Why It Makes Sense To Pay For First Class On Domestic Flights

I recently wrote about how American Airlines sells the cheapest international upgrades. If you buy a coach ticket, check how much they’re selling a business class upgrade for on your itinerary. And then check back. The price may fall dramatically as your travel date approaches – as low as $350 for Los Angeles to Sydney.

American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER Business Class

American has become very aggressive in making upgrade offers, especially on flights that don’t appear to be selling in domestic first class. Those ‘buy ups’ haven’t earned extra Loyalty Points towards status (American had been unwilling to invest in the IT necessary for this). However they’ll frequently let you travel up front for less than the price of buying first or business class directly.

That means, by the way, that status with the airline is worth a lot less than it used to be. The most prized benefit was upgrades. But now that they’re selling premium seats for ‘tens of dollars’ extra, there aren’t very many premium seats left for upgrades. It’s a big reason why chasing top tier elite status no longer makes sense, and mid-tier is the real sweet spot.

American Airlines Domestic First Class

But it’s not just buy ups where American has gone down market. Looking for a one-way trip from Washington DC to Austin that I need in the coming weeks, the first 9 options all had first class just $100 more than coach. This was for both segments of a connecting itinerary through Charlotte or Dallas – Fort Worth.

If you wanted to assign premium seats without status (most of what’s available, especially avoiding middle seats) that’s running:

  • $19 – $41 for DC – Charlotte
  • Plus $17 – $39 for Charlotte – Austin

And if you were checking a bag without status, that’s $30 for the first checked bag and $40 for the second. You could spend as much as $150 on seats and two checked bags and you’d still be sitting in coach (though at that price, Main Cabin Extra extra legroom seats, where the cocktails are included).

Paying $100 for first class seems like a better deal for a bigger seat. Is it any wonder that American Airlines first class meals can cost as little as $1? Though I’m not a fan of the short rib, either:

American Airlines Short Rib

While American Airlines has seemed most aggressive in selling its premium cabin inexpensively, they’re certainly not alone. It wasn’t much more when I flew Los Angeles to Austin on Delta earlier this month. And while Spirit Airlines charges more for their ‘Big Front Seat’ (bigger seat at the front of the plane) than they used to, it’s still often less than competitors charge for regular coach.

Delta Air Lines Boeing 737-800 First Class

The point is that you should (1) always do the math rather than assuming that paying for first class isn’t worth it, or a frivolous luxury, and (2) set your expectations appropriately for what you’re buying.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. That’s a weird example to use, no?. $398 one-way, one-stop from DC to Austin in coach seems overpriced to begin with. So yeah, if you HAVE to fly to Austin and AA’s going to get $398 from you in coach, you might as well buy-up to F for $100. But this seems more like an exception than typical.

  2. Status still gets you systemwide upgrades, and quite a few of them. Yes, they are sometimes hard to get, and always a pain to redeem (have to call after booking), but having done 8 of them in the last couple of months, it’s not that bad as long as you plan ahead, and I try to get at least $200+ worth of value for each upgrade.

    And yes, trying to get upgraded a few days before the flight is a waste of time, and I’m 500k annual.

  3. After decades of “wasting” first class space on upgrades, they’ve finally learned it’s better to sell first class at a lower price and sell it out rather than leaving a percentage open for upgrades.

    This is something Delta had been doing prior to the pandemic.

  4. @Eric, of course you have to weight the cash from the upgrade compared to the extra revenue from marginal bookings from status-chasing pax. Perhaps it doesn’t doesn’t pencil out to give out the upgrades, but I wouldn’t be so quick to rush to judgement – airlines aren’t exactly known for being able to price their product correctly.

  5. If I look at the same itinerary using AA miles, seats in economy are priced between 9.5-10.5k miles (the lowest), while they’re priced at 25k miles in business/first class. The difference of ~15k AA miles is worth ~$250 IME, so it’s a no-brainer to go for the premium seat if paying cash. OTOH, if paying with AA miles is an option, an economy seat is a better deal.

  6. United has lately gotten ridiculous with the price of upgrades. I will pay a reasonable price but I won’t pay $700 – $1000 to upgrade a three hour flight.

  7. United tends to offer domestic upgrades like this at exorbitant prices ($300-600), up until a few days out from travel. Then they often drop to $99-$150, depending on availability. Depending on the route and aircraft type, this is easily a great deal; you can frequently find hub-to-hub flights on wide bodies so $99 to sit in Polaris is a no brainer. Their recent removal of first class meals under 900 miles also needs to be considered; you won’t see a meal between hubs like DEN-LAX, which frankly is pretty ridiculous. Worst case is you could spend $150 to sit in the very outdated first class seats on a 737-800, receive no meal, and if you don’t drink or it’s a morning/business flight, maybe not even enjoy a cocktail. The benefit would solely be a more comfortable seat, and I suppose easier lavatory access. There are some fringe perks to consider depending on your individual situation too, such as checked baggage savings, but that can so easily be avoided with either status, credit card, or even gate checking it’s probably just not at play. I suppose boarding group 1 is valuable to some. And if you have no pre-check or Clear, maybe the premium line at security could benefit you, but only very little. Overall, the “complimentary” upgrades are nothing but a myth, and even status+upgrade points are a bad joke. The only way to be sure of a premium cabin is to pay, whether outright at booking or one of these pre-departure offers. I do buy the upgrade myself, every now and then, but it all really depends on the traveler’s exact scenario.

  8. @DaninMCI – I was thinking the same thing, lol! Seriously, though, I don’t think it matters. Our group is a different audience- we are the top .1% of flyers (or at least the top .1% of *whoever* that responds to Gary’s posts… Love you Gary! 🙂 )


  9. If you’re going for alternative Oneworld status, say BA Silver, that $100 upgrade on a two segment flight is gold. You’ll earn 80 tier points, 600 gets you BA Silver, which is Oneworld Sapphire and you get into all Admirals Clubs with that status, including any Flagship Lounge even when flying domestic.

    You’ll need four BA segments to qualify, but say you earn 40 tier points doing so. That leaves 560 tier points to get, or seven two-segment first class domestic flights. If you can do that for $700 extra dollars, that’s quite a deal.

  10. Good article Gary. I’m seeing this all of the time. Domestic FC is being systematically devalued in an effort to squeeze every last cent of revenue out of the flight. You made a point that AA needs to understand: “chasing top tier elite status no longer makes sense, and mid-tier is the real sweet spot”. AA is essentially selling the value of their FC twice – first as the hope of an upgrade to their top-tier elite members, and second as “tens of dollars” upgrades to everyone else. This can only go on so long before fewer and fewer members get wise and stop chasing top-tier status. My guess is, that will be a much more costly problem than sacrificing the incremental revenue of cheap purchased upgrades.

  11. @Jon Biederman: I’m not sure how to read your comment “Status still gets you systemwide upgrades, and quite a few of them.” Making it to EP now means 2 measly eVIPs when it meant 8 annual eVIPs just a few years back. Two eVIPs is a slap in the face. I am a normal guy who pays for his own flights and lives on a mid-five-number retirement allowance. You mention 500K but don’t say whether that is spend on AA, miles flown, LPs earned–but I’d venture there are very, very few people who reach any of those paying with their own money for flights.

    Using eVIPS has become such a game of roulette. International availability is close to nil. Being EP means pretty much jack now, and this thread once again bears that out. My lifetime PLT status doesn’t mean anything either, with the exception of the international lounge access.

    It’s no longer fun. But we knew that.

  12. AA needs to change the language in the T&C’s for the Advantage program and stop lying to get people to chase status. The claim that as an EP your upgrade will clear 100 hours before departure “if there are seats available” is at the very least a bad faith promise. They will continue to offer to sell you an upgrade right up until check in time. Clearly seats are available. I’m certain their claim would be “those seats aren’t in the complimentary upgrade inventory”. Don’t pi** down my back and tell me it’s raining.

  13. @Gary – “check how much they’re selling a business class upgrade for on your itinerary”.

    Great advice. HOW exactly do we check for the price of an upgrade though? Call? Email? Is there a certain web page to check? I presume that award tickets count as well but without knowing how to check it’s impossible to say for sure.

  14. United is also selling first for a smaller differential than Coach if the number of seats remaining is ok. The last seat is expensive though. It’s worth checking multiple airlines. I’m DFW based, but flights to UAL hubs can be cheaper than an AA flight. It’s worth checking options. United has many flights to Hawaii via SFO, but few pay for first.

  15. Sure the price difference is low, but recall AA has a no meal policy now for flights of 900 miles or less.

  16. I actually like to get status for things such as earlier boarding, exit row or bulk row seats (which is great when traveling with family), lounged, etc. It’s not always about upgrades.

  17. Agree with the devalued EP status with AA. On March first I will be Platinum Pro- I have enjoyed EP for the last 8 years but saw it’s value dwindling since Covid. I am grateful my work doesn’t take me on the road like it did. On a 5 am AA flight last week – a paid first class ticket there was no water, ( no coffee)- no way to wash hands in bathroom ..and I received a bag of pop chips and a fruit roll up? My days of status chasing are gone – you don’t even get a thank you for being an EP- and I gave up on complimentary upgrades a while ago.

  18. Good article, Gary. Another consideration is AA’s new contract with the pilot’s union that exhausts the inventory in FC before upgrades to EP members are considered. On a separate topic, I have been EP for a number of years consecutively (done exclusively by flying domestically, no AA credit card). I was about 25k over loyalty threshold for EP last year, but it looks like I’ll end about 25k under the EP loyalty threshold in 11 days. Is anyone else hacked off that there is no carry-over of loyalty points?

  19. I never see deals like this on Delta.
    I only fly first class, and buy my own tickets. About 8-12 round trips per year

    First is usually $100 PER HOUR of flight time over the cost of coach.
    e.g. $400 to buy up from MSP to SFO

    Increasingly it’s $100 per hour over the cost of Premium Economy.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m in a Delta Fortress hub.

    It is true that flying American or United is cheaper, so I do that when there is a nonstop option

    But I haven’t seen a deal like Gary’s in many years.

    Probably an Austin thing where the airlines are trying to compete

  20. This all makes sense. AA has taken the position the higher value, higher paying frequent business flyer will not be as prevalent going forward. Their strategy is to get everyone on the credit card, dangling status on people who actually don’t fly that much. In other words focusing on their profitable business. A lot more people who fly occasionally but all using their cc.

  21. I have found the same thing to be true and don’t count on upgrades anymore, especially when I’m traveling with my partner who has no status on AS. For example I bout two tuckets from IAH-SEA on AS the other day. Coach was $202 plus a $79 upgrade to extra leg space with drinks and snacks. $281 total. I spent $73 more each and got confirmed first class seats. AS has great food, especially on longer flights and 41 inch seat pitch. No brainer

  22. Just checked my one way in August from ORD to BOS it was over $400 to upgrade no cheap prices here maybe it will drop as it gets closer. However the return was cheap so booked that in first class. Thus was the reason I booked a separate ticket.

  23. My wife had a horrible experience in First Class on American last July 2023. Poor service, no food offered (flight about 1850 miles),delays from broken plane, no assistance when landing despite requested in advance. Wrote letters twice and no one bothered to respond. I have a credit on American and it’s not findable on website. They said when you’re ready to travel again call the airline. Whatever information there is on when the credit expires has also been hidden. When I last looked at customer satisfaction surveys among the major US carriers American was ranked dead last. A few years ago there were news articles on internet (still available) about American Airline pilots urging passengers to fly on airlines other than American.

  24. I agree. I was booking an AA flight from LGA to Charlotte, NC in early January for my daughter’s wedding. The flight was booked at the last minute. I rarely fly in the U.S., but certainly went for Business/First when I saw the small difference in prices. I was annoyed, however, to find that I could not use the lounge even when I connected my BA Executive Club number where I have a huge number of Avios points to my AA ticket. AA was willing to sell me a lounge pass for around $79.00, but I wasn’t willing to budge.

  25. I always keep an eye on First/business when flying TPA/XPL through Miami. I’ve gotten the upgrade for just a few thousand miles. It gives us the equivalent of three checked bags (1 50# bag in economy vs 2 70# bags in fist/upgrade) at no charge, comfortable seats, meals and drinks along with the Flagship lounge in Miami during the 3+ hour layover.

  26. @Lynn – Why would having a huge number of Avios in your BA Executive Club account give you anything? It’s your status that counts, not your Avios. If you were BA Silver, they would have offered you the Admirals Club for free, otherwise you’re just another passenger. Buying domestic 1st on AA doesn’t get you anything either, that’s not how it works. Play by the rules or don’t complain.

  27. Hey CM. it’s amazing how these conversations deteriorate, and for no reason. I never fly Domestically and didn’t know AA wouldn’t let me in the lounge with a first class ticket. They sure set me straight as have you!

  28. @Lynn – You’re welcome. Assuming you’re entitled to stuff is a sure way to get told where to go. Learning the rules and being grateful for what you get is the route to happiness. Being a Karen (and I hate the term), not so much.

  29. CM. I wasn’t thanking you. I was just giving an explanation. I travel a lot, just not in this country, and I’m glad I don’t because I would meet people like you who call me a “Karen.” When I checked in and mentioned that I was a long time BA customer, and had an executive club membership, they seemed happy to make the connection and added my Executive Club number to my ticket. I thought the good customer service would extend to the lounge use, but clearly it didn’t. On BA, a business class ticket gets one a bed and lounge access, no questions asks. If I could give a shout out to the flight attendants on my recent AA flight, they were friendly and kind. I was on my way to my daughter’s wedding, and asked for champagne. The FA laughingly noted that I should not have high expectations for the champagne. She was right, but it was good of her to mention it.

  30. @JH, I spend and fly $500k a year, nearly all through my business. You get the First class upgrades at multiple intervals. I was skeptical at first, but as long as you call, and then they call you back in 15-30 minutes, you get the systemwide upgrades.

    It does seem their system prioritizes you if you are flying within 24 hours…. I do miss the USAirways Chairmans Preferred days where they answered your phone on the first ring.

    The crazy thing is there is still a HUGE cost difference between flying first class and flying private, even on jet sharing apps. I still can’t justify private, because I do like flying and traveling. And meeting people… Chalk it up to flying by myself when I was 9, in 1981, and I told them to leave me alone in DFW, lol. And AA did, and not only did I play in the arcade back then, I easily made it to my connecting flight to San Antonio.

    I know these are first world problems,.and I appreciate Gary revealing the opportunities (and information!) To get the best deal.


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