How to Fly Business Class for the Price of Economy!

I just got off the longest flight of my life. From door to door, it took over 30 hours for me to get from my hotel in Bali to where I'm staying in Barcelona. If you've been following they blog you'll know that as of a few years ago, I started flying business class on all long haul flights over 6 hours and have been preaching about why everyone should do it.  I even wrote a post called "Why you should always fly business class." Now I feel like I'm breaking my own advice and going backwards by downgrading back to economy. But I had my reasons, and a few tricks up my sleeve. This is how you can fly more of a super comfortable business class experience even on a cheap economy ticket as well as how to get free upgrades to business class! I've even updated this blog post for 2018 to show you how I scored a $7,600 Business Class Flight for just $617, seriously. Then again in 2020 to explain why I now mostly fly Premium Economy instead!

I first shared some of these tips on my personal page which is filled with half super successful entrepreneurs making over $200,000 a year, as well as my normal friends, many from back home who make $50,000. The comments were on both extreme sides, one was agreeing with me saying "yeah, fuck paying for business class, you don't need it" while the other side would quietly feel bad for me needing to use my travel "hacks and tricks." The reality is both sides are right, and people often hate to admit that. In this post I'm going to share the three tips on how to make a cheap economy flight feel more like flying business class, when you should splurge and upgrade and how to sometimes get the upgrade for free. I'm also going to share my personal budget and economics on why I chose to fly on the cheapest ticket this time around and may do it again in the future, breaking my own rule of always flying business class on international flights.

Business Class Benefits

If anyone ever tells that you business class isn't that much better, they either have no idea what they're talking about, are misinformed or sadly lying to themselves because it's not an option for them financially in the first place. I wrote a post a few years ago titled "Why you should Always fly business class." I wrote this even before I was able to afford doing so myself, but even then, I stopped lying to myself and knew it was better. I just needed a way to figure out how to afford it.

The main benefit of flying business class are the lay flat seats on long haul flights so you can get a good night's sleep instead of being cramped and uncomfortable for 6-13 hours. If I could pay for nothing else but these seats and skip all of the other benefits for half of the price, I definitely would.

But the other benefits, really do add up and make the entire experience better even though individually they might seem like that big of a deal. Being able to skip the long check in lines can save you 30 minutes or more which gives you more time to chill out before the flight instead of feeling rushed or anxious that you're going to be late. Having a business class lounge to wait in before you flight is also a nice touch as you can have some free food or drinks before you board. Having the option to board first is nice for some people, but since I like to spend as little time on the plane as possible, I'm usually one of the last ones on. But being able to get off the plane first, and having your baggage first off the line is a nice touch as it saves you a bunch of time.

If you've never seen the amenities of flying business class, check out my Thai Airways Business Class review here.

Digital Nomading from Bangkok to Los Angeles

Business Class Upgrade

I've now flew business class over ten times and have never paid for a flight out of pocket even once. The first time I got upgraded was on EVA Air on the second leg of my flight going from Los Angeles through Taipei to Chiang Mai. The trick was being a member of their frequent flier program and flying with them four times in the same year. Now a days airlines are making it harder and harder to get upgraded this way but it doesn't hurt to sign up as it's free and try to fly the same airline if possible. But don't go with them even if they're more expensive just to rack up points, it's not worth it, and definitely don't take unnecessary flights just so you can get to the next tier or keep your status. Flying for no reason isn't good for your health and is a complete waste of time.

Another common way to get free upgrade is by travel hacking credit card miles. I've personally earned over 2 million miles this way and it's the primary way I've scored free business class flights. But here's the warning, most people are doing it wrong and are wasting their time spending 100 hours of travel hacking and potentially ruining their credit and getting themselves in debt to try and save $2,000. Here's how I've earned over 1 million miles and gotten free flights without wasting my time travel hacking. The only reason why I no longer earn points is because I sold both of my dropshipping stores and even though I could technically afford to just pay for a business class flight out of pocket, now that I'm living off of savings, it doesn't make economic sense to blow $3,000 on a one way flight when I could be using that money to invest and grow itself.

Other ways to get upgraded is to simply ask at the counter. I've had friends who have gotten upgraded this way but it helps that they are a good looking couple that dresses well, are both doctors and are super friendly. But I've also had a friend that just dressed casually, was single but smiled, gave them a compliment and asked if they had any complimentary upgrades available. So it doesn't hurt to ask politely! But don't worry if these tricks don't work for you, I have some below that definitely will work for everyone.

Here are 5 tips on how to get more of a business class experience including more legroom, comfort, service, and even hot showers even while flying the cheapest ticket on economy. 

Watch Your Email

A lot of airlines will send out discounted business class upgrades a few days before your flight. On this trip with Qatar, 3 days before my flight I got an email asking if I wanted to upgrade some, or all of my flight for 50% less than what it would have been if I had booked it ahead of time.

If it wasn't for the fact I was flying with someone else who didn't have the budget for the upgrade I would have happily jumped on it as it was only $900 each way to upgrade both legs of the flight. compared to being $2,000 to have bought it outright.

They even had an option where you could just upgrade part of the leg for $450 which was a steal which I would have happily paid for. The only reasons why I did is because I couldn't decide if it would have been better to upgrade the first leg which was overnight and longer, or the second leg which would have let us use the business class lounge for free, and let us go from a shitty uncomfortable flight to a better one. By the time I thought it over and slept on it, the deal was over, so my advice is to jump on it ASAP if you see this email.

Also some airlines allow check in counter upgrades for as little as $678 which is a steal as booking it earlier would have costed 5x that amount. The only downsides to upgrading at the airport is that it is based upon availability and if it's sold out, that means the plane is probably full, and you'll be stuck in a crowded economy flight. Also sometimes on board or counter business class upgrades don't give you the business class meals or lounge passes, depending on how many hours before you book the upgrade.

upgrade to business class

Follow Secret Flying

Honestly, I've never been a fan of following travel hacking sites as largely it's a waste of time. Not only are routes usually not what you want or are looking for, but usually the fares are complicated, require a ton of credit card sign ups or are error fares that get canceled. However, once in a while, you score big time. Luckily my friend Leanne has been following them for the past six months, and a perfect deal came through. It almost sounded too good to be true, and honestly it was. It was a complete mistake on their part, pricing their business class fares at economy rates. That means that I was able to book a $7,602 round trip business class flight for only $617. That's insane and is literally the topic of this blog post that I'm now updating for 2018!

Here is the original secret flying blog post that let us know about the error fare. To be honest, I feel a bit bad about taking advantage of HK Airlines' pricing mistake and personally wouldn't have been mad if they canceled as I would have understood. However, many people would have be angry, entitled, and it would have been a negative PR nightmare. However, big thanks and smart move by Hong Kong Airlines for tweeting out that they would honor the fare! Personally, I'm going to make sure they get $7,000 worth of positive PR press from this as I love and want to support companies, especially airlines with great customer service. By the way, as soon as I found out about and bought the ticket, I posted the deal on my JohnnyFD Facebook page and in the Travel Like a Boss FB Group. So make sure you follow and subscribe to each page as well as the newsletter and social media handles for sites like Secret Flying so you don't miss out on future deals like this in the future!

Also a huge point of advice is don't sleep on it! If I had hesitated for even a day, this deal would have expired. I actually have an economy ticket flight already booked back to Thailand for the same dates as I'm going back to organize and host the 2019 Nomad Summit conference in Chiang Mai but instead of spending the time to see if that flight was refundable or not, I just jumped in and booked it. In life, opportunity often opens windows, but also shut just as quickly if you don't' jump through.

This is the flight that I scored for $617 Return!

Flying Premium Economy 

As of 2019 I've started flying Premium Economy instead of Business Class for all of my long haul flights. At $843.49 for a one way flight from LA to Chiang Mai it was still double the price of the cheapest economy ticket I could find, but still way less than the cheapest business class flight. For this specific flight economy was anywhere from $400-$600 and business class flights were $3,000+. I knew that it would be hard on the overnight 14.5 hour flight, but at the end it was comfortable enough and well worth it. The new thicker memory foam neck pillows such as the ones from Carabeu really do work well and the $40 investment has made my overnight flights much more comfortable to sleep. Highly recommended. 

On day time flights, such as the ones from Asia to Europe, I hardly sleep anyways and spend most of the time watching movies. With Premium Economy you get wider seats, more leg room, a bigger TV screen, better food, a quieter cabin with less people and a smaller chance of having screaming kids near you. In the past couple of years Business Class has gotten closer to First Class in terms of comfort and amenities, while Premium Economy has gotten closer and closer to what Business Class used to be. Just make sure you look at the seat layout before booking your flight, and don't fall for the Economy Plus gimmick which is usually the exact same seats with unless perks. 

Premium Economy on EVA Air LAX to TPE to CNX

Flying Cuddle Class

Another way to hack a more comfortable flight is if you're flying with someone you're dating. It's a lot more comfortable than sitting next to strangers as you essentially have 1.5 seats as you can have your arm or leg on them. I call it cuddle class. If you're flying next to a stranger you're limited to just the space you're assigned but in cuddle class, you're allowed to stretch over to the other side. Honestly I think if I was flying alone to Barcelona I would have just paid out of pocket for more space as it would have been torture to spent a total of 17 hours sitting in one position without being able to sprawl out a bit.

I mentioned it on an interview for Nomad Soulmates but as a digital nomad who has lives aboard and travels as much as I do, I'd much rather fly cuddle class in coach than business class by myself. I don't remember which romantic comedy movie it was from, but I remember seeing a scene where a man offered a the girl he just started to date to trade in his business class flight for two economy tickets so she could come with him. Even then I thought it was a no brainer and would happily do it today if I met someone special that I wanted to travel with.

Another couple hack isto book seats with an empty seat in between the two of you, such as taking the window and aisle seat and leaving the one or two middle seats empty. Meaning if there are three seats, 2A, 2B, and 2C as an example. As a couple, don't book two seats next to each other. Find an empty row and book 2A and 2C, leaving the middle empty. Unless the airline is super full no one will take the middle seats, giving you more space. And if someone is sitting there, you can just ask them to swap which they'll happily do as anyone in their right mind would rather have a window or aisle than the middle seat. If this happens you'll just end up sitting next to your partner like you would have before if you didn't try this trick. It's a no-lose situation.

I'm also super looking forward to new trends in aircraft design that make economy seats more comfortable and give options such as being able to fold out economy seats into a 5-foot couch. Not quite long enough to stretch out completely like business class but for the price for two people to upgrade, it makes an excellent option for a couple to upgrade as seen in the video below.

Book Seats 16A and 16C leaving the middle empty for trade.

Gift the Staff

Bringing flight attendants a big bag of M&M's as a gift really does make them happy and your flight that much more enjoyable. No we didn't get free upgrades and we didn't even accept the extra snacks or drinks they offered but they were super happy the whole flight every time they saw us which made it definitely worth the $10. I first learned about the trick on Peter Shankman's article and honestly it took me half a year to actually do it as it felt a bit uncomfortable and awkward.

We bought the M&M's at the first leg of our flight in Bali, but didn't end up giving them to the attendants until almost 20 hours later. Peter's article suggested you find the lead attendant as they are the only one with the power to upgrade you to business class if they happen to have free spaces. But it just felt weird, awkward, and a bit forced to ask for what essentially is their supervisor. So instead, I found a natural time when the flight attendant was having a casual conversation with another attendant right before take off when they weren't busy and gave it to them as a gift them, asking them to share it with the other staff.

It felt so natural and that the staff actually told me they thought I also worked for an airline as it's normal for flight attendants to bring each other snacks when they fly. The actual tangible upgrades we got included being offered free drinks before take off, extra snacks like granola bars that weren't given to other economy customers, and just a lot more service in general. But honestly we didn't need any of it so the only thing tangible we got from it was having our attendant take our food order before anyone else so she could make sure we got the choice we wanted. But even without getting any thing for it, I'm really glad to have done it and will most likely do it again in the future as it really did put everyone in a good mood and made the staff's day which is what's really important.

M&M's are cheap and easy, but it works with any duty free packaged snack.

Business Class Headphones

A huge reason why it's nicer is business class is simply because it's quieter up there. There are less people, less children, and less crying babies. But also it's the fact that they give you noise canceling headphones which drown out the engine noise and reduce cabin noise as well as they cover your ears fully and give you the over the ear comfort as well as noise reduction. By buying a pair of good noise canceling headphones such as the Bose QC35's which is what I personally use and love is a great investment. They're better than the ones you actually get in business class so I end up using these regardless of where I sit.

Here's a review of them that I wrote on my blog when I first got them.

Update: It's now mid 2018 and I have gotten so much value from them it's more than made up for it's high price tag. I've had to spend $20 to change the leather ear cups once, but aside from that, they are working perfectly still and has been one of the best investments I've made gear wise.

Business Class Lounges

The only splurge I spent on this trip was $110 for the two of us to use the business class lounge. We had a super long layover and it gave us a comfortable place to relax, some peace and quiet, tons of free food, fruit, juices, drinks, a comfortable place to work, and most importantly, have a hot shower.

Using the lounge before your first flight is nice but isn't that big of a deal as you probably just came from home or had food somewhere and aren't that hungry. And since you haven't been on the plane yet you're not that bothered for comfort and quiet. But during your layover, especially a long one that is 3 hours or more, you'll be super happy to be able to have access to the business class lounge. Good news is you can either just pay $55 per person like we did, or use one a hack to try and get it for free.

The most popular way to get access to business class lounges for free is to sign up for a credit card that gives you lounge access as part of the benefits. These cards have an annual fee of $450-$550 but come with a few other perks as well.

The most popular credit cards that give you free lounge access is as follows:

1. The Platinum Card from American Express

2. Chase Sapphire Reserve

3. Citi Prestige

4. Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card

5. Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard

6. Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express

7. United MileagePlus Club Card

All the cards I've found that give free lounge access have an annual fee of $450, with the exception of AMEX which is $550. All have slightly different benefits including travel credit, hotel upgrades, free checked bags or even Uber credit for some. Read more about business cards and the Priority Pass and why you should get one in this blog post here.

But what you really should look at are what airlines you normally fly, and what airports you usually fly in and out of as different cards give you different lounge access. Also look to see which ones give you free guest access and which ones make you pay $27 per guest. Out of the ones above, if I were to get a card for lounge access I'd get either the AMEX or the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Inside the Qatar Airport Lounge

Priority Pass Membership

The biggest benefit of getting any of the cards above is getting the priority pass membership for free, but did you know that you can just buy a Priority Pass Membership for as low as $99? It's for their standard membership which basically allows you and a guest to enter for half price. The one you get for free with cards is valued at $399 as it gives you unlimited access which is nice if you fly a lot. A lot of cards also let you bring guests in for free which is a nice perk.

However, most of us aren't flying more than 10 times a year so it might be worth it just to buy the mid tier plan for $249 instead of paying $450 for a credit card. If I were to buy one, I'd get the mid level standard plus package that gives you 10 free visits which is a $550 value on average, and half off access for guests.

Update: Here's a 10% off Priority Pass Memberships Coupon.

If you actually used all of the other perks your credit card gives you, it might be worth the upgrade, but for most of us, we'd be better off getting a free 1.5% cash back card like the Capital One Quicksilver card and buying our own Priority Pass.

I'd buy one today if it wasn't for the fact that my buddy David just messaged me saying he can add two more users to his account and gift me a priority pass. Thanks David!

Two tips. One is that even when you get your credit card, you may still have to apply for the priority pass so make sure you don't just show up at the lounge and get turned away. Second is to make sure you download either the priority pass or lounge buddy app so you know which lounges you have access to when you travel!

Using Flightfox or AZAir

If you don't' want to spent the full amount buying a business class flight, want the lay flat seats, but also don't want to waste hundreds of hours learning how to travel hack. You can just pay someone to do it for you. Services such as FlightFox charge $49 and pair you with a travel hacking expert that can save you money on flying business class or even just your economy tickets.

My suggestion is to take 30 minutes to an hour and try to find the best deal you can yourself, then try them out and if they can't save you more than you could on your own, they give you a full refund so there's really nothing to lose and it might get you 50% off your business class ticket by doing clever things like having you book on instead of or having you use Kayak instead of Skyscanner. Also for low cost flights, my favorite current flight search engine is AZAir. In my experience it works 200% better than Skyscanner, Google Flights, or the other engines.

Why I Downgraded

A lot of you might be asking why I'm even bothering with all of this when I can afford to just buy a business class flight and get lounge access included for free. But the reason is economic. Paying an extra $2,000 to fly business class is only worth it if I can get back $2,000 or more in benefits. When I was actively working and building businesses, I could easily make back that amount of money working while in air or at the business lounge during layovers. Also the amount of productivity I had the next few days made up for the additional costs.

But now that I'm no longer working and I'm technically retired, I have to ask myself what my time is worth now. Even though I didn't arrive as well rested as I would have normally, I don't have any reason to as I have nothing to do this entire week. If I were giving a talk, having meetings or building my business, the four days of lost productivity due to feeling terrible after a long flight would have been a loss of $500 a day. But since all I've been doing in Barcelona is eating tapas and taking naps, it hasn't been a big deal. That $2,000 I saved is staying in my investment accounts will be worth $20,000 in 30 years which is something we talk about on the podcast Invest Like a Boss.

But here's the real truth. As much as I'm convincing myself it's a good thing, and in this case, it was fine to fly economy and not that bad at all, sometimes it's not. If you're flying from Thailand back to the U.S. and have to go through China for some reason, you'll be miserable sitting in economy on any Chinese airline and hanging out at the airport for a long layover by yourself.  Having the financial option to fly business class when you choose is the ultimate freedom. When it comes down to it, it's easy to convince ourselves something is good or bad when we have no other choices. It's easy to judge others and say something is a waste of money if we can't afford it anyway. But to be able to have the option and choose otherwise is power.

Ciao from Barcelona, safe travels and happy flights to everyone!

I truly hope that everyone reading this can have the option of buying a full fare business class ticket whenever they want, or have the option of saving your cash and flying economy when you wish.

This blog and this lifestyle has always been about having options. I hope you all the best of luck with your travels!

If you have any travel hacks to share, please do so in the comments below!

Warm Regards,

Johnny FD

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Post a Comment

  1. Hi, Johnny, thanks for the article. About the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, I'd like to point out that although the annual fee is $450, they give a $300 travel expense reimbursement each year, so as long as you charge at least $300 of travel expenses on the card, the fee is really effectively $150. I love this card, the Priority Pass access alone is super helpful, not to mention all the other features.

    1. Hey Keith, thanks for pointing that out! It looks like the Chase Sapphire Reserve is the best value especially since it also allows you to bring in guests for free and has that $300 travel credit which is awesome.

  2. Great article, Johnny. Very helpful and came at the perfect time! I leave for Chiang Mai next week on the 6th and am meeting up with one of my friends from David's course. Maybe we'll run in to eachother if you're in town! Congrats on the retirement! - Daniel T.

    1. Hey Daniel, glad it came at a good time! Enjoy your flight out to Chiang Mai!

  3. There's no denying that business class is nicer but if it's a case of paying 100-200% more for your flight then you have weight up if it's money well spent. I recently flew Cathay from Madrid to HK and could upgrade to premium economy for 20 euro, so worth it for that!

    One thing I do is check if the airline has an empty seat option. I know Air Asia and Vietnam airlines do. It's maybe $50 extra or so and you get first dibs on the seats with a spare beside it. Still not business class luxury but you do get to spread out :)

    1. Hey Kathryn, good tips on the premium economy and empty seat option upgrades!


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