As far as I can tell, the 14 airlines that currently offer upgrade bidding use the "Plusgrade" bid management system: American, Air Mauritius, Air New Zealand, Austrian, Brussels, Copa, Czech, El Al, Estonian, Etihad, Sri Lankan, TAP, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia. These airlines limit bids to selected routes, flights and times. And they typically do not announce those specifics in advance.
Where airlines do offer upgrades, details vary, but the basic bidding principles are common:
-- Some airlines may email you when upgrade bids are available for some or your entire itinerary.
-- If not, you have to check for yourself. Once you have an economy ticket, you can log onto the airline's website and check your booking to determine whether the line is accepting upgrade bids. Minimum advance bidding times range from three to seven days.
-- If bids are available, select a price you're willing to pay for the flight -- or for each leg of your itinerary if you have connections. The standard approach is to use a "slider" to indicate the value, and apparently most if not all airlines include an indicator of how likely your bid will be successful.
-- Some lines allow you to bid with frequent flyer miles/points as well as cash.
-- Enter the details of the credit card you plan to use to pay for the upgrade.
-- Wait for an email from the airline to see whether your bid is accepted. If it is, the airline automatically charges your card; if not, you don't pay anything.
Obviously, the bidding process requires that you be willing to remain in your original cabin if your bid isn't successful. If you want to assure yourself of a comfortable flight, you either have to buy a premium ticket or upgrade with miles or certificates. But if you're willing to roll the dice, you may be able to move up front for a price much lower than any other way.
At this point, I can't make any recommendations as to how much to bid for an upgrade. I checked the three large online websites where travelers can report bidding experiences -- betterbidding.com, biddingfortravel.com and biddingtraveler.com -- and only one, betterbidding, had any entries related to upgrade bidding: Specifically, one experience report. Presumably, these websites will be able to provide more data in coming months. Meanwhile, urban legends hold that the bidding site's estimated odds generally push you to bid more than you need to bid -- if true, certainly not surprising. Although I'm not mounting a bidding website, I'd like to hear from anyone who has tried a bid.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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