by Barbara Peterson, Condé Nast Traveler
Around 30 international airlines, ranging from Austrian to Virgin Atlantic, have signed on with Plusgrade.
How much would you pay to upgrade your next flight? Online auction system Plusgrade lets you bid against other passengers for a better seat. But it's not as simple as it sounds.
Want to move from coach to business -- and name your own price? Thanks to Plusgrade, that might actually be possible.
Around 30 international airlines, ranging from Austrian to Virgin Atlantic, have signed on with the program, developed by a Canadian travel technology company. (It recently added four new carriers: Gulf Air, South African, Swiss, and Qantas.) It works like this: Passengers either get an email notification from the airline that they can bid for a better seat, or they can simply check on the airline's website to see if their flight is eligible. They then enter a bid price, along with their credit card information, and wait to learn if the offer was successful--usually 72 hours in advance of departure.
Sounds simple enough--but how do you know if you've made a realistic offer? To discourage users from making a ridiculously low bid, Plusgrade gives airlines the option of showing a "strength meter," or minimum bid, to get you in the ballpark. (For those who need additional help, there's a wealth of online resources available via flier forums and sample bid forms).
It's proven successful for many so far: Some passengers using Air New Zealand's OneUp program, which allows fliers to upgrade to one class above, reported having snagged upgrades from premium economy to business class for $750 on long-distance flights -- say, Los Angeles to Auckland.
The growing popularity of premium economy class also gives fliers a more affordable opportunity to bid their way out of coach; in fact, at Lufthansa the auctions are only good for fliers upgrading from coach to the carrier's new premium economy product. On other airlines, buying a premium economy ticket might give you a leg up in the race to get into the upper classes.
That's been the experience at LOT Polish Airlines, which began offering the auction option a year ago. "It's been very popular," said a spokeswoman for the airline, who noted that most bids submitted come from the U.S. LOT sets the minimum price for an upgrade from coach to premium economy at 300 PLN, or $83 at current exchange rates; the minimum for jumping from premium economy to business is 700 PLN or $193. "The winning price is different on each flight," she said. "However, on almost every flight there is at least one person upgraded."
Still, it's in the airlines' interests not to make it too easy to grab a deal, otherwise it might encourage regular business class fliers to trade down and bid their way back in. "You can't game the system," said Ken Harris, founder and chief executive of Plusgrade. "A $400 bid may have worked last week, but there's no way to guarantee it will the next time."
Notably absent from the list of auctioneers are the U.S. majors; in fact, Virgin America is the only one based in the United States. American had announced a trial run of the program in 2013 but it has since "quietly dwindled away," according to an article by The Points Guy (which also has a good rundown of all the programs).
It should be noted that Plusgrade doesn't have a monopoly over seat upgrade auctions: Another company, Optiontown, is also working with airlines to offer customers upgrades online. Unlike Plusgrade, it offers premium seats for a fixed price--but there's no guarantee you'll get it if demand exceeds supply.
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