Odds are, you know the feeling all too well: You're boarding what promises to be a very long flight, and as you shuffle down to seat 107E, you take a look at the first-class passengers — comfortably seated, drinks in hand — and think, "Someday, I'll be able to afford this."
That day may have finally come. With many vacationers still reluctant to travel as pandemic restrictions lift, and business travel in the early stages of recovery, airlines are being forced to lower prices to get butts in seats. That includes those near the front of the plane.
"If you have the means, and you've been interested in flying premium, it's probably going to be at its most affordable over the next 6 to 9 months," says Scott Keyes, founder of travel newsletter Scott's Cheap Flights. "The window is now open to be able to get some of those seats at a discount."
Remember that even steeply discounted business-class seats are going to cost drastically more than what you'll pay in coach. "Without being able to rely on business travelers, airlines are having to price their premium seats for affluent vacationers," says Keyes. Even at a discount from pre-pandemic prices, "they're still going to be much higher than economy seats."
On flights to Europe, for instance, Keyes is seeing round-trip business-class seats popping up for as little as $1,500. That's a big discount from the $2,500 you would normally expect to pay but still significantly higher than the cheapest coach seats to Europe, which are currently going for as low as $400.
If you're looking for a deal on business-class seats, you may have better luck on long-haul domestic flights, Keyes says. "We're starting to see domestic business-class fares in August in the $900 range," he says. "If you can find something under $750, it would be a real steal."
1. 'The more flexibility you have, the better your odds'
When it comes to finding the cheapest fares for premium seats, the rules aren't much different from finding cheap economy fares, says Keyes. "The more flexibility you have, the better your odds of finding a cheap fare." Using a flight search tool, such as Google Flights, to browse different dates and alternative airports for your departure and arrival will improve your chances at snagging a deal.
One way to better your odds is planning to make a stop — flying out of a smaller airport, then connecting at a major hub. Since business travelers can afford to pay extra for convenience, "you tend to see inflated prices for business class when flights are nonstop," Keyes says. "If you're flying JFK to Rome, it might be cheaper to fly Hartford to JFK to Rome. There's likely going to be lower demand for that itinerary."
To navigate a tricky market with uneven demand, it may be worth it to consult a pro, says Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group. "This is where a professional travel agency can be extremely helpful," he says. "They may have access to unpublished consolidator fares."
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
2. Check for upgrades
Even if you decide that a premium economy or business-class fare is too rich for your blood, you may be able to snag a premium seat through an airline's loyalty program, says Brian Kelly, founder and CEO of The Points Guy.
"Historically, even with executive platinum status, you'd have to hold on until the day of departure, and then you'd be at the gate begging for an upgrade," he says. "Now you can get confirmed into business class when you book. I've never seen more upgrade space at the time of booking."
Upgrades are typically awarded to people with higher status first, but with fewer high-status travelers at airports overall these days, you have a better chance at a luxe seat, even if your airline miles card isn't made out of pure gold. Plus, your status might be better than you remember. Due to the pandemic, most airlines extended travelers' 2019 status to this year, or significantly lowered requirements to keep it through this year and 2022, according to The Points Guy.
Video by Mariam Abdallah
If you aren't upgraded when you book, you may be able to select an open premium seat on your aircraft free of charge when you check in online 24 hours before your flight, Kelly says. If that's not an option, check to see how many unoccupied premium seats there are when you check in.
The more open spots, the more likely a gate agent is to bump you up to a better seat.
3. Make sure you know what you're paying for
If you've shopped around and found a great premium fare, don't stop there. The quality of premium economy or business-class seats varies a lot between airlines. "For most economy flights, the experience tends to be roughly the same," says Keyes. "But premium experiences can be significantly different. Some business-class seats recline a couple inches and are a couple inches bigger. Some turn into a bed, and you get a steak dinner."
To check if the seat you've booked is up to your standards, all three experts recommend entering your flight information at SeatGuru.com. The site will show which aircraft you're likely to be flying on, with a breakdown of the amenities for each class. Newer, wide-body, two-aisle aircraft tend to have plusher perks, Keyes says.
"You can't just assume you're going to get a lie-flat seat when you book," he adds. "You need to make sure you're booking the type of seat and the type of cabin you're looking for."
Once you have an idea of where you'll be sitting, double-check that the airline you've booked is currently providing service that's up to snuff, says Harteveldt. "A lot of airlines have continued to use the pandemic as an excuse to cut back on in-flight catering," he says. "A lot of it has resembled high-school cafeteria meals at best, and prison food at worst."
Check out online travel groups, such as frequent traveler communities on Facebook, to get a sense of what airlines are offering. "You'll see trip reports where people document their flights, often with pictures of their seats, meals, pillows, blankets, and entertainment," Harteveldt says. "These are individual and subjective, of course, so it's important to read through a few of these before you book."
More from Grow:
- Now is the time to score ‘cheap, last-minute fares’ to Europe, experts say: Here’s how to take advantage
- Hotels instead of Airbnbs, big cities instead of beaches: 5 tricks to book bargain travel this year, according to experts
- Can you go to Europe this summer? Do you need a vaccine passport? Your international travel questions, answered