Answering this kind of question often feels as long as a piece of string! The simple answer is that it depends, and the four variables involved in the decision are:
- Airline policies
- Availability of upgrade seats
- Use of frequent flyer miles or points
- Variety of planes/routes and flight plans (e.g., whether a seat could be sold at an interim point in the journey)
So, let’s break down where it could be cheaper to book economy and then upgrade.
When and how to book economy and then upgrade
It’s worth it when:
- Your airline allows you to jump more than one class of service – while some airlines only let you upgrade to the next ‘tier’, others let you jump from economy to business
- You can use frequent flyer miles (FFMs) or points for your upgrade
- You’re willing to take the risk of not making your booked flight. Volunteering to surrender your seat on an overbooked flight can get you an upgrade – especially if you make it a condition of stepping down that you get a better seat.
Before you get too excited, let’s look at the potential downsides too:
- Business class flights are the smallest percentage of any booking system and are therefore proportionally less likely to become available – you might hope for a great upgrade and only get offered something like ‘economy plus’ or ‘economy premium’
- Offering to be ‘bumped’ from your flight for an upgrade can leave you stranded at the airport for a considerable time, think days rather than hours – especially if you’ve insisted on a first class seat
- You could find you’ve down-valued your points or FFMs – as an example, you could cash in around 30,000 FFMs to get a short-haul business class ticket that might have cost £1500 more than economy, or the same number of miles or points might get you a long haul round trip in economy that would have only set you back £800 anyway. You really have to do the maths!
So, is it cheaper to book economy and then upgrade? It can be … but if you want a guaranteed flight to a guaranteed place on a guaranteed day, you’ll almost certainly be better off if you shop around for a discounted business class flight rather than gambling on upgrading from economy.