We all know the tricks about when to buy airline tickets, like booking exactly 65 days in advance of your planned departure date or on a Tuesday morning because that’s when flights are cheapest for some reason. But when is the best time to purchase upgrades?
Over on Reddit, u/guyprocrastinating asked about timing as it relates to splurging on an upgrade for his American Airlines flight. “Is it usually cheaper if you do it before checking in online, after checking-in or actually at your gate?” he asked. “There are only a few extra seats available to purchase on the flight so I wouldn’t expect a good offer…”
If the thought of being squished in economy seating on a long flight tempts you to splurge for a premium seat—say, a row with just a few extra inches of legroom—consider purchasing the upgrade before you get to the airport, especially if you’re particularly desperate for the seat.
Plain and simple, it’s a gamble. As we’ve written before, several major airlines begin to upgrade passengers with any elite status around 24 hours before check-in. This means that your seat selection might be significantly more limited if you choose to upgrade at the airport.
And no, the seat won’t necessarily become any cheaper when you arrive at the airport, even if some upgraded seats remain empty up until your departure time. “Airlines make a disproportionate chunk of their revenue selling premium cabin seats, especially full-fare ones, to last-minute business travellers,” the Points Guy’s Ethan Steinberg recently wrote. “In many cases, they’d rather gamble that someone will buy that seat close to departure rather than offering it for an upgrade, even if it ends up going out empty.” And even if there is a price fluctuation that teeters in your favour, it may not be all that significant—it largely depends on your airline.
When is it worth it to wait?
Of course, there are exceptions, particularly if you are willing to gamble (and possibly lose). For one, if you have elite status with an airline and request an upgrade, you could wait and still luck out. For its Medallion Members, U.S. airline Delta, for instance, will offer complimentary upgrades and will clear those requested upgrades a few days out from your departure, contingent on your particular status. (Delta also offers same-day standby upgrades for flights within North America if there is space; in this instance, waiting until the day of your flight makes sense.)
Many major airlines have upgrade bidding processes in place, though this also comes with certain risks. Generally, these auctions are blind, meaning you choose a number and hope that it’s the best offer they’ve received (without knowing the bids of other passengers). Usually, you submit this number to the airline at least 72 hours in advance of your flight and find out if your bid is successful between 24 and 48 hours before your departure.
If you win, your ticket will be less than what you would have otherwise paid for that upgrade (which may or may not be significant in savings). To reiterate, there are no guarantees in the process; the Points Guy has a few tips on bidding for a flight upgrade, but I wouldn’t have your heart set on winning.
Sometimes, you’re just plain lucky. I recently upgraded on a Hawaiian Airlines flight moments before departure at the same cost I would’ve otherwise paid had I upgraded a few months earlier. My original seat wasn’t a bad one, but I had opted for an upgrade after a red-eye and several delays (and because I wanted to recline as far back as possible).
In other words, if losing out on an upgrade doesn’t spell the end of the world for you, then waiting is fine. But if you already know you intend to splurge on an upgrade and don’t have elite status with the airline, acting sooner rather than later is generally a safe bet. In my case, the flight was only around 75 per cent full, so timing and luck made it easy.
And if you were wondering, no, those who booked basic economy seats aren’t eligible for upgrades of any kind on most airlines that offer them (another reason to love airlines!). For more details on the upgrading process, be sure to check out both Million Mile Secrets and the Points Guy’s posts which detail several airlines’ policies and upgrading with miles versus points or cash.