from your airline, or head to manage my booking to see if it’s possible to bid for an upgrade. Not all routes and cabins will be available.
Airlines that do offer this kind of upgrade include Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic.
6. Mix and match cabins
Our favourite airline websites are those that show you the price of each cabin while you are making your search (like Swiss or British Airways).
That way, you can easily see how much of an increase it is to book a higher cabin - and it’s not always a huge jump. In this case, booking business class is a no-brainer:
Of course, the price difference is often much higher, but having all the options in front of you is the best way to book. That way, you might end up buying business class for one or more legs, for only a small premium.
7. Surf smart
You’ll want to check in daily with Take Off With Guru. As well as great cash deals on business class and first class flights, you’ll find flight and hotel reviews, as well as information and tips to help you travel in style for less.
Another site we want to flag is FlyerTalk’s Premium Fares board, where users post attractive fares they come across. Bear in mind it’s a global forum, so you’ll see fares starting from cities all around the world, but there are some great deals posted here.
You’ll find you get a lot more out of the forum if you get a little familiar with some of the terminology and abbreviations. For example, J refers to business class while F means first class.
You’ll also see airlines and airports referred to by their abbreviated names (e.g SQ for Singapore Airlines and DPS for Bali airport).
Guru checks in every day to keep a track of the latest deals, and to get an idea of the pricing you can expect on certain routes. This helps you work out whether the deal you find later is really something special!
8. Get a credit card with rewards
Get a credit card with rewards, and you can earn more miles and points, every time you spend!
The Axis Bank Vistara credit card, for example, lets you earn two Club Vistara points (these can be used for upgrades and reward flights) for every INR 200 you spend. The card also gives you lounge access at certain airports and a complimentary economy class ticket when you enrol.
Similarly, Air India has airline-branded credit cards with SBI. Its platinum credit card has annual fees of INR 1,499 plus GST and 5,000 Reward Points as a welcome gift.
The Signature card costs INR 4,999 plus GST per annum and offers an increased welcome gift of 20,000 Reward Points. Both cards allow you to earn Reward Points on day-to-day spending (either 15 or 30 for every INR 100 spent).
You could also consider one of the non-airline branded American Express cards. These allow you to earn Membership Rewards (the Amex loyalty “currency”) which can be transferred to your airline frequent flyer or hotel loyalty accounts:
9. Sign up to your favourite airline’s marketing list
By signing up to airlines’ mailing lists, you’ll ensure you get alerted of the latest sale fares when they are released.
There are often only a limited number of seats available at the lowest price (perhaps two seats per flight), so by getting notified when deals go on sale, you’ll be ahead of other passengers and are more likely to get the seats - and the price - that you want.
Once again, knowledge is power, and by keeping track of sale prices as they get released over time, you’ll get a better idea of how “good” a particular deal is.
10. Take a chance on error fares
So-called “error fares”, where airlines mis-price an itinerary, crop up from time to time (though with the regular sales we see nowadays, its often hard to tell an error fare from a genuine one).
A recent example of this was a one-way, USD 500 deal with Air France from Algeria to the USA, with the main flight from Paris sold as first class.
I jumped at the chance to try Air France’s La Premiere (said to be one of the best first class products in the skies) at that price, but one week after booking I received this email:
There was always a chance this ticket would be downgraded to economy, but in the end Air France rebooked me in business class, so I’m now considering whether to cancel the ticket or go through with the trip in business.
Other times, the airlines are happy to honour mistake fares, and Cathay Pacific famously allowed some lucky passengers to fly its first class cabin for just a few hundred dollars.
There are plenty of ways to travel in style, and flying business class or first class can be more affordable than you may think, especially if you follow our top tips.
Do you have any suggestions for flying in the pointy end of the plane for less?