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Aug 11

When First Class Is Almost As Cheap As Coach

It’s the first thing we do when we book a flight: Look in the left-hand columns at the cheapest coach fares (Skip Basic Economy, where you are required to surrender most civil rights.) and pick the one that gives you the best fare at the time you want to go. Not too many people swipe right.

Surprisingly, though, the fare differential between coach and first is not what it used to be. Revenue management systems have gotten smart enough to price first class fares on many routes at levels that even leisure travelers will consider them. Sure, you could charge an extra thousand dollars for the first class ticket, but if nobody buys it, you just end up upgrading elite travelers for free. Cut that premium down to $100 and you might get a few people to bite.

So how do you determine what flights to target? Simple. Just check the differential on every flight that you book. But some are more likely than others. Here are just a few:

“Shuttle” Routes

A $70 difference between coach and first


And by shuttle, I mean any flight that has numerous round trips each day. The classic is the Boston – New York shuttle, which departs hourly at American and Delta, plus gets competition from ¬†JetBlue, who flies into JFK, as well. I’ve seen the difference be as little as $50, but it’s rarely higher than $100. That might be what you’d end up paying just to check bags in coach (Remember, they’re free up front.)!

So why would you want to spend anything to upgrade on 42 minute flight? Because it’s rarely 42 minutes. Sure, that might be the actual time in the air, assuming no ground holds in either of the two overcrowded cities, but door-to-door, you could easily be looking at two hours. Want the 6 pm flight in the middle of January? Get comfy, it could be a while.

In addition to free checked bags, your new seat will give you priority boarding (guaranteed overhead space), multiple snack and beverage services and extra room to spread out and do your work. You are also likely to get extra miles toward elite status, which may get you that upgrade for free next year.

Short And Mid-Haul, Highly Competitive Markets

virgin america

Yes, that’s the domestic product on Virgin America

Here’s where it becomes a guessing game. 2-3 hour flights in a city with multiple dominant carriers will often get you a better price at the front of the plane.

Example: Denver to San Francisco is a highly competitive market, with United trying to protect its Denver hub, Virgin America trying to protect San Francisco and Frontier trying to claw its way into both. Thus, the market is subject to excess capacity, as each carrier tries to win share from the others. Thus, you will likely find cheap fares at the front of the plane.

See the seat above? That’s what I got on Virgin America for a measly $70 premium. “Time on Plane” was well over three hours and my bags got to fly for free (Virgin America gives you one free bag in the main cabin and then charges for the second.). Those seats have 55″ of leg room and 21″ of width, as opposed to the main cabin, which is 32″ and 17.7″, respectively. The flight also came with full meal service, a cool amenity kit and swanky headphones for some take-home swag. Sadly, those seats will disappear soon after the merger with Alaska is consummated.

Keep your eyes open for these types of fares. If an airline has too much capacity in a market, it has to sell those seats somehow.

Off-Season Leisure Routes

Want to fly from the northeast to Orlando over Christmas break? Expect to pay a small fortune, regardless of where you are sitting on the plane. Willing to play with the dates a little? You could easily get lucky and upgrade for $75 or so. The airlines know that they won’t have business passengers on those flights. They likely won’t even make a pretense of trying to price at “true” first class levels.*


*Beginner’s Hint: Coincidentally, it works the opposite way with award tickets. If you use miles during a busy vacation period, the first class ticket might even cost fewer miles than the coach ticket. Why is that? Some airlines manage their space in first and coach independent of each other. If there is very heavy demand in coach, as frequently happens over the holidays, prices will go up in that section. Meanwhile, there is very little demand in first class, which keeps prices lower.


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