Fly Business Class for Less

7 strategies for making your next business trip a pleasure

Flying business class—with better food and more space than economy class and sometimes even a lie-flat bed—can help you arrive rested and able to perform better in business meetings and at conferences. Although these seats cost more than those in economy class, you needn’t necessarily pay full price. Here are seven ways to fly business class and still save on your small business’s travel budget.

1. Be loyal and fly a lot

The more you fly and spend on a single airline, the higher your status in its frequent-flier program, which can entitle you to free upgrades. Status is getting harder to earn (most airlines require an annual minimum spend starting at $3,000, plus a minimum number of miles or flight segments flown), but loyalty still counts.

2. Upgrade with miles and cash

American Airlines, for example, lets fliers upgrade to business class on domestic routes by using  frequent-flier miles plus a payment, one-way, from almost any economy-class fare. To request a mileage upgrade, call the airline’s frequent-flier desk soon after purchase; you’ll likely have to join a waiting list. United and Delta offer similar opportunities.

3. Buy with miles

So, you got an airline credit card and it came with a 50,000-mile sign-up bonus? Business-class award seats on transcontinental routes are typically available starting at 32,500 miles. 

4. Buy a nonrefundable fare 

While flying business class on a refundable airfare can cost several times the price of economy class, many airlines now sell nonrefundable business- and first-class fares, sometimes for as little as twice the economy-class fare.

5. Ask about last-minute upgrade offers 

Sometimes airlines offer upgrades for $50 to $500. Inquire when you book or when you check in to see if any are available.

6. Bid for an upgrade

Several airlines, including Fiji Airways and Lufthansa, hold auctions for upgraded seats. To find others, do a browser search for “airline + upgrade auction.”

7. Dress like you belong

It happens rarely, but when economy class is oversold and the gate agent needs to move one last person into a business-class seat, all else being equal, the agent will likely choose the person who looks most presentable. It’s happened to me; it’s happened to my friends, most recently to my real estate agent. She has no frequent-flier status, but she always dresses beautifully. British Airways upgraded her to business class on a recent flight to London.

What’s the difference between business class and first class?

In July 2000, British Airways launched the modern era’s first fully horizontal lie-flat business-class seats (although it wasn’t an entirely new idea, since Pan Am’s flying boats offered fully horizontal sleeping berths for a few passengers in the 1930s). Several observers thought these new Club World cabins were so comfortable that it no longer made sense to pay for first class. Many airlines eliminated first class as they added lie-flat seats in business class.

However, many airlines still offer distinct first-class and business-class services on overseas flights. These carriers make first class even more luxurious and exclusive. The seats are considerably larger and enclosed in walled-off cocoons, sometimes with sliding doors. Meal service is more extravagant, and flight attendants anticipate every whim.

George Hobica, the founder of airfarewatchdog.com, lives in Los Angeles and New York and on planes.